Genesis, unge Olav

A sculpture connects a city to its past with vision and hope for the future

Photo courtesy of Finn Eirik Modahl
A giant youth emerges from a pool of water on St. Marie plass, a celebratory landmark called “Genesis, unge Olav” in Sarpsborg, Norway. It reaches back in time to reference the city’s founder, while acknowledging the continual evolution and redefinition that cities and nations must undergo as they face the future.

Adapted from
AMY DEMPSEY
London

Who was St. Olav? Who was he as a youth, who was he outside the myths—and who is he today? 

– Finn Eirik Modahl

Sarpsborg is Norway’s 10th largest city, with a population of 55,000. It is about an hour’s drive south of Oslo in southeastern Norway. It is also the country’s third oldest city, founded by Viking King Olav II Haraldsson (995 – July 29, 1030), who was named St. Olav, Norway’s patron saint. As King Olav was sailing up the river Glomma (the longest river in Norway) that same year, he was halted by Europe’s largest waterfall, the massive Sarpefoss. The spot became the site of his fortified capital for a number of years and, in turn, Olav and the waterfall became distinctive features in the identity of the area.

As part of Sarpsborg’s 1,000th birthday celebrations in 2016, the foundation Sparebankstiftelsen DNB commissioned a jubilee sculpture for the newly renovated St. Marie Place, a small park along St. Marie Gate, Norway’s oldest promenade, on the east side of the city. The closed competition called for an artist to create a “spectacular art project that would appeal to all ages and build on Sarpsborg’s long and interesting history, with particular emphasis on the legacy of the town’s founder, St. Olav.” 

Norwegian artist Finn Eirik Modahl (b. 1967) responded with a proposal for a giant sculpture of a young Olav emerging from a pool of water. Modahl’s “Genesis, unge Olav” (Genesis, Young Olav) was unanimously selected by the jury as the project that best captured the spirit of the competition and its aim to create a site-specific celebratory landmark sculpture that could simultaneously acknowledge the city’s past, address its present, and look to its future.

Genesis, Young Olav

Modahl’s project references and connects with its surroundings and its inhabitants, past and present. While St. Olav and water were the initial sources of inspiration for his artwork, Modahl wanted to go further and connect the history of the city with its contemporary concerns and aspirations. He explained:

“I read Sarpsborg’s early plans for municipal diversity and development and had interesting conversations about the meaning of diversity. Important ideas, such as universal inclusion, regardless of ethnicity, age, cultural background, color, creed, religion, and several other points, were important to me when I was thinking about this project for Sarpsborg and Norway. 

“I chose to draw lines back to the founding of Sarpsborg by King Olav the Holy, and to take steps to continue to evolve in the present for the future. Who was St. Olav? We know Olav from his feats, the proud Viking with a sword. But who was St. Olav as a youth, who was he outside the myths, and who is Olav today? I chose to start with a contemporary young person, a human being born in our time of great potential and ambition. The surface is mirror. It will reflect and include everybody. The artwork must invite the people living around it to be a part of it, it should be a positive marker of identity, making people proud of their town and drawing people to this part of the city to take part in a major new art experience.”

The result was an installation featuring the head and shoulders of a colossal youth arising from a round pool of water. The sculpture is made of mirrored steel and measures 16 1/2 feet high by 20 feet wide. The total height of the figure implied by a head and shoulders that size would be around 82 feet tall—a truly towering, daunting figure to encounter. The sculpture and the water reflect each other, the viewer and the surrounding city environment entwining them in an ever-changing dance of optical effects. Olav is looking down slightly, and his gaze meets the eye of a viewer standing just outside the pond; as such, the pond is an integral part of the reflecting dynamic. It also dictates where the viewer should stand, placing the viewer at an optimal distance to interact with the young Olav. The space around the installation has also been carefully considered. The square has been landscaped to provide a green and pleasant environment for the sculpture and the viewer to interact.

The figure is presented emerging from the earth, at once a part of Sarpsborg, of Norway, and a symbol of it: Olav = Norway. Elsewhere in the city is another St. Olav monument, created by Gustav Lærum (1870–1938) for the city’s 900th anniversary. While that sculpture shows Olav as a triumphant warrior king, Modahl’s Olav is a contemporary youth, no longer a child, but not quite an adult. As such, while carrying on the tradition of adorning city squares with statues of founders, leaders, and heroes, what is interesting here is that Modahl chose to depict this giant of Norwegian history and identity not as a heroic figure celebrating past achievements, but as a youth getting ready to embark on his adventures. 

Both the imagery and the title of the work convey a sense of birth, baptism, hope, and renewal. Modahl created a site-specific sculpture that reaches back in time to reference the city’s founder while acknowledging the continual evolution and redefinition that cities and nations must undergo as they face the future. Modahl’s decision to portray a contemporary youth also neatly draws in the park’s more recent past, as a park for a school, “Skoleparken.” Before the school closed and the park became neglected, it was filled with youngsters, and with Modahl’s re-imagining of the park, it is once again full of life and laughter. 

While “Genesis, unge Olav” certainly draws on the history of its site and the impact of St. Olav and water as defining features of Sarpsborg, the sculpture itself should speak to all viewers, whether or not they know anything about Olav or Sarpsborg’s history. If you are a parent, it may give cause to think about how we project our dreams onto our children, that they are where we see ourselves and our ambitions reflected and where we invest our hopes for a new, better future. Dwarfed by the sculpture, it also conveys the fact that those hopes and desires will play but a small part in whatever and whomever the child ultimately becomes. 

For a younger viewer, it can be a potent and inspiring image and viewing experience. They can see themselves reflected in, and being a part of, the young Olav, who is emerging from the water to face his future, a future which saw the Viking youth transformed into Norway’s patron saint and most famous king. Here though, he is not depicted as king or saint, but before, at the beginning, when choices had to be made and anything could happen. 

Viewing as a group of people becomes a unifying, inclusive experience—“we are all Olav.” For all, “Genesis, unge Olav” conveys the glittering power and vitality of youth and the excitement of all the possibilities inherent in each new beginning. The project is a dynamic artwork that engages with the local community and connects it with its surroundings, history, and environment. 

Dr. Amy Dempsey is an independent academic based in London. She is the author of the international bestseller Styles, Schools & Movements: An Essential Encyclopaedic Guide to Modern Art and Destination Art, both originally published by Thames & Hudson. Finn Eirik Modahl’s “Pulse Sculpture Project” in Bergen, Norway (2007) is included in Destination Art and is featured on the back cover of the book.

To learn more about “Genisis/unge Olav” and its artist, Finn Eirik Modahl, visit www.modahl.com.

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 18, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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