Witch-Burning Steilneset Memorial by Peter Zumthor & Louise Bourgeois

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Images by Andrew Meredith

Swiss architect Peter Zumthor and the late French-born artist Louise Bourgeoise collaborated in the hauntingly beautiful and poetic Steilneset Memorial in Vardø, Norway, an arresting memorial to 91 people, 77 women and 14 men, who were burned at the stake here in the 17th century for the crime of witchcraft.

Sturla J. Stalsett, general secretary of the Vardø Church City Mission, pointed out during the opening ceremonies presided over by Her Majesty Queen Sonja of Norway, that the memorial is meant to remind us of the ongoing danger of collectively creating scapegoats. If historical circumstances seem peculiar now, the intent behind the work addresses larger moral claims.

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I highlight descriptions of the memorial, drafted for Architectural Record:

Visitors enter the memorial on the north by a gangplank placed perpendicularly to the elevated Zumthor structure, a 410-foot-long building within which a tensile structure of polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE)-coated fiberglass fabric is suspended on cables. Once inside, the visitors proceed along a 328-foot wood-plank catwalk about 5 feet wide. As they thread their way through the dark cocoon of the interior, visitors pass 91 windows, each dimly lit by an exposed-filament bulb. Ropelike cords from the lamps form scalloped borders at the edges of the undulating ceiling. The feeling is like being in the stomach of some prehistoric creature, half-fish, half-reptile — except there is a glimmer of light.

Owing to the high winds on the site, the glass walls stop short of the ceiling and floor and slide past each other to allow gaps for wind drafts. In the middle of the space is Bourgeois’s piece, an aluminum chair with gas flames shooting out of the seat. In this rather literal evocation, the burning chair is reflected in seven oval mirrors placed on metal columns in a ring around the fiery seat, like judges circling the condemned. If you think you’ll be too warm standing near the burning chair, don’t worry. In this blustery place, temperatures rarely rise above 51 degrees Fahrenheit.

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In the 16th and 17th centuries, witch hunts took place across Europe and in the American colonies. Researchers believe that between 40,000 and 100,000 people were killed, mostly women. It’s not easy to put these events behind us, when key supporters of more than one 2012 Republican presidential candidates are aligned with religious forces who say that Oprah is a forerunner to the anti-Christ.

Hence my putting this haunting reminder of what happens to primarily women, when God’s soldiers take over the political process, in Sensual Rebel. In seeking a theocracy for America, events like witch-burning could easily be reinvigorated on American soil. Anne

Related reading: Will Fashion Help Challenge America's Catholic Bishops?

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