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Bourgoise and Zhumtor: an almost sublime monument

Two of the greatest artists of our time have created one of the most exciting works of art of this century. An almost ephemeral, but at the same time permanent, piece. It appears embedded in a secluded landscape of the Arctic Circle, with the strong nature integrated with the contemporary architecture full of meaning and beauty.

During the European witch hunts of the 17th century, people who were convicted of witchcraft and burned at the stake in eastern Lapland were many more than in any other place in Norway. Steilneset Memorial in Vardø was erected to commemorate the 91 victims who were executed there.

Steilneset Memorial faces the church and the old fortress. The memorial recognizes and interprets these dark times through art and architecture in a unique collaboration between the late artist Louise Bourgeois and architect Peter Zumthor.

To reach the monument you have to go around a small hill on which you find a small village church and its cemetery, worthy of a postcard. Seen from afar, they seem like two small and fragile continents along the horizon. The monument consists of two structures: a long thin wooden frame covered with canvas hung from a suspended box, and a black glass pavilion that contains the installation of Bourgoise.

Visitors enter the monument through two ramps on the slope towards the coast that emphasizes the surprising height of the monument of 26 meters. The structure consists of woven hardened fibreglass, similar to the canvas and tensioned by cables. The seams, sewn by hand, are beautiful symbols of the female, and at the ends, the cables pull the fabric tapering conical shapes. The wooden walkway leads into the building, where a 100 meters long and 1.5 meter wide corridor houses a collection of posters describing the personal story of the 91 victims. Each of the victims is also represented by a window lit up by a light bulb. Zumthor decided where to locate the monument by throwing dice, a random process that reflects the arbitrariness of the trials. The project is part of the national tourist routes in Norway.

The peculiarities of the landscape (a vast treeless coast) and an extreme climate where temperatures never reach ten degrees Celsius dialog with an austere architecture that embodies the tragedy of the victims, using wood, glass, steel and fibreglass.

The second building, a cube of Corten steel and glass, houses the work of Louise Bourgeois “The Condemned, the possessed and the beloved”. This is a simple aluminium chair from which five sudden blazes of fire arise, plus seven oval mirrors which are placed around the chair. The creation seeks to symbolize the trials of Vardø and is part of the feminist claim that runs through much of Bourgeois’ work.

Just like the wooden structure, the glass pavilion is permeable to the elements. The wind passes through holes in the charcoal gray glass panels, causing the fire to stoke up. It was one of the last projects of the French artist, who died in 2010.

Two artists who ride together on the back of ethics and aesthetics. ”There is a line, which is mine and a point that is theirs” said Zumthor. ”The installation of Louise is more about the fire and aggression, while my installation speech about the lives and emotions of the victims.”

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