Saga Night

2008

Presentation speech Held on the opening of Saga Night at Maihaugen, Lillehammer

The very first time I strolled up the Lyngveien road, I had a virtually dizzying feeling of déjà vu. Walking along this tiny stretch of road was a bit like reentering my childhood. The house I grew up in was a typical 70s-style prefabricated home the same color as this building by Moelven right in front of us. Childhood memories came flooding as I walked by the low garden fences, the garage gates and the well-kept, freshly stained wooden walls. Yet, I had a gnawing feeling that something was slightly off, without being able to put my finger on it.

 

This recreated setting, known as “the Residential Development”, is located at Maihaugen in Lillehammer, an open-air museum of cultural heritage. Visitors reach this section by walking across picturesque farmyards surrounded by tiny wood cabins and past the beautiful lily ponds by the stave church in the lower parts of the outdoor museum. On their way, they can admire the beauty of the scenery and the lovely, hand-woven rugs displayed in interiors decorated with rose painting. The road lined with wildflowers that stitches the museum together meanders among the birch trees in more or less chronological fashion through settings from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries that seem true to the way things may have appeared in Mid-Norway back then. Visitor then arrive at the Residential Development and the Lyngveien road, which leads them through the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s and past the already slightly outdated House of the Future, all the way to the uncertain future, poetically represented by the edge of the forest where the road and the museum ends.

 

Why was it that, despite my feeling of knowing it so well, the Lyngveien road seemed so annoyingly out of touch with reality? It was because of the ROAD itself.  The street I lived on during my childhood in the 70s was obviously not a gravel road, but rather freshly coated with durable asphalt true to modern, effective standards. I don’t think it even had a single pothole. Come on now, this was the 70s, so there was certainly no lack of money for such things in Norway!

 

The contrast between the Lyngveien road and the rest of the museum is striking. Obviously, something radical has occurred that completely changed the appearance of our country. But the way things looked when I first came there, visitors were left guessing what might have caused this tremendous change. The light-colored gravel road stitching the museum together seemed to indicate that the rich Norwegian society of today was a seamless continuation of the story of the smalltime farmer we know from all the other museum exhibits. The area seemed to be saying that: the wealth is ours. Gained by the labor of generations of thrifty, persevering Norwegians in hardscrabble conditions and in the dead of winter; these riches are the fruits of much effort, and we deserve them.

 

Saga Night, the sculpture right in front of us, signifies a departure: a radical change that occurred in plain view, and yet seems to represent a blind spot in Norwegian culture and self-perception. In the Norwegian national anthem, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson evoked the saga night that sends “dreams to our earth”. This is a reference to the Viking Age and the Norway of Old Norse times. However, another saga night sent dreams to our country in the late 60s: The first substantial oil discovery on the Norwegian shelf in the North Sea in 1968 was an event that virtually overnight sent Norway off into a dream-like future that the country was entirely unprepared for, allowing for visions that we did not even know we had.  That was the start of the Norwegian Oil Adventure. This story about modern Norway is not primarily about patience, traditions, thriftiness and hard work, but rather about a stroke of luck. The Norwegian wealth is not family silver passed down through the ages, but something that just fell into our laps. Simply put, we were unbelievably LUCKY.

 

The only Norway people my age or younger have ever known is the Norway that starts right here on the Lyngveien road. It is virtually unfathomable to us that it has only been a few decades since Norwegian schools taught that “Norway is a poor country”. The buildings from this point onwards to the edge of the woods clearly demonstrate an explosive rise in living standards. The signs of the new wealth are evident in the sizes of the prefabricated houses, the two-car garages, and the large, thoroughly insulated windows. The houses are surrounded by decorative gardens, as opposed to hopeful attempts at deriving sustenance from the soil. But while this radical change is obvious to anyone with eyes to see, it is conspicuously absent in the typical narrative of the history of our nation. This was also the case for the museum exhibits here at the Maihaugen Museum, which are otherwise so thorough and complete.

 

History never is an actual, complete presentation of the past. It is a construction, a product of our own times, an attempt to explain to ourselves what, who and where we are today, and how we got here. One might say that it is rather an image of the times in which it is being told than of the era it is meant to recall.  In other words, does this oversight or omission mean that contemporary Norwegians feel uncomfortable about our oil history? Do we not welcome the thought that we have been lucky?

 

Nostalgia, romanticism: the distance from which we observe the farmyards in the lower parts of this outdoor museum echoes our knowledge that chances are we will never again have to live in such conditions in this country. We are far too wealthy for that. The hard work and thriftiness evident in the other museum exhibits will never again be a part of our daily life. We see the beauty in the scenery and the buildings, in the closeness to nature, in the traditions of craftsmanship. But we do not see the child mortality, the hunger during the years when the harvest failed, the bitter winter cold, the terrible toothaches and louse-ridden hair, entire families sharing a single bed, the illiteracy. We do not see that the country we admire is a Norway that was completely and fundamentally different from the country we know today. We are safely standing in a completely different landscape than the one these old buildings were part of, and we do not share the experiences of Norwegians of past generations.

 

Saga Night, whose title is borrowed from Bjørnstjerne Bjørnsson’s lyrics for the Norwegian national anthem, is a gift from me to the Maihaugen Museum. The work will become part of its collection on a par with the buildings and objects on display in the rest of the open air museum. In the museum’s chronological presentation, this curve in the road corresponds to the year of 1968, a watershed in the Norwegian economy. My piece starts at this very point to call attention to and serve as a permanent reminder of the radical shift that was occasioned by the start of oil drilling on the Norwegian shelf. This event has affected the lives of all Norwegians ever since. The sculpture is financed by my odd jobs in Norwegian art institutions, all run on public funds, during a period for which I had been awarded a government artist grant. This money is generated, as are the majority of Norwegian public funds, more or less directly from drilling in the North Sea. Without these funds, I would not have been able to create my art, and the Maihaugen Museum would not have been able to present the Norwegian cultural heritage the way it does. My sculpture therefore links both Maihaugen and myself to the new Norwegian landscape of which we are all part: the Oil Nation of Norway.

 

Dear Ågot Gammersvik, Director of the Maihaugen Museum, it is all yours!