Every year millions of tourists visit Ålesund, Norway’s prettiest city. For centuries they’ve admired its setting, seven interconnected islands on the Norwegian Sea. And its elegant Art Nouveau style. After a devastating fire in 1904 burnt the city’s traditional wooden buildings to the ground, young architects (financed by international aid) rebuilt Ålesund in stone and brick. Ålesund is also Norway’s most important fishing harbour. All very nice. What did we like best? A serendipitous surprise, an art exhibit called The Edge of the Sea.
Have you ever wondered what Canada would look like if you included the sea in our 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) in the demarcation of our national territory? Me neither.
Until Magellan called me over to an exhibit by two architects/urbanists from MIT to see Rafi Segal and Yonatan Cohen’s Territorial Map of the World (2013). What a fresh reconfiguring of the world, especially for Norwegians. When you include the Norwegian Sea their country is more than six times as large as the Norwegian mainland. (Norway is the coral-coloured piece, fourth to the right on the top of the map.) For Magellan this map was particularly relevant, because his former company financed the peaceful resolution of the EEZ between Guyana and Suriname in 2007.
I had been hovering over another intriguing sensory display. Smelling. Sniffing the sea’s diversity.
Sissel Tolaas (that’s her in the photo on the left below) is a Norwegian scientist and artist who is building a dictionary of new words to describe what we smell.
The Edge of Norway and Happy Salmon (2019) is part of an ongoing cross-disciplinary research project focusing on residual raw material from the fishery sector. For this exhibit she collected odour molecules from farmed fish and fish waste. (Norway’s aquaculture industry produces ~1.35 metric tons of fish annually so she has lots to draw from). She presented the odours in little tins for visitors to whiff and had slips of paper for us to describe the smells. (I wrote that #26 smelled like “Eau de cabbage sewer, New York city in August.”) An artist from Berlin with a background in chemistry, math, languages and art, Sissel researches the importance of smell in science, art and other disciplines and has developed an archive of 7,000 smells!
Have you seen the amazing film My Octopus Teacher? The Norwegian coast is the focus of Sissel M. Bergh’s video #Tjaetsie (Water) Knowhowknow (2018), a visual and sonic journey which follows a mythical figure with intense cod-eyes showing us things like an octopus expelling ink. And while her video doesn’t come anywhere near Craig Foster’s documentary, she makes the same point: we overlook oceanic animals and plants and don’t consider them members of our societies. Sissel gives examples. Like a researcher talking about conquering ocean space, and Norway giving permission for two new landfills allowing toxic waste from mines into previously protected salmon fjords. We hear a scientist say that if we could see in three frequencies like some animals, we’d have a whole new view of the underwater world.
In a similar vein, Ursula Biemann’s video Acoustic Ocean (2018) follows a female aquanaut in Lofoten, a marine-biologist who uses a submersible equipped to record acoustic forms of expression. The soundtrack is cool, a composition of fish vocalization.
I liked the series of collages the Swiss artist Randi Nygård made by gluing together a bunch of books, then cutting them open and folding the pages into various patterns and figures. Randi called it Oceanic Feeling (2016-18) after a concept coined by Sigmund Freud in the 1920s describing the feeling of being at one with the universe, which he viewed as narcissistic. Randi disagrees. She says an oceanic feeling is constantly experienced in interactions with our surroundings, with other people, in creative processes and in encounters with nature.
At first I wasn’t interested in Danilo Correale’s video Equivalent Units (2017). The title refers to the sizes of standard cargo containers: a twenty-foot equivalent unit is a TEU, a forty-foot one is an FEU. But I got hooked watching the automation in the shipping industry—especially when you realize 90% of the world’s goods are transported in container ships. Danilo, an Italian artist and researcher who lives and works in New York and Naples, analyzes what increased automation means for our hopes and anxieties when human labour becomes obsolete.
This exhibition at the art museum Jugendstilesenteret & KUBE featured thirteen different artists.”The message is a difficult one, because it cannot be denied that something ominous is lurking in the big blue sea,” writes Gro Kraft, director of The Edge of the Sea, also the title of a book written by Rachel Carson in 1955.
The last piece we’ll tell you about focuses on something so crazy it’s surreal.
In the early twentieth century an idea called Atlamtropa was proposed to strengthen Europe against the economic power of Asia and America. Its essence? Draining the Mediterranean Sea!
This outlandish idea wasn’t even new!
It surfaced in the mid-19th century when a French geographer suggested draining the Mediterranean and diverting the water to create an inland sea in the Sahara, thereby pushing the Arabs further south and opening North Africa to trade with the French. In the 1930s a German architect proposed lowering the Mediterranean to converge Africa and Europe into one continent. And in the 1950s as a solution to peace in the Middle East, the CIA issued a plan to divert the sea in order to change the climate of the Sahara.
Heba Y. Amin, an Egyptian artist who lives in Berlin and Cairo, called her video Operation Sunken Sea—Relocating the Mediterranean (2018). Absurdly, she furthers the concept of Atlamtropa in a powerful satirical performance.
Dressed in a high-buttoned dark blouse with military-style padded shoulders, Heba adopts the persona of a quasi-dictator, copying from archival footage the words and mannerisms of eight powerful men promoting megalomaniacal water projects (Nasser, Eisenhower, Mussolini and others).
Heba’s zany proposal is draining the Mediterranean and incorporating it into the African continent as a solution to the migrant crisis. In the exhibition catalogue, she says,“I plagiarised all these historical speeches to reveal the ways in which these problematic colonial ideologies still very much exist today, and that even the rhetoric has not changed, particularly when we are talking about geoengineering and techno-utopian projects. Our imagination about technology has also not changed in over 150 years. These projects are implemented to serve a very limited number of people. They serve to implement power structures.”
By the time we left the museum, the rain had dissipated so we wandered about Ålesund taking photos. And since the next morning was bright and sunny, we walked to the summit of Mount Aksla for a panoramic view of the city: 418 steps and twice as many people, most of them from the huge cruise ships docked in port.
Seeing the Hop-On Hop-Off bus come within an inch of not making a narrow turn on the road, being among so many people and paying the equivalent of ten dollars to buy a drink so as to be entitled to use the toilet at the top, was making me edgy. We left saturated with memories of The Edge of the Sea.
Acoustic Ocean by Ursula Biemann Segment
Correale, Danilo. “EQUIVALENT UNITS,” Genoa, Culmv, 2017.
Jugendstilesenteret & KUBE. All of the photos of the artists’ works above are from this art museum’s Facebook page.
Kraft, Gro, Holen, Benedikte, and Vatne, Bjorn. The Edge of the Sea. Translated by Stig Oppedal. Jugenstilesenteret & KUBE. Ålesund: Nilz & Otto Grafisk AS, 2019.
Operation Sunken Sea: Relocating the Mediterranean by Heba Y. Amin- Excerpt
Segal, R. and Cohen, Yonatan. “Beyond the Sea-Land Divide: A World Map – [email protected]”MIT, October 2014.
Syal, Richa. “US cruise ships using Canada as toilet bowl for polluted waste.” The Guardian: July 9, 2022. Transport Canada may say it has made changes, but they are platitudes not enforceable policies.
Like the new, much-anticipated National Museum and the new library in Oslo. Kitchen on the Edge of the World in Lofoten. And all the places we didn’t;t visit…
Ålesund is a beautiful town and it’s quite amazing to see how it looks following the 1904 fire. The view from the mountain top is very pretty. We could certainly go back and experience some more of everything that is Norway. Dallas and Pat