In Abandoned Factories and Red Barns, a Capital of Culture
Vestfossen Cellulose Paper Factory declared bankruptcy in 1967 and was closed for good by 1973. The town of Vestfossen was hit hard by the industrial crisis around this time, when petroleum had just been discovered off Norway's coast and was pumped straight into the economy - washing out almost all other industry in its gush. Vestfossen lost its identity when this and other factories closed... but found a new one when they reopened. In 2003, Vestfossen Cellulose was rebirthed as Vestfossen Kunstlaboritorium. Other art spaces soon followed and the small town is now an unlikely art lover's mecca, a cultural capital in the middle of nowhere.
The town's industrial space being turned into art space isn't what's so surprising. Artists have been drawn to the high ceilings, huge windows and low-to-no rental cost of abandoned factories for decades, all around the world. It's just so wonderfully random that it happened here. Approaching Vestfossen, you'd be shocked that it was ever an industrial town. Idyllic farmland stretches in every direction. We were surprised to find a real center at all, a main street with two grocery chains, a pub, a restaurant, a caffe and bakery - and posters publicizing the newest exhibitions around town. Above is an installation piece called "Hay Harvesting Contraption." That's not true. It's just a rake, but once art is on the mind, it's hard to not see everything as a work of it.
Vestfossen Kunstlaboritorium (Art Laboratory) is currently showing pieces from Jack Helgesen's collection. A number of his other pieces made up the very first show at the Laboratory in 2003, two years after artist Morten Viskum (best known for replacing olives with newborn rats in jars on grocery store shelves across Norway - the Rat/Olive Project) bought the old factory. It was a big get for the new museum, as Helgesen's collection brought internationally renowned artists' work to the little village of Vestfossen. Around Norway, the Laboratory is now considered one of the very best spaces for showing contemporary art in the country. It's really hard to beat a four floor space like this.
When we asked a local how many visitors they get and if they'd ever thought about having a hotel here so that more people would maybe come, she looked at us a little blankly. Then, she realized what we meant. "It is really more for locals. To raise the quality of life." We'd just assumed they'd want more tourism. Who doesn't? Well, this is Norway, home of the 3rd highest GDP per capita in the world. It is one of the world's most expensive countries, but Norwegians earn such high wages that their actual cost of living translates to one of the world's lowest. They're doing that well. So, while farming communities in, say, America may bring in a traveling theater group or show some local artist's work on the walls of the post office to bring a sense of culture to their village, Vestfossen's borrows a Roy Lichtenstein.
In a lot of ways, collector Helgesen's story is very much like Vestfossen's itself. He was an elevator repair man by trade, who collected art as a passion-driven hobby. When Norway's petroleum boom began, he found himself with more disposable income than he knew what to do with. "A lot of Norwegians
did," the woman at the Art Laboratory told us. "Villages that were more... the poorer jobs, when we were a colony... all of a sudden, people's quality of life was great." 'Quality of life' is a phrase we've heard used a lot here in Vestfossen. The fact that they consider art such a vital part of that is what makes the place so special.
Fredfoss Kulturpark opened around the same time as the Kunstlaboritorium. Formerly Fredfoss Uldvarefabrik - a textile factory - it boomed in the early 20th century, recessed, had a World War II spike in business and then shuttered when all the rest of the factories did. Its closing left nearly 200 workers unemployed. It has more than made it up to the community ever since. The Cultural Center has an art therapy workshop open to anyone who would like to work through mental troubles through art. It also rents out studio space to nearly a dozen artists in residence. We visited a woodworker named Lars, who crafts beautiful guitars and custom frames from local wood. "I prefer Norwegian wood," Lars said. "It is important to use what you have."
One can only imagine that when these big factories were built they were seen as blights on the scenery. Sure, job creating piles of brick, but piles of brick blocking out views of the beautiful Vestfosselva river and surrounding countryside nonetheless. Reusing them, revitalizing the space that they take up, makes the buildings themselves kind of like
found art. "Did the Laboratory start a trend? Did it attract artists to the area and then that's why more sprung up?" Again, the answer we received was humble and matter of fact. "We just saw that we had these buildings - and we had to do something with them." Use what you have.
What Joran Tone Gjerde had was a family farm, inherited from her father who housed his animals in this red barn. "I am not in farming, so I did this," she told us, while crouching barefoot next to a television with a live goldfish inside. We crawled over the knitwear covered floor to meet her. You see, what Joran has done is
turn the big red barn into "Sanselåven," Sense Barn, an interactive art exhibition space that allows children (little ones and big, awkward ones) to explore all their senses. The current installation was brought over from Denmark - a four room world of whimsy that involves such textural wonders as a ceiling completely covered in open umbrellas and a freezer filled with books. It was as magical as everything else in Vestfossen. Ripe with imagination, fanciful purpose and the notion that everyone deserves art.