The Damned, The Possessed and The Beloved (Vardo, Norway)

Norwegian Town Honors Centuries-Old Victims of ‘Witch’ Killings

It may be too little too late, but there is tremendous symbolism and educational importance in recognizing, and atoning for, the baseless killing of dozens of innocent people. That is why the small town of Vardø, once known as ‘the witch capital of Norway’, has commemorated those loss with an intriguing and beautiful monument.

The Daily Beast provides a background to this atrocity, which was part of a continent-wide campaign that claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people.

Four hundred years ago, Vardø embarked on a crusade to rid itself of witchcraft. For more than a century—between 1593 and 1692—there were more than 140 witch trials in the small village.

At least 91 people, both men and women, were found guilty of sorcery and burned at the stake or tortured to death.

The number may not be as large as elsewhere in Europe, but in northern Norway’s sparsely populated landscape it touched a disproportionately large chunk of the population.

About a third of these trials were specifically targeting Norway’s indigenous Sami population who arose suspicion by practicing traditional healing rituals.

The killings came in spates—one in the 1620s and another in the early 1660s, when 20 of the 30 people were put on trial were killed.

The proceedings were meticulously recorded, giving modern historians insight into the accusations and reasonings that fueled the witch hunt.

As in most other instances of persecution against alleged witches, a combination of ignorance, fear, desperate circumstances, and sometimes even politics were contributing factors. Daily Beast provides more context to the case of Vardø:

Testimony from the time revealed that witchcraft was believed to be something one consumed—it came in the form of magically tainted milk, bread, or beer.

According to an article by historian Rune Blix Hagen at the Arctic University of Norway, the sudden spate of sorcery accusations came after a particularly brutal Christmas storm that killed 40 fishermen in the early 1600s.

It took three years for legislation that allowed mass prosecution on suspicion of witchcraft, but with that go-ahead, Vardø prosecuted with fervor.

When a woman arrived in the court and described how witches had tied knots and cast spells that caused the wrecks she was swiftly tossed to sea. When she floated, she was dubbed a witch and killed.

That year, in 1621, many more women followed in her ghostly wake after being accused and found guilty of sorcery. Many were burned at the stake, others were tortured to death.

The geographical remoteness may have had been related to the vengeance with which witches were persecuted in northern Norway.

According to historian Liv Helene Willumsen, speaking with Deutsche Welle, there was an theory “that evilness could be found in the north and that even the entrance to hell was in the north. There was an idea in Europe that in the north people might be more inclined to witchcraft and evilness than other places”.

I can scarcely imagine how horrifying life must have been at this time; to live in an environment so fearful and miserable that even a small, close-knit community can tear itself apart with cruel hysterics. Norway, and indeed much of Europe, have come a long way from those times.

In 2011, these victims were granted official recognition. The Steilneset Memorial was unveiled by Norway’s queen on the same spot thought to be the execution site of the 91 so-called witches.

It was built as a collaboration between two world famous artists: Swiss architect Peter Zumthor and French-American artist Louise Bourgeois.

Zumthor’s “Memory Hall” is starkly simple: a long cross-hatched frame containing a corridor filled 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.

Zumthor described their creative process to ArtInfo magazine: “[T]he 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].”

Next to the hallway is Bourgeois’ piece: a black glass box with a constantly burning chair in the middle. Above it, three mirrors reflect the fire. She gave her contribution a fittingly dramatic title: “The Damned, The Possessed and The Beloved.”

Wikipedia provide a more detailed description of this cleverly designed memorial. It is clearly designed to do more than inform and commemorate; one cannot help but feel reflective and contemplative.

The Memorial comprises two separate buildings: a 410-foot-long wooden structure framing a fabric cocoon that contains Zumthor’s installation; and a square smoked glass room, its roof 39 feet on each side, that contains the work of Bourgeois. Zumthor’s structure is made from wooden frames, fabricated off-site and assembled to create sixty bays in a long line within which, suspended by cable-stays, is a coated fibreglass membrane that tapers at each end. Inside is a timber walkway, 328 feet long but just five feet wide, and along the narrow corridor are 91 randomly placed small windows representing those executed, each one accompanied by an explanatory text based on original sources. Through each window can be seen a single lightbulb, intended to evoke “the lamps in the small curtainless windows of the houses” of the region.

The building that houses Bourgeois’ installation stands in stark contrast to its companion. Its square structure is fabricated from weathering steel and 17 panes of tinted glass, forming walls that stop short of the ceiling and floor. Inside, Bourgeois has set a metal chair with flames projecting through its seat. This is reflected “in seven oval mirrors placed on metal columns in a ring around the fiery seat, like judges circling the condemned.” Writer Donna Wheeler, reflecting on Bourgeois’ sculpture with its fire burning within the solitary chair, observed: “The perpetual flame – that old chestnut of commemoration and reflection – here is devoid of any redemptive quality, illuminating only its own destructive image”

Here are some photos of the full memorial, courtesy of Gessato.com. The stark yet tranquil environment offers an appropriate backdrop.

It says a lot about the people of Norway that they would honor these 91 historically-inconsequential individuals, providing future generations with a reflective and informative memorial that details each victim’s humanity.

The Forgotten Inventor of the Piano

Yesterday was the 360th birthday of Bartolomeo Cristofori, the Italian artisan generally credited with being the sole inventor of the piano in the early 18th century.

Vox.com reminds us why he remains largely forgotten despite the importance and ubqituy of the musical intrument he invented (just imagine what music would be without the piano?)

We may know so little about Cristofori because he was just a hired hand (albeit a well-respected one). As an employee of Ferdinando de’ Medici, an Italian prince and member of the famous Italian family, Cristofori was hired to serve the court, not music alone.

As an employee of the Medicis, Cristofori was a cog in a royal machine. Though he was earnestly recruited to work for the Medicis, he was initially shoved into a workspace with about 100 other artisans (he complained about how loud it was). Ferdinando de’ Medici encouraged Cristofori to innovate, but the inventor was also tasked with tuning and moving instruments, as well as restoring some old ones. Unlike musicians, who circulated royal courts and could become famous far beyond their borders, Cristofori was a local commodity. He wasn’t seen as a revolutionary genius — rather, he was a talented tinkerer.

At the same time, without the Medicis Cristofori may never have been able to invent the piano. The royal family gave him a house to work in, space to experiment, and, eventually, his own workshop and a couple of assistants. As the wealth of the Medicis declined, Cristofori did sell some pianos on his own, but he didn’t possess anything like a modern patent — other people were free to sell their own improvements on the instrument. He remained in the court until his death in 1731.

Ten Post-Soviet Films to Watch

In a previous post, I touched on the Soviet Union’s and Russia’s rich history of producing ingenious science fiction films, in both the technical and conceptual sense. That legacy lives on to this day, and not just in Russia or within this one genre. Here are ten award-winning films from across the former Soviet Union, ranging from tiny Estonia to expansive Kazakhstan.

Leviathan (Andrei Zvyagintsev, Russia, 2014)

Winner of the best screenplay award in Cannes this year, this immaculately crafted drama works on multiple levels. Superficially, it centres on a stubborn man’s refusal to sell his family home, located on a prime real estate spot near the Barents Sea. But it’s also a coolly devastating indictment of corruption that permeates every level of Russian society, from local government to the Orthodox church. Lush cinematography, top-notch acting and a propulsive pace are added bonuses.

Maidan (Sergei Loznitsa, Ukraine, 2014)

Sergei Loznitsa, a director born in Belarus but raised in the Ukraine (who now mostly lives in Germany), raced back to Kiev last December to record the extraordinary events unfolding in Independence Square, ground zero for the so-called Euromaidan wave of civil unrest that became a revolution. The result is an extraordinary, courageous work of documentary-making, austere yet emotive, which records soup distribution and riots alike with the same steady, unblinking gaze.

Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus (Madeleine Sackler, Belarus, 2013)

A bit of a cheat this one, because the director is American, but then again, they don’t make a lot of films these days in Belarus – arguably the most oppressive regime of all the former Soviet republics. Documenting the valiant efforts of an underground Minsk-based theatre company to continue making dissident plays despite arrests and police brutality, the film was made from footage smuggled out of the country at great personal risk to all involved.

Harmony Lessons (Emir Baigazin, Kazakhstan, 2013)

Kazakhstan may be the butt of jokes in Borat, but the relatively wealthy republic has one of the strongest film industries among the ex-Soviet states, and this is one of its best films of recent years. Made with formalist precision in every way, this story about a lone wolf of a boy being bullied at school evolves into a devastating dissection of crime and punishment, alienation, power and our complex relationship with animals.

In Bloom (Nana Ekvtimishvili, Georgia, 2013)

Georgia has long been a breeding ground for cinematic talent, from auteurs such as Sergei Parajanov and Otar Isseliani but there’s a new generation coming through now who show immense talent, including Nana Ekvtimishvili. Her film In Bloom, co-directed by Simon Gross, revolves around the charged relationship between two 13-year-old girls who come from very different but equally unhappy homes. The intimate drama intersects satisfyingly with its early 1990s setting.

The Light Thief (Aktan Arym Kubat, Kyrgyzstan, 2010)

Aktan Arym Kubat writes, directs and stars in this poignant, frequently humorous story about an electrician who illegally siphons off power from a local wind farm to keep everything going in his rural small town. Meanwhile, the corrupt mayor is plotting to sell the town’s land off to the Chinese. The political message is palpable but not overstated, leaving room for charming slice-of-life interludes, such as a cracking scene depicting the local horseback sport of goat-grabbing.

The Hostage (Laila Pakalnina, Latvia, 2006)

Prolific Latvian director Laila Pakalnina is an original – a natural surrealist whose quirky, humorous, highly stylised docs, shorts and features couldn’t be mistaken for the work of anyone else. Hostage is one of her more accessible, but no less peculiar efforts. It is the tale of a plane hijacker who lands in Riga, takes a young boy hostage and demands $30m (£17.9m), a CD-Rom to help them learn about Latvia and local chocolate. In its own weird way, the film is a love letter to Pakalnina’s homeland.

Before Flying Back to Earth (Arūnas Matelis, Lithuania, 2005)

Inspired by the fortitude and kindness he saw when his own child fell ill with leukaemia, director Arūnas Matelis returned to the oncology ward at the top paediatric hospital in Vilnius to record the experiences of patients and staff who confront death there every day. On paper this might sound mawkish and offputting, but it’s a remarkably unsentimental film told with a vérité matter-of-factness and an endearing lightness of touch.

Revolution of Pigs (Jaak Kilmi, Estonia, 2004)

This ebullient, youthful comedy-drama tracks a bunch of Estonian teenagers in the 1980s who plot a mini revolution at their yearly socialist summer camp, described by Variety as Meatballs meets Lindsay Anderson’s If…., with a big dollop of Soviet kitsch. It’s cracking, bawdy fun that grows progressively darker as we get to know the various characters – standard-issue teen-movie types who just want to get laid and who fear getting shipped out to the war in Afghanistan when they grow up. Plus ça change.

Koktebel (Boris Khlebnikov and Alexei Popogrebsky, Russia, 2003)

This was the first feature for both its two co-directors. They’ve both gone on to have interesting careers that built on the promise of this luminous work, which was somewhat overshadowed the year it premiered by Andrei Zvyagintsev’s similarly themed The Return. A road movie about a homeless father and son travelling on foot from Moscow to the Crimea, it’s a beautiful study of parent-child dynamics that recalls Terrence Malick in its painterly elegance.

Source: The Guardian

Seven Soviet Sci-Fi Films To See

Russia and Soviet filmmakers have long been among the innovative and pioneering in the world, producing groundbreaking advances in cinematography, editing, film theory, and more. So perhaps it is no surprise that the combination of its cinematic prowess with its equally accomplished scientific vision would lead to some amazing films

From developing the genre of mockumentaries, to inspiring Star Wars, here are seven Soviet-era science fiction films you should consider watching (Courtesy of The Guardianwhere you can see the video clips and image stills).

Aelita (1924)
Dir: Yakov Protazanov

Based on Tolstoy’s novel of the same name, Aelita is considered a classic not only of Soviet filmmaking, but of world cinema. It tells the story of an engineer, Los, who creates a spacecraft capable of flying to Mars.

Los sets out for the Red Planet in the company of Gusev, a Red Army soldier, and a sleuth called Kravtsov. On Mars, the trio encounters an alien humanoid civilisation. While Gusev plots a revolution, a love affair blossoms between Los and Aelita, the daughter of the Martian leader.

The novel is regarded as an original work of fiction with strong topical resonances. Alluding to the real-life rocket engine developer Iuzef Dominikovich, the book also features an ideological dimension,referencing the trans-humanist teachings of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky.

Cosmic Voyage (1935)
Dir: Vasily Zhuravlev

Initial attempts at a moon landing end in failure. A rabbit launched into space perishes en route. A second rocket, this time with a cat on board, vanishes without a trace. The third, manned by a small party of scientists, proves a success. Finally, the moon is colonised by the USSR. And on the way back, they even find the cat, long presumed dead, alive and well.

This naive Soviet pop sci-fi flick makes for impressive viewing even today, and for good reason. It is this very film that gave rise to the now standard practice of employing real-life scientists as on-set consultants (with Christopher Nolan’sInterstellar being a recent example ).

The scientific aspects of Cosmic Voyage were supervised by none other than Soviet rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who created 30 technical drawings of the spacecraft for the film.

Meteorites, The Universe, Road to the Stars, Planet of Tempests, The Moon, et al. (1947 – 1970)
Dir: Pavel Klushantsev

A fan of the Soviet documentary-meets-sci-fi genre, it was director Pavel Klushantsev who pioneered this hybrid, combining elements of pure documentary with live action fantasy .

His films juxtapose talking heads documentary and laboratory footage with carefully choreographed scenes set on alien-inhabited planets. Klushantsev’s Planet of Tempests made such an impression on US filmmakers that it ended up spawning two American adaptations. The first of these, Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet, was produced in 1965 by Roger Corman; the second, actually an adapted version of Corman’s film, was directed by Peter Bogdanovich and released in 1968 under the title Voyage to the Planet of the Prehistoric Women.

According to a story that sometimes does the rounds in film circles, George Lucas, who regarded Klushantsev as the godfather of Star Wars, desperately wanted to meet the Soviet director, but ultimately the two sci-fi pioneers never crossed paths.

Solaris (1972)
Dir: Andrey Tarkovsky

Tarkovsky’s film tells the story of Kris Kelvin, a psychologist who has travelled to the space station Solaris to evaluate whether the scientific mission being conducted there should continue. The scientists on board the station have been driven to the verge of madness, and soon Kelvin finds himself haunted by a manifestation of his beloved, who had committed suicide back on earth.

Needless to say, no overview of the Soviet sci-fi tradition would be complete without mention of Tarkovsky and his films Solaris and Stalker, both classifiable, to some extent, as science fiction. Like the rest of Tarkovsky’s filmography, these two works have received extensive analysis .Coming on the heels of the shelvedAndrei Rublev, long withheld from release by the Soviet government, Solaris enjoyed such a degree of success that Tarkovsky was effectively given carte blanche for any future projects.

American director Steven Soderbergh remade Solaris in 2002, with George Clooney as Kelvin . However, Soderbergh’s Solaris lacks the artistic and conceptual power of the original.

Pilot Pirx’s Inquest (1978)
Dir: Marek Piestrak

This joint Soviet-Polish production revolves around a mission to Saturn. A big corporation succeeds in creating humanoid robots and, paying no heed to the skeptics, decides to put them into mass production. A crew of robots and humans – headed by a captain named Pirx – is sent out into space to launch two satellites into Saturn’s rings. True to the finest traditions of the genre, things don’t go quite to plan.

Even today, this film feels contemporary – and all because its Polish director,Marek Piestrak, strived to achieve maximum realism. Costumes and models were devised on the basis of existing American and Soviet prototypes. It’s electronic soundtrack, written by progressive Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, also feels very contemporary, and was an influence on The Prodigy’s Smack My Bitch Up.

Per Astra ad Aspera (1981)
Dir: Richard Viktorov/Nikolai Viktorov

The action of this film, whose Latin title translates as Through the Thorns to the Stars, is based on a screenplay by cult Soviet sci-fi writer Kir Bulychev and is set in deep space . A reconnaissance craft – named Pushkin in homage to Russia’s greatest poet – encounters a derelict starship. Inside is a humanoid woman with the inhuman abilities of teleportation and telekinesis.

Richard Viktorov directed the original 1981 version of this film. He died soon afterwards in 1983 and Viktorov’s son, Nikolai , released a new version in 2001, having remastered the sound and special effects and shortened the running time by cutting several set pieces laced with Soviet ideology.

Hard to be God (2013)
Dir: Aleksei German Sr

On a planet mired in its own Middle Age, chaos, darkness and degradation reign. The situation is carefully monitored from Earth, and when it finally appears that a renaissance is imminent, Don Rumata Estorski is sent to the planet to investigate. He must remain a detached observer of events, but witnessing rabble-rousing and lawlessness amongst the local inhabitants, he breaks his neutrality and interferes in the process of an alien civilisation.

A Musician’s Defiance

Iraqi cellist Karim Wasfi plays music at the site of a recent car bombing in Baghdad as defiant message to terrorists.

Wasfi said that if there are problems in Iraq then bombs are not the solution.

He said: “We just want to live a decent and safe life like people in Europe and America. Bombing is not a solution for our problems”.

And, he said, terrorists will never destroy Iraq.

Wasfi said: “The Iraqi people want to live and protect their civilisation and heritage”.

“Civilisation started in Iraq and will continue and never die”.

Source: 7 Days in Dubai

A Portrait of Africa’s Largest City

Akintunde Akinleye is the only Nigerian photojournalist to have won a World Press Photo prize, in 2007. But the following slideshow, courtesy of the New York Times, shows that his prestigious award is well deserved. It presents a complex and dynamic view of the continent’s largest metropolis, the 20-million strong city of Lagos, Nigeria.

The exhibition is called “Each Passing Day” (it opened at Red Door Gallery in Lagos on April 19, the photographer’s birthday), and its title connotes the marking of time, of a steady eye bearing witness to a nation’s struggle for political stability while it endures the growing pains of rapid urbanization. The work is even more poignant when you consider that Mr. Akinleye’s career spans a particular time in Nigeria’s postcolonial history — the country’s re-establishment of republican government in 1999, and the recent election of a former dictator as its president-elect.

“One of my missions is not just to make a career in photojournalism”, Mr. Akinleye said from his home in Lagos. “My mission is actually to do history, to put it in perspective, so that distortion can be reduced to its barest minimum”.

He was 11 when his mother gave him his first camera after she noticed he had a penchant for drawing pictures in the sand. Years later, what began as a boyhood hobby did not evolve into a full-fledged career goal until Mr. Akinleye enrolled in college. But having missed the application deadline for journalism courses, he majored in social studies instead.

“I looked at all sorts of social problems — crime, how Europe underdeveloped Africa, how the world is separated into the first, second, and third world”, he said. “This gave me a wider passage, and a very solid background for me to do journalism”.

Click the hyperlink to get a glimpse of everyday life in one of the world’s biggest communities. As Nigeria becomes a rapidly emerging economic power, its dominant city will no doubt earn increased attention as a major commercial and cultural hub (it always has the second largest film industry by production after Bollywood). There is a lot of creative potential just waiting to be unleashed.

A (Rightly) Unsettling Holocaust Memorial

Designed by architect Peter Eisenman and engineer Buro Happold, the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, officially known as the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, is intended to evoke a chaotic, cold, and uneasy atmosphere — which I feel it accomplishes quite effectively, even based on this photo by Gerd Ludwig.

Source: National Geographic

According to Eisenman himself, “The sculpture represents a supposedly ordered system that has lost touch with human reason.” One critic noted that the memorial “is able to convey the scope of the Holocaust’s horrors without stooping to sentimentality — showing how abstraction can be the most powerful tool for conveying the complexities of human emotion”.

Moreover, it stands out for lacking the symbolism that is typical of traditional memorial designs, although many have argued that the sculpture resembles a cemetery (which in any case is still an effective invocation in my opinion).

I personally could not think of a more apt approach to representing the senselessness and wanton cruelty that characterized one of history’s largest genocides. The scale of the memorial, which is better captured in the photo below, must make it a powerful experience (one that I hope to understand when I visit Berlin one of these days).

The Most Metal Thing I Have Ever Heard

According to CityLab, London almost had a “Death Pyramid” — a towering mausoleum that would have interred around 5 million residents.

In the 1820s, the architect [Thomas Wilson] proposed to build a colossal pyramid called the Metropolitan Sepulchre. Sited for Primrose Hill, today a park area in North London, the necropolis was designed to alleviate the overpopulation of London’s graveyards while adding a looming monument to mortality to the city’s skyline.

With the Metropolitan Sepulchre, Wilson envisioned a honeycomb of catacombs, each one capable of holding up to 24 coffins. The whole structure would have occupied a plot 18 acres in area; at more than 90 stories tall, it would have easily eclipsed St. Paul’s Cathedral.

While it may have been inspired by the Great Pyramid at Giza, this necropolis was meant to be a true city of the dead, not just a palace for a pharaoh. The British pyramid would have served as the final resting grounds for some 5 million Londoners had the city gone with Wilson.

As the article notes, such “vertical cemeteries” are catching on throughout the world’s fast-growing cities, from Mexico City and Paris to Mumbai and Tel Aviv. As humanity continues to urbanize like never before, perhaps we can expect more audacious necropolises bestriding our modern skyscrapers.

The Whimsical Bookwheel

The bookwheel (sometimes called a reading wheel) is a rotating bookcase that allows one person to easily read a variety of heavy books in one location. The books rotate in a manner similar to a water wheel, rather than on a flat table surface (the Chinese apparently invented the horizontal variety over a thousand years ago).

The first and most well-known bookwheel design was featured in a book by 16th century Italian engineer Agostino Ramelli (which was delightfully titled “The Various and Ingenious Machines of Captain Agostino Ramelli”). Other inventors like Nicolas Grollier de Servière proposed their own variation this concept. Interesting, while his design inspired other bookwheels, Ramelli himself never constructed his own. Below is his original illustration.

Bookwheel (Agostino Ramelli)

Ramelli’s concept was deliberately complex, utilizing all sorts of gears and mechanics previously found only in clocks; this was because he wanted to display his mathematical and engineering skill. Ramelli described his invention as a “beautiful and ingenious machine, very useful and convenient for anybody who takes pleasure in study, especially for those who are indisposed and tormented by gout [a form of inflammatory arthritis especially common among the wealthy].” However, it is disputed to what extent it was purchased for its practical purposes rather than its unusual and aesthetic properties.

In any case, the bookwheel was an early attempt to solve the new problem of managing printed works, which were emerging in greater numbers due to the rapid spread of the printing press (books back then were far larger and heavier). Thus it is considered one of the earliest “information retrieval” devices – akin to modern technologies like hypertext and e-readers – that allow readers to store and cross-reference large amounts of information.

Nowadays, the bookwheel is valued for its historical importance, decorative appeal, and symbolic significance, making the rise of mass data and media. I would certainly love one as well.

Ramelli Bookwheel

A modern-day recreation by Léa Lagasse (Photo by Stroom Den Haag).