Just weeks before the shattering act of domestic terrorism in Oslo and on the island of Utoya, Norwegians commemorated an earlier tragedy with the opening of a compelling memorial by Peter Zumthor and the late New York artist Louise Bourgeois. Steilneset, as the memorial is called, acknowledges and interprets the death of 91 people, mostly women, during a spate of witchcraft persecutions throughout the 17th century. Most of the victims were burned at the stake or drowned offshore of the site, located just outside the town of Vardo in the Arctic Circle.
Visitors reach the memorial by rounding a slight hill, over which sits a tiny village church and its postcard-worthy graveyard. Beyond, the memorial hugs the shoreline, appearing tiny and fragile along the horizon. It is comprised of two structures: a long, thin timber frame holding a suspended fabric enclosure, and a black glass pavilion, housing Bourgeois’ installation.
Visitors enter the memorial via two long ramps, which emphasize the slope down to the shoreline and the surprising height of the 26-foot-tall memorial. The tensile structure, made from a stiffened fiberglass textile, looks like sailcloth pulled taught by cables. The detailing, which includes hand-sewn seams, is beautiful, especially at the ends where the cables pull the fabric into tapering conical forms, reminiscent of the body of an eel.During a tour of the project, Zumthor said his use of fabric was meant to recall “women’s work,” which he said was appropriate given that a disproportionate number of the victims were women. The structure’s simple frame, 4 by 4 posts with a simple corrugated roof, recalls the outdoor fish-drying racks that are common in the region. In addition to a door at either end, 91 windows puncture the structure, one for each victim, each illuminated by a single, naked Edison bulb (leaving a light on in the window is another local tradition, a meaningful gesture in a region where daylight is scarce for much of the year). The use of fabric may also be a nod to Bourgeois, who worked with textiles for decades. But the strangeness of the form, the taught surfaces, and the puckered openings, also recall the work of another female artist, Lee Bontecou, whose work often includes structured voids that evoke terror and the infinite.
Inside the enclosure, the interior is dark and narrow, every surface painted black. Visitors walk down a narrow catwalk, as the fabric walls shake in the wind. The bulbs, suspended from black cords, which are elegantly draped along the ceiling, also sway, giving the space an eerie, disconcerting feel. Unusual for the period, complete court records exist for the trials—so much is known about the lives and deaths of the victims, making the interpretive aspect greater than at many memorials. Given the passage of time since the trials, this greater contextualization is helpful, underscoring the individuality of the long dead victims. Simple text panels, made of the same material as the structure, hang next to each window and bulb and feature excerpts of the court records (the texts are in Norwegian only, but tiny guidebooks in English are available at the entrances).
The abstract architectural language and the inclusion of individual names draws from the now standard vocabulary of Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial, but Zumthor inverts such conventions in significant ways. While most memorials cling to their sites in, frankly, a grave-like way, and seek to project permanence and the eternal, Zumthor’s tensile structure—moving with the wind, without climate control—emphasizes temporality, the fragility of individual lives.
This experience is dramatized by Bourgeois’ installation housed in the adjacent glass pavilion. Following the procession through the court records, visitors enter the pavilion and encounter a concrete ring, surrounded by seven giant mirrors hung from metal armatures. Inside the ring, sits a simple metal chair—reminiscent of a schoolhouse chair—with flames jetting out of the seat. Like the tensile structure, the glass pavilion is also permeable to the elements. Wind passes through gaps in the giant charcoal gray glass panels causing the fire to whip around and snap in the constant breeze. The pavilion has no lighting, so at night the flames become more visible through the dark glass. Indeed, the building itself seems to change from opaque to translucent throughout the day, depending on light conditions.
On its own, the Bourgeois piece might feel heavy-handed, even kitschy, but in combination it’s a powerful gesture. Following Zumthor’s meditation on the fragility of human life and the horrors that individual victims faced, Bourgeois’ visceral piece helps to make more immediate how acts of brutality recur throughout history.
While the recent violence the country faced was perpetrated by an individual against the collective, Zumthor and Bourgeois remind us that we should never be comfortable relegating collective violence against individuals to the history books.