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Blog - Aidan Moesby



Photo of Steilneset Memorial — “The Witches’ Memorial”

In the 17th century they burnt 91 people as witches in Finnmark. On the island of Vardø is a memorial to them. A 125m building containing 91 windows and a plaque, detailing each of those burned and why, by architect by Peter Zumther and ‘Flamhuset’ by Louise Borgeois. I cannot convey the feeling these works engender, my language is too poor.

Most memorials try too hard, are over thought, Steilneset on the other hand is reduced to literally monumental powerful simplicity. All the more powerful to my mind as this was Borgeois’ last major work.

Vardø is 3 ½ hours cruise on the Hurtigruten north, a daily ferry running the length of the west coast of Norway stopping off at various points en route to deliver mail, goods and transport.

As the ship heads North I notice more sea ice in the still flat blueness of the Barents Sea. It’s been a particularly long and hard winter this year, everyone says so. The sun is shining and people are wrapped up against the severe cold but still they sun-bathe on the deck.

The first thing I notice as we approach Vardø is the Lighthouse before my eye is caught by 3 ‘golf balls’. This, it turns out, is ‘officially’ a radar system to monitor ‘Space Junk’.

I didn’t meet anyone on the island who would talk about it, as if it was hidden in plain view, or just didn’t exist. So here we are, on the edge of the world, next stop North Pole and yet the geo-politics is evident once more.

Just as in Kirkenes, Russians live and work here, the people cooperate but the incongruity of statehood is ever present.

Photo of Steilneset Memorial — “The Witches’ Memorial”

This is a line of investigation I had not even thought of, that which connects us, the secret, the military, the invisible. The radio waves, radar, lidar, seismography, wifi and all the rest of this modern ‘witch craft’.

Vardø has experienced a 60% population in the last 20 years. Empty houses in every street. The island has one pub, one hotel, one supermarket and two thai restaurants. The community is beginning to address the need for re-population but they have a long hard struggle ahead.

As I wait for the ferry back to Kirkenes at 3:30am I get a glimpse of the Aurora again. It never ceases to amaze me, to fill me with awe and wonder.

The current exhibition at Terminal B was Bente Geving, a Sami artist. On the Saturday she was giving an artists’ talk. They seem to be a bit lax about time keeping in Norway, come the given start time no one was there and we agreed to do it anyway but in English, for me. However, come 15 minutes over time and a dozen people are present. The talk goes ahead in Norwegian. In the 10 days in which I have been in Pikene pä Broen I have increased my Norwegian word field, perhaps all that time watching scandinoir hasn’t been wasted after all. See here

I was fortunate enough to get time with Bente and talk of her practice and experience, of her perception and importance of Sami identity, of being an ‘indigenous’ person. Like most people I met Bente was generous with her time and gave her conversation freely. Other local and national artists came to her talk, and I had the privilege to spend time in conversation with them too.

Photo of Steilneset Memorial — “The Witches’ Memorial”

Bente has a long term stipend from the government to ‘be an artist’. These range from one, two, five and ten years in duration and in some cases for life. The funding situation in Norway is so much better than in the UK. Not only on an individual basis but also project and organisational funding. Then there is the co-operative and transnational funding within the Scandinavian states and then the Baltic States have a separate funding status too. Funding not only comes from the state but also from the municipality, or regional government and councils.

On the way up to Vardø I began to think about how we know where we are or how we measure or mark our place in the world. There is the where are we in terms of our place in society, in relation to our family or friends, our social universes, our work worlds – these less fixed more subjective locating of our psycho-emotional/relational worlds.

Then I was wondering about the more fixed terms, the ‘witch craft’ of GPS and monitoring, the all-pervasive apps, which have replaced the skilled analogue techniques of measuring using the sun and stars, sextant and chronometer. This was on my mind much more when I saw the radar at Vardø. The fact it is a listening station – I know I dislike – or find difficult – the small talk and fillers and social niceties, particularly the ‘How are you’ when people don’t wait for the answer, they don’t want to know and are already on to their next sentence. We don’t listen enough perhaps.

I know for sure most people talk without saying anything very much. But talking and listening, surely they are fundamental to be connected, present. Even in the stereotypical Finnish situation where people maybe at the bar together and never say a word, they are still held in each others minds and therefore connected and present.

When I was at Steilneset and look back toward the town I had at once the Borgeois chair in view, the spire of the chapel and the radar. I’m sure she must have thought of this view. It all has elements associated with witchcraft, ancient and modern, here at the most easterly part of mainland Norway.

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