It has been exactly five years since Anders Behring Breivik murdered 77 people in Norway. First, he detonated a car bomb in central Oslo’s government quarter, and then he opened fire at the Worker’s Youth League’s (AUF) summer camp on the island of Utøya in the municipality of Hole. Last year, a memorial — a steel ring inscribed with the names of victims — was unveiled on the privately owned island, but three public memorials are still in development.
Swedish artist Jonas Dahlberg was selected by a state-appointed committee, which included survivors and AUF members, to design these three memorials. There will be two in the government quarter (a temporary work will first be installed, then replaced, as the still bomb-scarred area is being redeveloped) and another in Hole. It is this third memorial, “Memory Wound,” that has attracted the most attention, as well as some controversy.
Dahlberg’s design proposes cutting a slit three and a half meters wide (about 11 and a half feet) into the Sørbråten peninsula, which faces Utøya. Across the newly created gap, the names of those murdered by Breivik will be inscribed into stone. “You can see them,” Dahlberg told Hyperallergic, “you can read them, but they are forever unreachable.”
Originally due to be completed in time for the four-year anniversary in 2015, the work has been delayed because of objections raised by local residents who feel they have not been allowed to be sufficiently involved in the decision-making process. “The government in Norway did many good things when they planned the competition and who would be involved,” Dahlberg said. “They were working for one and a half years with representatives from the national support groups. There were politicians, art advisers, and architects [involved], but they missed one very important role: they didn’t have anyone from the municipality.”
Sørbråten peninsula residents are also concerned that the sight of the memorial, so close to their homes, will trigger the trauma of attacks, which many witnessed first-hand before assisting with rescue efforts. Some say they “refuse to relive July 22 for the rest of life.”
“These are all very understandable points,” Dahlberg said. “Of course everybody would like that we could just keep on living and that this never happened, but since it did, we somehow need to deal with it.”
Dahlberg’s studio delivered the building permit application earlier this month and expect a decision later in the summer. Residents, however, plan to sue the state. If the case is taken up, “then [construction] most probably will be postponed again,” Dahlberg said. “If not, then we will start as planned in October.” When work begins on “Memory Wound,” which is currently scheduled to be unveiled on July 22, 2017, plans can also move ahead for the government quarter site, for which Dahlberg will use stone and trees excavated from Sørbråten to build the foundation for both the temporary and permanent memorials there.
Together with other artists, architects, and sculptors in the competition — which included Turner Prize winner Jeremy Deller and Norwegian architects Snøhetta, who designed the National September 11 Memorial Museum Pavilion at Ground Zero — Dahlberg visited the sites in late 2013. On Utøya, he was struck to see that bullet holes still scarred buildings’ walls while the island’s natural elements had been restored. “In its current state,” he wrote in his proposal, “the building kept close within it the memory of the terror acts of July 22, 2011. Like an open wound. But while the building produced these feelings, nature was somehow different. [It] had already begun to obscure all traces … the disturbing sensations that were felt inside the buildings will also shift and eventually fade in varying degrees. Just as an open wound is stitched closed and eventually turns into a faded scar.”
Scars are indeed slowly beginning to fade. AUF members have returned to Utøya and seem determined to reclaim their island, once a site of joy and youthful rites of passage. The necessary sensitivity of designing a public memorial at an intensely personal site helped to inform Dahlberg’s proposal.
The memorial site stretches out in the water toward Utøya, “and is almost like a sign that you should go out onto the tip of the peninsula and look over to the island,” he said. “I had a very early feeling that was a very bad idea: that the gaze toward the island makes the island itself into a monument. And after listening to a few of the survivors speak about how important it was for them to take the island back and not let [Breivik] succeed, it felt very important to shift this gaze and activate the viewer in a different way.”
Cutting a symbolic wound into the land can act as a way of separating the island from the curious onlookers inevitably drawn to sites of tragedy. “They are trying something almost impossible: to take that island back and to try to find joy again,” Dahlberg said. “Yes, they had political discussions there, but they also drank their first beer, maybe, or had their first kiss. They need to find that joy (again) without having a constant group of people on the peninsula looking out to the island. I wanted to stop that gaze, which freezes that moment in time, and instead create a view that rather goes inside yourself and your own loss, and always filter that gaze through that gap.”
Having lost his father one year before entering the competition and feeling he had insufficient time to grieve, Dahlberg said that the process of working on the memorial “became my own process of getting closer to the death of my father.” Even without the delays and controversies the project has endured, he said he is unlikely to work on a memorial again. “You need to be close to the loss itself. The language of most memorials — the architectural language — doesn’t interest me at all. I need to be extremely site-specific and extremely specific with what happened. It would be tough to enter into another memorial project. “
Keen to avoid the generic architectural language of memorials, Dahlberg found guidance from one of the survivors. During the site visit, he “happened to just walk next to one of the leaders in the victims support group and he told me that I shouldn’t be afraid. [We talked about how], for them to be able to move on, they use a [tough] language where they joke a little bit about it, they use black humor — of course it’s just them that are allowed to do that. Then he told me that I shouldn’t be afraid of doing something that hurt a little because one of the things with most memorials is that generic language, by its very design, is not very communicative. But this language comes from people being afraid of speaking at all. He said: don’t do that, don’t be afraid of hurting me, I don’t want this to be pleasant, I don’t want this to be some harmonic, beautiful piece of design or architecture that has nothing to do with anything.”
Dahlberg added: “That was a gift from him to me to give me that possibility. When you move into work like this — a public work, for one of the biggest tragedies — it’s not helpful to be afraid.”