Criminal peripheries: Dahlberg’s Memory Wound and the national trauma of Utøya, 22. July 2011

I wanted to share the introduction to my research paper on Criminal Peripheries in Scandinavian Crime Fiction with the Nordic Noir Book Club, as I think many of you have also seen and been impressed by the winning project for the Oslo/Utøya memorials.

I am giving the paper at the annual SASS 2014 conference at Yale University on Thursday. My introduction discusses the recently revealed memorial commemorating 22. July 2011, and in the paper I wonder about why the Swedish artist wants to cut up the landscape.

Last week the winning project for the “Memorial Sites After 22. July” was revealed in Norway. These are the site-specific memorials that will commemorate the most notorious criminal periphery in recent Nordic history, the terrorist attacks on the government quarters in Oslo and the Worker’s Youth League summer camp on the island of Utøya in 2011, attacks that claimed 77 lives. 

The Swedish artist Jonas Dahlberg’s memorial to the Utøya massacre entitled “Memory Wound” has been met with almost unanimous positive reactions in the global and social media – which by no means was a given, since such national memorials are more often than not widely contested sites, since they inevitably make a claim for representing a particular and permanent version of what is in essence a complex collective memory.

For the memorial the artist proposes to ‘slice a three-and-a-half-metre-wide slit into the Sørbråten peninsula, which faces the island of Utøya and to transfer “one hundred cubic metres of the stone cut from Sørbråten to the governmental quarter in Oslo, where another memorial will mark the spot where a car bomb was detonated”. Dahlberg explains that his concept for the memorial: “[…] proposes a wound or a cut within nature itself. It reproduces the physical experience of taking away, reflecting the abrupt and permanent loss of those who died. The cut will be a three-and-a-half-meters-wide excavation. It slices from the top of the headland at the Sørbråten site, to below the water line and extends to each side. This void in the landscape makes it impossible to reach the end of the headland.” (see www.bustler.net)

It is in many ways an evocative memorial that produces in the visitor an immediate emotional response – not least when one is reading Dahlberg’s almost clinical forensic description of an autopsy on memory and the landscape. The memorial inscribes into the very landscape, so central to the Norwegian national imagination, the immediate shock and permanent trauma of the mass murder experienced by the victims’ families, the survivors and the nation as a whole.

The void in the landscape replicates a mode of representing collective traumas that we recognize in Daniel Libeskind’s architectural voids in the Jewish Museum in Berlin. As Libeskind’s voids represent the absence of Jews in the heart of the German capital, Dahlberg’s Earthwork clearly signifies absence, the permanent absence of the victims. As a void that fractures the landscape and precludes access, it also signifies history: “a broken history without continuity” (Andreas Huyssen, Present Pasts, 68).

It suggests that just as the void visualizes the permanent trauma and loss experienced by the survivors and those who lost a child or a friend, it also points to a more collective impossibility of “going back to” a time before the events, and as such, the Memory Wound figures the history of Norway itself: a secure, trustful, modernised and wealthy welfare society, whose peripheral self-perception had left the nation untouched by the evils of global risks, now wounded and exiled permanently from its innocent past.

Only a few days following the attacks, the Norwegian bestselling crime writer Jo Nesbø wrote an article entitled “The past is a foreign country” that was printed both in The Guardian and in the New York Times. While the article ends with his hopeful belief in the resilience of the Norwegian people to resist becoming fearful and lose its social trust, the title also suggests that merely a week following the attacks, the innocent Norway had become but a memory, imbued with nostalgia and a deep sense of loss. “Until Friday,” Nesbø writes, “we thought of our country as a virgin – unsullied by the ills of society”. His anxieties for the attacks’ effect on life in Norway are expressed in the compulsively repeated phrase “There is no road back to the way it was before”, which reveals the traumatic condition under which the article was written. Nesbø’s Norway after the attacks is a country whose extraordinary sense of security and innocence has been forever lost, a past in which the prime minister could cycle the streets and chat with the public with security guards safely in the background while wearing a cycling helmet.

Henning Mankell also wrote about the loss of innocence in an article where he refers to Hannah Arendt’s studies of the Holocaust: “The distant and in many ways idyllic Norway, the country with the oil and the wealth, is suddenly exposed to the banality of evil”.
Dahlberg’s memory wound, the void in the landscape, concurs with Nesbø and Mankell’s early conclusions: Norway is no longer “unsullied by the ills of society” – this is a wound in the very foundation of the nation that cannot heal. The crimes in Oslo and on Utøya have made this geopolitical periphery a great deal more like the rest of our globalised ‘runaway world’. And soon, with Dahlberg’s monumental Earthwork, Norway will have a memorial to match the global craze for large-scale memorials to, for instance, the Holocaust, the World Wars or 9/11.

The Memory Wound is particularly interesting in the way it and its artist engage traumatic memories with the age-old confrontation between nature and culture, which is, of course, always central to Earthworks or LandArt. And it is with the following cluster of phenomena that my paper will explore an example of the literary Nordic criminal peripheries: nature, landscape, forests, crime, trauma, the welfare state and ecology.
After revelling in the sublime site of the Memory Wound, an environmentally inclined spectator may wonder why the artist has found a violent attack on nature to be a fitting commemoration for the youth who fell so numerously as victims to the violent acts of, granted, a very different man. Jonas Dahlberg recounts that one “emotional observation” has informed his overall concept:
During the initial site visit to Utøya, I noticed how different the feeling was of walking outside in nature, compared to the feeling of walking through the rooms of the main building. The experience of seeing the vacant rooms and the traces of extreme violence brought me — and others around me — to a state of profound sadness. In its current state, 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. Although we stood directly on the very place where many people had lost their lives, nature had already begun to obscure all traces.

The emotional experience of absence and the void left by the traces of extreme violence on Utøya is produced in the buildings on the island – it is when going through the vacant rooms that the visitors are faced with the “open wound” of the events. But what seems almost as horrific is the difference, or should we say indifference of nature towards the location in which people had lost their lives: “nature had already begun to obscure all traces”.

The Memory Wound, as other memorials, is only partly about remembering the events that happened here and the people who died, the memorial is only partly about the traumatic event itself. It is, however, as much a work attacking the very nature or precondition of memory, namely forgetting. By revenging itself against nature, on behalf of those in mourning, the memorial fights against cyclical time, regeneration and the healing of wounds, against forgetting, by inserting a man-made fissure into nature itself. Nature has to be interrupted in its growth lest it should forget what it has witnessed as a passive bystander to the atrocities.

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1 Comment

Filed under Scandinavian crime fiction

One response to “Criminal peripheries: Dahlberg’s Memory Wound and the national trauma of Utøya, 22. July 2011

  1. A thoughtful and perceptive piece.

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