A public art programme of many layers and branches
By Nina Schjønsby
It is a multifaceted public art programme that has been realized in connection with the new Opera House at Bjørvika. Several of the projects interact closely with the architecture. Some are intimately related to the building itself, or its surroundings, while still functioning as independent projects. Others work as autonomous comments that will eventually enter the cycles and circulations of the art world.
In 2002 30 million Norwegian Kroner (more than 3m Euro) was set aside for public art projects in the new Opera. Never before had such a massive art budget been approved for a single building in this country. The reason for this is that the building was publicly financed; under Norwegian law as much as 1.5 percent of the construction cost of a publicly financed building is to be set aside for art. The Decoration Committee for the new Opera House, appointed by the Ministry of Culture and Church Affairs in 2002, has been responsible for the entire public art programme, consisting of eight projects altogether. The committee secured external funding for several of the projects, and on approaching completion, the budget has almost doubled. There was never any question of buying works that were not especially commissioned for the Opera. The committee initiated a competition for ideas with three open, international pre-qualification rounds followed by closed competitions. For the other projects, the committee invited artists directly.
A look back at time passed
The figure of the ballerina crops up in numerous forms in the visual arts. Degas has her perform elegant pliés, while Eleanor Antin uses her to question ideals of beauty and conventions of gender and ethnicity. Although the ballerina in SWELL does not dance, her delicate steps and ethereal movements are suggestive of a butterfly, or Psyche. Hastily she flutters away, momentarily disappearing from view, only to appear again. The movements of her tutu are like rapid wing beats. In mythology Psyche often serves as a symbol for the soul and is traditionally depicted as a butterfly. The light-limbed ballerina in Nedreaas’ video is reminiscent of such a Psyche, and can as such be interpreted as an image of the soul of the Folketeater building.
In the past Bodil Furu has worked primarily with documentary video, often based on interviews. Several of her works explore the boundaries between documentary and fiction, sometimes by introducing authentic characters alongside actors, sometimes by employing Brechtian alienation effects, which serve to amputate the fiction. OPERA, which can be described as a staged documentary, is Furu’s first exploration of the 35mm film-medium. Consequently, it is also her first experience of working with a film crew. The film introduces us to the technical routines that preceded performances in the Opera at Youngstorget. The viewer gets a ride on the curtain hoist, is taken to the fly floor and into the stage manager’s box. The place and the equipment are noticeably run down. It is as if the house had only managed to keep going in its final years thanks to the adept routines of the stagehands.
Furu’s film belongs to the tradition of the worker film, a tradition as old as film history itself. In Workers Leaving the Factory (1895), regarded as the first film in history, the Lumiére brothers immortalised a group of workers passing through the gates of a factory. In contrast to Furu’s film, many of film history’s depictions of “the worker”, such as Vsevolod Pudovkin’s The Deserter (1933) or Tarja Mattila’s The Tobacco Girls (2006), were explicitly political or revolutionary in content. They also tend to focus on the industrial worker. The Deserter, for instance, depicts a dramatic clash between striking workers and police forces to the accompaniment of bombastic, celebratory music – an indication that the struggle will be won by the workers. Furu’s film has neither speech nor music; the only sounds we hear are those of the jobs being carried out in the backstage areas. She focuses on activities that we rarely if ever get to see, handing the leading role to the stage workers, who are normally an inconspicuous part of the opera machinery.
A few “worker films”, such as Fritz Lang’s pioneering science fiction drama Metropolis (1927) and Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (2000), actually use a kind of opera- or ballet-inspired choreography. In Furu’s OPERA, on the other hand, the movements of the stage workers are natural and routine. Even so, their practised and proficient movements are sometimes reminiscent of a gentle, ritual dance.
The worker and the construction site
Sandberg’s contribution turns its gaze on the sky above the Opera site. Sandberg has worked with photography for more than 30 years, always in black and white. His photographic language is consistently economical and stringent, but at the same time rich in associations. Many of his images are first and foremost explorations of photography’s innate properties; they concern the act of seeing and explore the limits of the visually comprehensible. In the past Sandberg has explored the realm of the sky in numerous contemplative photographs of cloud formations, landscapes, airports and planes. In SITE SEEING his interest in this sphere is reiterated in a coherent and minimalist project; all his photographs depict black seagulls against a grey sky.
Other contributions focus on the different stages of the construction process and on different areas of the actual site. Tinglum, a conceptual artist who works in a variety of media, draws attention to some of the less conspicuous or spectacular parts of the site. In a series of photographs she documents the plant life on the construction site over several years. She shows us plants and weeds that are generally ignored. In the book these shots are printed in black and white, and, as in botanical reference books, the species are listed with both Latin and Norwegian names. The photos can be viewed in relation to Tinglum’s 1991 series Usynliggjorte, utryddede og truede arter (Hidden, extinct and threatened species), in which pictures of near-extinct plants are juxtaposed with images of marginalised women. The series is a corrective to the traditional writing of history, and can thus be ascribed to a feminist and revisionist practice.
During the construction period the site at Bjørvika was home to a way of life shared by several hundred construction workers from different nations. Like Furu, Tinglum focuses her attention on the worker. The black and white flora is followed by colour portraits of construction workers: Per, Lukasz, Janine, Zbigniew etc. The portraits can be interpreted against a wider background of worker depictions, which deal in various ways with the tasks and living conditions of working life. In realism non-idealized portrayals of the worker’s daily toil amount to a general motif, while for example cubist or late modernist approaches tend to depict workers as cogs in a bigger machinery. Bereft of their individual characteristics, they are the victims of reification and exploitation. In contemporary art, depictions of workers often focus on their role in a globalized, late-capitalist economy. Tinglum, on the other hand, draws attention to the workers’ individual traits. There is nothing uniform about them, and they are presented with their first names, a choice that can be interpreted in more ways than one. On the one hand, the first names tend to reflect what is personal and to build intimacy. On the other, the omission of last names can be seen as increasing anonymity. In addition, the form of presentation might also create associations to elevated figures, like royalty. From this perspective the portraits can be read as a homage to the workers who have built the Opera.
The contributions by Nina Witoszek Fitzpatrick and Marte Aas also take the Bjørvika workers as their theme. Witoszek Fitzpatrik moved to Norway from Poland in 1983. She has established herself as an active debater of social issues who turns a wry gaze on diverse cultural phenomena. In SITE SEEING she describes the life of the Polish worker Roman, having interviewed a number of other Polish workers on the construction site before penning her piece. Roman has been left by his wife Signe and works for a pittance at the Bjørvika site. He is struggling to attune to the new Opera House, which is developing into something sublime and unattainable, “like the clean, sunny women who blossom on breakfast TV on NRK2”. As a kind of survival strategy, he channels the frustrations he feels concerning his love life and the Opera building into an ambitious project: an opera based on his own life, Don Romano.
In her photographs Marte Aas frequently investigates different urban spaces, focusing on the relationship between man and architecture. Among her contributions to SITE SEEING are a series of panoramas showing the different stages of the construction process and the surroundings. In one of several foldouts Aas shows us a place beneath the traffic flyover: two temporary dwellings, makeshift homes made from found materials. Prior to the development of Bjørvika such secluded areas represented a refuge for homeless people – indeed the area belonged to them more than to anyone else. Another contribution from Aas is a photo project for which she invited construction workers to share with her places and situations that they thought should be documented for posterity. Assembly supervisor Per Anderson shows us a captivating place under the quay floor where piles and girders stand in turquoise water. Apprentice electrician Jeanine Helene Watz points out a pipe facility where cables and wires hang in loops from the ceiling. In the book the photographs of the different places are presented next to portraits of the workers who chose them. By including the perspective and gaze of the workers in her project, Aas reveals to us a number of secret places that we otherwise would never have seen or had access to. Talleiv Taro Manum uses personal and everyday aspects of life to shed light on topical – and universal – issues related to the new Opera House. In these photos there is no opposition between the public and the private spheres. The two are linked; collective and individual aspects are constituted in reciprocal interplay. The book contains several images of Manum himself, his family and friends. One of the photo series follows his daughter Olivia Rose over a period of several years. The pictures show her on a small patch of ground below the Ekeberg restaurant, a lush green no-man’s-land. In the background we see the construction process unfolding. Manum’s photographs often involve many levels. This series has wistful overtones, implicitly asking how long this untouched spot will be allowed to remain so. The area around the Opera is already under pressure, gentrification is in full swing, with rents and the price of land rising as fast as the Opera building itself. Distinctive and marginalized cultures are being replaced by more conforming and wealthy ones. Manum’s contribution also features a photograph from MC Company, the biker club housed in one of the old Villas along Mosseveien. The club’s big garden used to be a cherished meeting place for a lot of people who were acutely aware that the garden represented something marginal. Now parts of the property have been sold, and it is likely that the rest of the garden and the villa will soon follow suit. In several of the photographs, and in the notes that go with them, Manum reflects on the task he has taken on and on the meaning of opera for him personally. He discusses the project with friends, inspects the Opera site and attends meetings with the Decoration Committee. It turns out that Manum has never set foot in the Oslo opera before, and we are shown him and his friend preparing for their first visit: Manum takes a bath, his friend a shower, and they dress up. An obvious interpretation of the photographs is that they reflect on who really belongs in the Opera; who is the Opera in Bjørvika built for?
Traces in music and marble
The Decoration Committee announced an open Nordic competition for ideas for the design of this “cornerstone object”. They also wanted a plan for the organization of the cornerstone ceremony. Some of the 93 entries were rather utopian; for example, one suggestion was to decree a permanent national holiday on the day the cornerstone was laid. Other ideas included creating a conglomeratic object out of rocks from different parts of Norway, or from different opera houses around the world. One idea, which incidentally also won a prize, was based on members of audiences at opera houses around the world sending postcards to the Opera in Bjørvika with descriptions of performances they had recently seen. Taken together the postcards would give a picture of what was currently going on in the world of opera. Most of the proposals included both a physical object and a performative aspect.
Löfgren and Elmes’ idea was to transfer sound to concrete. In their project the artists cooperated with musicians, sound engineers and casting engineers. The basis for the project was a compressed version of the history of opera, a hyperoverture. With a duration of one minute and forty-two seconds, this consisted of 13 different opera overtures by famous composers such as Beethoven, Bizet, Mozart, Rossini and Schubert. It was, however, difficult to recognize any of them. Although nothing of the sound information was excluded, it was digitally compressed and then layered.
During the ceremony the sound of the hyperoverture was transmitted through a specially designed cannon and “fired” into wet concrete. The concrete had to be fluid enough for the sound waves to make an imprint, but at the same time firm enough to retain the imprint. During the one minute and forty-two seconds of sound hitting the concrete, clearly visible traces, in the form of circular patterns, emerged. With the sound thus materialized, it makes sense to regard the object as a commentary on Goethe’s often quoted description of architecture as frozen music. The concrete imprint is today exhibited in a small glass case in the foyer. It signals the place of art in the new Opera House.
The marble roof of the Opera spans an area of 3.7 acres (1.5 hectares) and is open to all. Many compare walking on this gleaming white expanse to walking across a snowfield. The roof invites us to take possession of it. It belongs to anyone who wishes to spend time there.
From early on Snøhetta wanted expert artists to be involved in designing the marble surfaces of the Opera’s roof and forecourt. From the outset of the preliminary project in 2001 – a year before the Decoration Committee for the new Opera House was appointed – the sculptor Kristian Blystad and the artists Kalle Grude and Jorunn Sannes were part of the team. Blystad has considerable experience of working with stone, while Sannes has worked a great deal with pattern and repetition in her art. Together the two were responsible for the decoration of Snøhetta’s library in Alexandria. Grude is known first and foremost as a conceptual artist.
Integrated art projects sometimes prove problematic because artists tend to enter the process at a late stage, with the result that the art often ends up subservient to or in conflict with the architecture it is supposed to integrate with. In this case, however, it seems that the architecture integrates with the art just as much as the other way around. The art relates to the structure’s architecture, while at the same time transforming the building into an abstract, minimalist sculptural form.
Blystad, Grude and Sannes decided early on that all crafted elements, including functional ones like gutters, light fixtures and seating edges, should be designed to function as abstract elements in a monumental composition. Crafted details should provide a rich experience at close quarters yet still be part of a larger whole. During the first phase the group analysed a number of materials in terms of function and quality. Different patterns, textures and techniques were considered, along with various solutions for stairs, running edges, coping stones and inclines. A basic consideration for the design was the influence of light on our perceptions of planes and volumes. Early in the process the artists located streets in Oslo with the same inclination as the Opera roof. This allowed them to form an impression of the roof’s dimensions and thus consider what kind of details would be suitable.
The artists tried out different solutions by making polystyrene models. Their final model was one of the entire roof on a scale of 1:20. It was built like a jigsaw so that each of the more than 33 000 stone slabs could be separately removed and modified in detail. Having arrived at a final solution by using the model, the crafting was further developed digitally before being superimposed onto the Opera’s exterior. When the shipment of crafted marble arrived from Carrara in Italy, the construction workers had something of a puzzle to solve, since no two stones were alike, and each and every one of them had its specific place.
In general, the cutting of these stones interprets and extends the formal logic of the Opera building. If we study the roof closely, we find a number of the building’s structural lines echoed in the surface, such as the undulating line in the foyer wall or the varied angles of the exterior. At the same time the details also reflect what happens within the building. We see clearly how the play of lines intensifies and the drama increases as we approach the roof of the main auditorium.
Løvaas & Wagle began their cooperation back in 1981, while still students at the textile department at Oslo National Academy of the Arts. Since then they have consistently worked together, with all their work carrying their joint signature. Primarily they have focused on exploring textile-related issues. In the 1980s they created sculptures and wall-pieces in folded cotton canvas, which relied heavily on the function and play of light. Subsequent wall-pieces have been woven and braided from unconventional but richly suggestive everyday materials, like woollen blankets, caps, rainwear, and, not least, nylon stockings. The two have past experience of working on a large scale – they designed a wall for the cloakroom at Skien’s new leisure park (2008), and they take the credit for stage curtains at both Trøndelag Theatre and Hamar Cathedral School (1997/2007) – but in terms of monumentality, the Opera project is in a class of its own. Having never before worked with aluminium, the Opera project allowed them to apply their knowledge of textiles to a new medium.
Løvaas & Wagle often use historic textile patterns as the basis for their pieces. They found inspiration for this project in a binding pattern they discovered in the Norwegian Home Crafts Association’s Håndbok i veving (Handbook of Weaving) (1951). The pattern was intended for utility textiles and may have been used for coats and other outdoor garments. Having come up with a solution for transferring the pattern onto aluminium, using perforations as the assignment required, it transpired that the design would cause disturbing sounds under certain wind conditions. Thus the duo had to go back to the drawing board. They considered an option using woven metal sheets, but eventually realised that the earlier pattern could be punched into the metal instead of being drilled. Thus the binding pattern was finally transferred to aluminium. People have pointed out that the pattern is reminiscent of Braille, although another comparison that seems no less obvious is with the punch cards of a Jacquard loom. Each concave or convex point on the metal panels represents an interlacing point in the pattern, i.e. a point where warp and weft cross.
The stage curtain in the main auditorium reverses this translation from textiles to metal. The curtain, entitled METAFOIL, is the creation of the American artist Pae White. 118 artists took part in the open international pre-qualification in 2004. Of these, four were selected for a closed competition. White has previously worked with light and optical effects. She is probably best known for her colourful, mobile sculptures, which refer to both Alexander Calder’s mobiles and Marimekko textiles from the 1960s. Many of her pieces explore the relationship between art and daily life, or between the fantastic and the everyday. Like Løvaas & Wagle, she gives unpretentious and democratic materials new contexts. White makes use of shopping bags and newspapers, introducing them into new contexts so that they alter their nature and acquire new layers of meaning. In METAFOIL it is the character of the cotton thread that undergoes such a transformation. From a distance the curtain resembles a huge undulating piece of metal foil, making it appear as a sculpture.
White transforms an everyday experience from a private sphere into something of monumental proportions in the public sphere. The idea for the drape started out with an unremarkable situation in the artist’s kitchen. Opening one of her kitchen drawers, she came upon a crumpled piece of metal foil wedged between the utensils. The basic idea was to transfer the light effect from this surface onto another. The stage curtain is based on digital photos of crumpled, light-sensitive foil. The digital information from the photos was then transferred to a digital loom. The curtain, measuring 23 x 11 metres, was woven in Belgium and sewn together in France. It is the transitions in colour hues – relative to white – that create the illusion of light.
METAFOIL plays on the relation between illusion and reality, thereby commenting on its own function, since a stage curtain is nothing but a gateway to a world of illusion. Seated in the house, the drape looks like it is made of metal. But on closer inspection one notices the cotton weave. However, it is mostly the stage workers and the performers, in other words those who produce the theatrical illusion, who get to experience the curtain up close. The textile looks like a vast landscape of snow-capped mountains, seen from above.
Other places, other images
The panelling that covers three of the volumes consists of strict geometrical shapes in an undulating pattern. This is an interpretation of the torpid life of glacial ice: crystallization, tiny vibrations and the development of cracks. The pattern of the white panels changes from floor to ceiling. It expands, the mesh widening the higher it goes. This creates an impression of reducing the weight of the massive roof. As in many other of Eliasson’s works, there is an emphasis on optical effects and the play of light and shadow. Behind these outer panels, white and green light pulsates almost indiscernibly. After staring at a colour for a time, our eyes produce an after-image of the complementary colour. In this case the green light produces pale red images in the retina. In combination with the other shadow effects from the pulsating light, these after-images create a subtle play of colour on Eliasson’s white panelling. From a distance there is an illusion of flowing movements reminiscent of the slow progress of a glacier.
In Eliasson’s interpretation the slanting ceiling of the foyer becomes a block of ice or a glacier that defines the space; suddenly we find ourselves in a crystalline landscape deep within the glacier. This gives the foyer an element of the surreal. We are like characters in a science-fiction novel whose surroundings are about to be transformed by an all-encompassing process of crystallization. The fourth sub-volume, which extends into the outdoor space, is covered with mirrors. These enhance the link between the interior and the exterior and draw daylight into the building. Furthermore, the mirrors unite the two worlds of reality and illusion. At the same time they accentuate human presence in the space together with the shared and individual experiences that arise here.
Italian artist Monica Bonvicini’s sculpture SHE LIES also presents us with associations to water and ice. The sculpture will be anchored in the bay about 60 metres from the Opera House. Measuring 17 x 16 x 12 metres, it will be clearly visible in the landscape as a spectacular construction of metal and mirrored surfaces. Here again an international prequalification round was announced, attracting submissions by 153 artists from 23 countries, of which six were invited to participate in another closed competition.
Bonvicini’s works often address the interplay between man and architecture and are rich in references to art history. Among her creations we find allusions to romantic painting, minimalist sculpture, early performance, conceptual texts and feminist discourses. According to the artist, SHE LIES is a translation of Caspar David Friedrich’s painting Das Eismeer (The Sea of Ice) from 1823-1824. Thus the sculpture is also a continuation of Bonvicini’s project Minimal Romantik from the Venice Biennale in 2005, on which work began during the biennale’s opening ceremony. In that project a group of stonecutters were given the task of carving the upper section of a block of marble to look like the ice-formations in Friedrich’s painting. If we look closely at the painting, we discover a ship among the chunks of ice. In a classic romantic image of nature’s power over man the immense forces of nature have trapped the ship among the ice floes. SHE LIES will rest diagonally in the water, like a careening ship. The link to the ship in Friedrich’s painting is further underscored by the title’s reference to a woman.
The sculpture will both affect and be affected by its surroundings. It will be in constant motion, and the materials will reflect the ever-changing weather and light conditions. One obvious way of viewing the sculpture is as an iceberg that has broken loose and drifted into the Oslo fjord. Such an interpretation makes the sculpture the herald of a dystopian scenario and a striking commentary on the most precarious problem of our time: global warming. Another way of viewing it is as a mirage, thus alluding to the visionary and the fantastic.
The public art programme of the Opera House ranges from the spectacular and monumental to the intimate and mundane. The art projects relate different stories about the building and its environs, and about the people who belong there. They serve to broaden the Norwegian Opera and Ballet’s programme and multiply the Opera’s points of contact with its visitors, using an interface different in kind from that of its other activities. These public artworks allow for a diversity of individual and shared experiences, engendered in a variety of spaces – both inside and outside the Opera House.
The art projects
The Decoration Committee for the new Opera House:
Translation: Peter Cripps.
Last updated 27.04.2010