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Rendering of Jonas Dahlberg’s Memory Wound, a proposed memorial for the seventy-seven victims killed by gunman Anders Breivik in 2011.

Norway Abandons Jonas Dahlberg’s Memorial to Victims of Utøya Massacre

After years of setbacks, the Norwegian government has decided to nix Swedish artist Jonas Dahlberg’s planned memorial to the seventy-seven victims of two terror attacks, which occurred on July 22, 2011. Residents of Utøya Island, where right-wing gunman Anders Behring Breivik killed sixty-nine adolescents attending a summer camp organized by the Norwegian Labor Party, launched a campaign against Dahlberg’s project shortly after it was selected through an international competition in 2014. They claimed his tribute, Memory Wound, which would cut away a roughly 131-foot-long and eleven-foot-wide section of land from the tip of Sørbråten peninsula, which faces Utøya Island, would hurt the environment as well as the community.

Dahlberg told Theodor Ringborg in a 500 Words for artforum.com in 2014 that “wounding” nature was the concept behind the work. The idea for the memorial was inspired by a trip to the site of the tragedy, where Dahlberg was taken on a tour of the facility and grounds where the camp was held. “Inside the buildings, there was evidence of what had taken place: bullet holes in the walls and floors stained with cleaning agents,” Dahlberg said. “Outside, however, nature had healed in a way that the building couldn’t. As if nature had moved on, what had once attested and bore witness had now been covered up. Considering the site for the memorial, I thought about possibilities of doing something that wounded nature to the point that it couldn’t heal—to do something that would obstruct its inevitable self-restoration, to do something which couldn’t be undone.”

Dahlberg also proposed taking the earth that would have been removed from the peninsula and using it to create a second memorial in Oslo, where Breivik had murdered eight other people after planting a car bomb earlier that same day. While the artist’s designs were widely well-received, local residents, who called the work “a rape of nature” and “a hideous monument” to the tragic events, filed a lawsuit against the state demanding that it shut down the project.

On June 21, the state caved to pressure from the community and announced that it was canceling the memorial. It then proceeded to end its contracts with Dahlberg and Public Art Norway (KORO), which commissioned the works. Minister Jan Tore Sanner said that the government planned to move the location of the memorial to Utøyakaia, where the terrorist boarded the ferry to Utøya. “Utøyakaia is well suited for the location of a national memorial. The site is close and connected to Utøya. A memorial there will be protected from noise, have less visibility than at Sørbråten and be close to water and green surroundings,” Sanner said. “We want the memorial at Utøyakaia to be respectful and low-key. Its aim should be to honor the victims, survivors, helpers, and volunteers.”

While the government claims that relocating the site of the memorial is a reasonable compromise, Dahlberg pointed out that another art competition will not be held, and in fact, art will not be involved at all. He told Lauren Cavalli of artforum.com that “a work of art can contribute to keeping the conversation about traumatic events alive in a very specific way—at least I believe it can, and this belief guides my work. Visual art plays a special role in relation to these types of events, events that can seem nearly impossible to grasp and difficult to put into words…When the government decided that KORO should no longer be involved, they clearly demonstrated that they do not want art to play a significant role in the continued work, [which] clearly signals that they do not believe art has a role to play here at all. This is quite remarkable, not least from an international perspective.”

Jonas Dahlberg’s full statement about Norway’s controversial decision to cut art out of the process of creating memorials to honor the terror attack victims is as follows:

The government of Norway held a press conference on June 21, 2017 at which it was announced that the national memorial site at Sørbråten (a promontory on the mainland across from the island of Utøya) would be moved to Utøyakaia, the ferry pier for Utøya. Shortly after this announcement, I was notified that my contract to create the national memorials for the attacks on July 22, 2011, at both the Sørbråten site as well as the Government Quarter in Olso, would be canceled. Not only does this mean that Memory Wound will not be realized, it also means that the ongoing work on the memorial in the Government Quarter has ended – a project that I have be involved with via KORO since September 2016, in close dialogue with the affected parties as well as the departments of culture and local government. In the press statement, Minister of Local Government Jan Tore Sanner (of the Norwegian conservative political party Høyre) says that the Government Quarter project is no longer relevant given the cancellation of the memorial by Sørbråten. This, despite one of the basic conditions for the ongoing work with the memorials in the Government Quarter was that it should not be dependent on the result of the judicial process surrounding the memorial by Sørbråten, as was also made public by KORO on September 21, 2016.

In the press release Jan Tore Sanner further states that the new memorial at Utøyakaia shall be “lævmelt”, or “respectful and low-key.” What does this mean? I believe that the purpose of a national memorial is to honor those who lost their lives by insisting on a continued common dialogue about the events in question. I also believe that the conversation in itself, even if occasionally unpleasant, is what will work to process the trauma in the long term. I agree that such a conversation should ideally be “respectful and low-key.” That has not always been the case over the course of this process, but is this really due to my form of expression – because of the art, as the government suggests? Is there not also a political responsibility?

A work of art can contribute to keeping the conversation about traumatic events alive in a very specific way – at least I believe it can, and this belief guides my work. Visual art plays a special role in relation to these types of events, events that can seem nearly impossible to grasp and difficult to put into words. I do not mean to imply that art can replace other ways of relating, to the contrary, journalistic, scientific, and religious approaches are also very much needed here. What I mean is that art fills a different function, less dependent on language, than the others, but no less important. When the government decided that KORO should no longer be involved, they clearly demonstrated that they do not want art to play a significant role in the continued work. The most important thing here is not that the government is halting the work on the particular memorials that I have been entrusted with, but that the government so clearly signals that they do not believe art has a role to play here at all. This is quite remarkable, not least from an international perspective.

I am convinced that the ongoing debate surrounding the memorials near Utøya and in Oslo’s government quarter is an important part of the grieving process that a society and its individual citizens go through. Time and how one relates to this time, is of the essence in this regard. Most comparable memorials installed around the world have taken longer to complete than the six years that have passed since the events in Norway in 2011 and have been similarly marked by difficult conversations. Creating optimal conditions for this conversation, leading it mindfully, should be the government's task. That responsibility can't fall to anyone else – certainly not to the families of the deceased, or a youth organization.

I am very grateful that families and survivors trusted me with choosing the proposal for a memorial four years ago. And I sincerely hope that this statement will not cause them further upheaval, but rather contribute to the conversation - a respectful and dignified, and at least a relatively “low-key” conversation.

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