29 August 2012


Steilneset Memorial
Louise Bourgeois, Peter Zumthor and Liv Helene Willumsen
Vardø, Norway
Memorial for the victims of the witch processes in Vardø in the 17th century

The installation is a memorial to the victims of the intensive witch trials in this area in the 17th century. 91 persons were executed for witchcraft, after admitting under torture, or after being tested through horrible methods.

This place used to be an execution area, well placed behind the graveyard. The monument is still behind the present graveyard, and it still feels so disconnected from it. The victims were not allowed to be buried on sacred ground as they were accused of having rejected God.

Vardø graveyard 
The memorial consists of two parts: A glass cage, with a burning chair inside, surrounded by giant mirrors. A long hall, where there is a window, lamp and text for each victim. The two parts are connected by the closeness, but at the same they are time two quite different installations.

Steilneset memorial

Bourgeois and Zumthor's glass cage is strangely alien at this spot. From the outside it seems like a cosy campfire inside, while the magnificient surrounding landscape is reflected in the glass. Inside it feels like being at the office of a dentist from the worst nightmare, with the quite uncomfortable chair and the giant mirrors. The landscape visible through the glass is more comforting. It is a disturbing spot, not like a quiet memorial for meditation, but rather a chamber of horrors.

Steilneset memorial

On the other hand, the long hall fits in here, it belongs here. The carcass is comparable to the stockfish scaffolding that are so common in this area, and the canvas of the hull has connections to the sails of the fishing vessels. The windows and the lamps are all in different level, while the texts collected by Liv Helene Willumsen are at reading level. 

Steilneset memorial

These contrasts between the two parts are fitting. The glass cage may symbolize the processes in general, executed all over the Christian world in those times, an alien tradition that was imposed on this place. The victims of this tradition were the local inhabitants. We can study the processes in general from historic litterature, but we can never understand the horror and fear of both the victims and all those fearing the hordes of demons and witches.

The accusations are very interesting to read, it is not only about what they are accused of and who accused them, but also how they were tricked into being a witch, who is their mentor demon, and through which medium they got their powers. You can sense how long the torture has been to reach this admittal, and how large a part of this must have been created by the inquisitors. It is obvious that some were forced to say a name of someone else, and probably it was easier then to name the outsiders and the harmless. Thus it is probably not a surprise that the list is dominated by women and minority people. The contents of the accusations also reveal that envy is put to the extreme, the accused are accused of being envious, but you can sense there is envy behind the accusations.

It is touching that each one of the victims are handled as a unique person in the memorial, they all were valuable human beings. They all have a shining light, a window both for looking in and for looking out, and their name and story.

Steilneset memorial

The hall seems endless in the dim light, symbolizing that these are the victims from this place, but the victims are so many more in other places. This is just one piece of the large picture, and see how long this part is.

These processes and this way of looking at the world strike us as barbaric. But in those times this was their reality, this was their truth. Is the World improving, or is it just changing appearances? Do we have rituals and beliefs that the people of the 25th century will consider barbaric? Are there groups of people or individuals we exclude or consider demonic because of their ethnisity or beliefs? We see the burning chair and consider it horrible, but the surrounding mirrors do not only reflect the execution spot, they also reflect our own image. 

Steilneset memorial

Link to the official page of the monument: