In the high-water mark
The title of artist Steinar Christensen’s sculpture in Skutvik in Hamarøy bears the name of an ocean star, Stella Maris. In recent years, this former professor of the National Academy of Fine Art, Oslo has used suggestive titles for his works. The meaning of the work in Skutvik is not immediately clear, although salt water often washes over the sculpture as it lies in the path of the waves. More telling perhaps, is the artist’s revelation that the hospital in Kristiansund in which he was born in 1946 was named Stella Maris as well.
Steinar Christensen lived in Skutvik for six years of his childhood, in the house where his mother was born. His father worked for the home mission, and the family was continually on the move. Today, hardly a trace remains of his north Norwegian dialect, and anyone meeting Steinar Christensen for the first time would assume he is from one of the large towns in western Norway.
When Hamarøy municipality had completed the necessary formalities, Steinar Christensen set out on his first expedition to the north in search of a site. Skutvik was a faint recollection in the artist’s memory and seemed a natural place to start his search. The Mayor headed the welcoming committee, and it was he who unlocked the door to the house where Steinar Christensen had lived long ago.
On a bench in the parlor was an old book, and Steinar Christensen picked it up and read the title page. He found his own name written there, inscribed by his father a year before Steinar was born. This experience gave him the strong sense of having come home, and provided the inspiration and desire to make what became Hamarøy’s Stella Maris.
Upon arriving in Skutvik, the Stella Maris is a five-minute walk from the nearest homes. The different sculpture elements lie scattered, seemingly haphazardly, in the path of the tide. One soon discovers that the five-point stars in marble, steel and aluminum, the iron goblet and the neck of a string instrument carved in granite have actually been situated with great care.
While there is no unambiguous interpretation of this sculpture, the symbolism is quite clear. The five-point star symbolizes the cosmos, the spiritual and the incomprehensible. The neck of the string instrument, whether from a violin or double bass, leads one’s thoughts to the man-made, to culture. Lastly, there is the goblet, a household object, with its elongated classical form evoking an architectural presence. As we examine the sculpture more closely, we note that certain parts are modeled according to classical ideals of beauty, oblivious to their assault by the harsh elements of nature.
Upon lifting our gaze toward the mountains and distant horizon, and following the constantly changing sea back to the shoreline at Skutvik, Stella Maris appears to consist of objects that merely lie on the rocks, from a distant past or even from our own time. The mind wonders: Are the objects solidly secured to the rocks, or will storm and ice eventually tear away parts of Stella Maris? What about the sealed goblet that lies above? Perhaps one day it will work its way loose and wash ashore on some distant coastline.
A sculpture lying in the path of the tide naturally varies in appearance. The neck of the string instrument and parts of the lowest stars lie more or less underwater at flood tide. During a heavy winter, the granite instrument may be all that is visible of Stella Maris, and then only at low tide. When the tide is high the entire sculpture may disappear, covered by snow, water and ice.
Stella Maris is an experience of time; of observing the constantly shifting play of nature on the work of man.
Beach Finds and Still Lifes
When Steinar Christensen came to Skutvik in order to find a site for his sculpture, he wandered the overgrown paths on Hamsun’s Hamarøy. His mother’s childhood home was there and he was familiar with the surroundings from several vacations as a boy. The path down to the water’s edge recalled early excursions on pebbled beaches searching for shells, and this reminiscence led to the artist’s decision to make the shifting boundary between sea and land a place for contemporary art. The short distance to the ferry and shuttle boat dock makes the communication center of Skutvik the very portal to Hamarøy’s enchanted nature, encouraging Christensen to seek a site within this area. In addition to being a central location, it is distinguished by the effects of tide cycles and sea transportation routes.
Time becomes inscribed as an attribute; an ongoing process that is etched into the different elements that comprise Stella Maris or Ocean Star. It is seen in the references to the ancient symbolism of the five-pointed stars and through the oxidation process of the rusty brown cortén steel comprising three sculpture parts – the goblet and two stars. The other parts are made of materials that refer to specific places in Nordland: a star in salt water resistant marine aluminum from Mosjøen, another carved out of Fauske marble and the stylized violin neck carved out of granite from the quarry in Lødingen.
However, there is no bias or chauvinistic regionalism behind the use of local materials, as Stella Maris conveys a cultural critique that also places Skutvik within a broader context. While Christensen has composed his unmarked sculpture as a kind of beach find, the encounter with the work’s spread out parts nonetheless conveys a sense of dramatic events that have ended in collapse. The sculpture has no structure that refers to a cosmic architecture; heavenly bodies in metal and stone lie as the remains of dashed celestial formations. In the chaotic constellation between pebbles, cliffs and seaweed, the stars lose their previous function as navigational signs, occult symbols and ideological emblems, yet the sculpture’s composed displacement allows for other meanings.
The five-point star – pentagram – was assigned alternately positive or negative properties in occult traditions, depending on whether they were depicted with points up or down. The upward direction of the one point of the pentagram represents the ideal human figure with outstretched arms and legs, a symbol of physical and spiritual harmony. Depicted in this manner, the five-point star was often used as a sign to ward off evil powers and in magic rituals. In the inverted position, the shape symbolized a pentagram with a satanic goat head, consistently found in witchcraft and other black magic rituals. The random placement in the landscape empties the sign of such meanings as well as its symbolic function for various political liberation movements. Symbolic content is also undermined by the use of material, which furnishes the star sign with an ancient or petrified character.
The faceted goblet, which is larger than human scale, has an old-fashioned and festive shape, but has long since hermetically sealed itself into an impenetrable source. The amputated violin neck, almost body height, evokes the mental image of tones from the past now fallen mute. In this sense, Stella Maris becomes a melancholy still life and a depressing depiction of civilization gone awry. One stands at water’s edge and wonders whether these cultural remains have washed ashore or are in the process of vanishing into a sea also destined to die. Steinar Christensen’s encounter with a forgotten childhood fairy tale has also confronted him with a sense of being in a world susceptible to events of tragic proportions.
Being just before the year 2000, it was about time we got something to attach the eyes to and something to attach to the tourists’ film.
Harald Bolsøy, shopkeeper in Skutvik. Fremover 11.08.94
Most are against, few are for.
I cannot understand why there is no hole in the top of the drinking cup. It isn’t possible to drink from it.
It’s is awfully ugly and a waste of money, and almost all the young people in Skutvik agree with us when we say so.
Tanja Aune Hellesøe and Camilla Ediassen
Quotes from Fremover 11.08.94
Still life in the low-tide
Headline in Dagbladet 12.08.94
When you search in the low-tide you do not know what you will find. You can, for example, stumble over this group of sculptures.
The artist Steinar Christensen in Fremover 11.08.94
In any case today the group of sculptures is washed up in the Skutvik low-tide.
“Where are we going to?” asks Winnie the Pooh and hurried after him. “Nowhere”, said Christopher Robin – and so they went there.