The Downward Spiral: A Philosopher’s Boat in Skjolden
This month Dean Kissick goes to the Norwegian countryside, contemplates Ludwig Wittgenstein’s retreat from society and sees art’s return to its pagan origins in artist Marianne Heske’s latest project
Art takes us to unlikely places in search of some meaning for our lives, if we want it to. This week I’ve come to Skjolden, a picturesque village at the end of Norway’s longest, deepest fjord, Sognefjord, 200 kilometres from the sea, where I’ve been invited by local artist Marianne Heske to come walk in the footsteps of Ludwig Wittgenstein. It was into this wilderness that the Austrian philosopher retreated, looking for a respite from modern life with all its noise and phantasms of progress, in 1913. The following year, he began building his house on a secluded, wooded slope above the lake behind the village, a short row across its milky opal waters, among the wildflowers and trees, in search of a simpler life, and a quiet place from which to dismantle our understanding of reality. Having given away most of his wealth and Viennese bourgeois possessions, he picked strawberries and apples for money, or sometimes worked in a lemonade factory nearby. Possessions are disturbing for the mind, he thought, and regardless, nothing belongs to anybody anyway. Conversations could also be a distraction; but round here, Marianne explains, people don’t talk so much, don’t say so much, just yes or no. This was the calm, laconic valley, where the wind hardly touches the water, where the sun hardly sets or rises, he’d been looking for. “There,” he once wrote, “my mind was on fire.”
Marianne wears baggy black trousers, shirts and jackets, round glasses, and plum-strawberry Nike Air Maxes. She was born in Alesund in 1946 and has been looking for inspiration along Norway’s winding roads, below the waterfalls and snowy crags, for a long time now. Every decade or so, she’ll find an old historical object, pull it out of its valley, and send it off on a journey somewhere. In 1980, she asked to borrow a small 17th-century wooden hut from a farmer in neighbouring Tafjord for a year, and drove it to the Pompidou Centre in a Citroen van. The roof was covered over with grass, which had to be watered by the Parisian gallery attendants every day, and flourished under the gallery lighting suspended from the deconstructed ceiling. Some Norwegians were angry that this traditional pastoral building had been spirited away to decadent France. Pictures of the installation bring to mind Beuys’ lard-smeared rooms of stories. Was she interested in Beuys? She says she used to bring dried fish to him in Düsseldorf. The night before we’d had baby goat terrine in our hotel by the water’s edge. A year to the day she’d taken it, Marianne returned her borrowed hut to the farmer, who needed it for sheltering his goats. “This is art,” he lamented upon its return. “It’s nothing to do about it.” Which is to say, the curse cannot be undone. Objects stay the same, or turn only very slowly, but we come to see them in radically different ways.
In 1999, Marianne was invited to exhibit at the Venice Film Festival and decided she’d like to contribute a large stone. She walked around Tafjord for days. Gossip floated over the valley that the artist was looking for a stone. Local farmers would come and offer her theirs, telling her about candidates they’d just noticed, wanting to sail a fragment of their small part of the world to Venice; but also, they often didn’t notice these stones until an artist came around looking for one. This reminds me of a Wittgenstein quote I found printed out and nailed to a woodshed by the meadow yesterday, “The aspects of things that are most important to us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity”; also of how the dying step out of their houses and are blown away by the beauty of the light in the edge of the clouds, the trembling of the leaves on the trees. I have been reading lots of accounts of what it’s like to know you’re going to die, on Quora. But none of these rocks were right for Marianne.
Three weeks into the search, one bright day, with her lover sat off to one side, bored, leafing through Vogue, Marianne found what she’d been looking for: a round, 17-tonne boulder delivered from the mountain on an avalanche. She held and kissed the stone, just once, transmuting it into art. Queen Sonja of Norway came to visit and Marianne and her clambered on top of it and had their photo taken together. Then it was brought to Venice, to the Lido, and on the red carpet for Eyes Wide Shut, which opened the festival that year, as he dallied arm-in-arm with Nicole Kidman, Tom Cruise kept, Marianne says, looking off to one side, confused or unsettled by the presence of the giant boulder. This was just one of many disconcerting moments that couple would have to go through. The stone’s still outside the storied Hotel des Bains today, and sometimes locals gather around it for a glass or two of wine before dinner.
After breakfast in Skjolden, Marianne brings us to an old, broken boat on a rocky patch of shore. This is her latest project, Wittgenstein’s Boat. The idea came one evening when a friend called to say they were about to light a bonfire, to drink and dance around it, “You have to come now because we’re burning the wooden boat,” and right away she thought of Wittgenstein rowing across Eidsvatnet, and told her friend to stop; which he did, and dragged the wreck from the pyre on a tractor. It’s good to see art returning to its pagan origins. Although this isn’t really the great philosopher’s boat, which is lost somewhere, probably under the lake, it’s close enough, and gets along well. “All boats are the same,” Marianne says. In the afternoon we hike up to Wittgenstein’s house, where it used to be, and the valley becomes like a mirror, with the cosmos and its mysteries reflected in the still turquoise water below. Who doesn’t want to run away to a place with some peace and quiet, some fresh air and summer strawberries? To make good art, and see things clearly, says Marianne, one has to be in balance with nature; which is to suggest that post-industrial society might not just destroy the climate, but also culture, and our minds, and this may well already be happening. People, she says, are like fireflies, flying with open eyes into the fire.
DEAN KISSICK is a writer based in New York and a contributing editor for Spike. A new installment of The Downward Spiral will be published online every second (this August being an exception) Wednesday a month. Last time he wrote a love letter to Montez Press Radio.
Wittgenstein’s Boat will be presented at Frankfurter Buchmesse, for which Norway is this year’s Guest of Honour, from 16–20 October.