Just like New England in 1692-1693, the little town of Vardø, located far north of the Arctic circle, in the extreme northeastern part of Norway—it’s actually much closer to Russia than it is to Sweden, which is unusual for a Norwegian town—experienced a witch crisis all its own in the 17th century. The witch trials ended up affecting an unusually high percentage of the local townspeople—the entire county of Finnmark had a population of 3,000 people, but 135 people were accused of practicing witchcraft, 91 of whom were executed. As in Salem, the method of “pond dunking” was used:
it was often part of the process to include “trial by water”—the result being seen as “God’s will”. Those accused were bound hand and foot and thrown into the water. If the person floated, it was sign of their guilt. If they sank, they were innocent. During the Vardø witch trials, all those that were subjected to “trial by water” floated—thus guilty in the eyes of God.
In 2011 a memorial for the victims of the witch trials was erected and unveiled by the Queen of Norway. The designers of the memorial were two highly esteemed artists, Peter Zumthor of Switzerland and Louise Bourgeois, born in France but active in the United States. The memorial, known as the Steilneset Memorial, is located next to what is believed to be the execution site of many of the 91 victims.
The memorial consists of two parts, a long hallway suspended near the beach, Zumthor’s “Memory Hall,” a long cross-hatched frame containing a corridor with 91 lamps, each one illuminates a window and a plaque that tells the story of the men and women killed with testimony from their trials. That is connected to the Bourgeois contribution, a black box made of glass with a constantly burning chair in the middle, with mirrors suspended above it. This part is called, “The Damned, The Possessed, and The Beloved.”
Of the artists’ process, Zumthor has said, “I had my idea, I sent it to her, she liked it, and she came up with her idea, reacted to my idea, then I offered to abandon my idea and to do only hers, and she said, ‘No, please stay.’ So, the result is really about two things—there is a line, which is mine, and a dot, which is hers…. Louise’s installation is more about the burning and the aggression, and my installation is more about the life and the emotions [of the victims].”
More after the jump…