Remote possibilities in Vardø
The island town on the outermost point of Finnmark has a deceptively complex life
The Norwegian American
Almost half of Norway lies above the Arctic Circle. But it cannot be said that that same portion of Norway is, technically speaking, “Arctic.” That honor belongs to places on earth that consistently experience an Arctic climate over time. The central metric is temperature: in an Arctic climate, the average temperature of the warmest month must be below 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
One of the very few places in mainland Norway that has such a climate, and so can rightly be called Arctic, is the town of Vardø, an island town just off the easternmost tip of Finnmark’s Varanger peninsula—arguably the outermost point in Norway.
Vardø is, in many ways, extremely remote. It hangs over Russian territory, which lies just over 40 miles due south across the Varangerfjord. In terms of latitude, Vardø is farther east than Istanbul (though to be fair, the curvature of the Earth collapses horizontal distances toward the poles). Among nations traditionally associated with Western Europe, only Finland’s Lake Virmajärvi lies farther east. The Barents Sea surrounds Vardø to the north, east, and south.
It is easy, then, to imagine this small Norwegian island community as a place out of touch with the complex geopolitics that influence the rest of the world. A glance at Vardø on a map would surely confirm the sense of its isolation.
But Vardø’s position—both because of its perceived remoteness and because of its position “over” the only Arctic border between NATO and non-NATO countries—has, in fact, imbued the town with a complex, fascinating, and surprisingly long history, by turns bleak and vibrant, horrific and uplifting.
To begin with, some readers will already be familiar with Vardø due to its place as the third to last stop on Hurtigruten’s northbound route: a ship traveling the coast toward Kirkenes must pass Vardø, and thus, twice daily, the island receives a boatload of travelers.
Its location at the tip of the Varanger Peninsula was also strategic for the same reason: it is well-positioned to see ships approaching from many angles in the Barents. So it’s no surprise that the island is home to Vardøhus Fortress, dating back to 1306 (the current location dates to the 15th century). The fortress was mainly used as an outpost to where trade and boundary disputes with the Karelian people or the Hanseatic League could be settled, mostly concerning stockfish.
And fish, indeed, was long Vardø’s lifeblood. Well into the 20th century, the town enjoyed a vibrant fishing culture. But since then, as various factors, from industrial overfishing to climate change to pollution, have degraded the fishing industry, the town has lost a good share of its population and suffered economic depression.
Yet, while the fisheries have changed, Vardø’s strategic geopolitical value has not. A visitor to the island can’t miss the enormous white orb that looms over the town—more conspicuous even than Vardø Church’s distinct modern triangular steeple—among the old fishing warehouses and spare, traditional Scandinavian homes.
The orb is the Globus II radar station, administered by the Norwegian Intelligence Service. But given its proximity to Russia, it is somewhat more than rumored to be an important component of the United States’ ballistic missile detection network, among other uncertain functions. Nominally, the Globus II station is meant to track “space junk.”
When I visited Vardø in 2016, the locals referred to Globus II as “the gift from the Americans,” and not altogether affectionately.
Further back in history, Vardø was also the site of an older kind of social control. From 1601 to 1692 (mostly between 1621 and 1663), decades before the Puritans in America tried and executed 19 suspected witches in Salem, 91 people were sentenced to death for witchcraft in Finnmark, mostly by burning at the stake and mostly in Vardø.
From 1570 until 1695, over 300 people were executed for the crime of “trolldom” throughout Norway.
Arctic art revival
Indeed, Vardø has a bleak and sometimes dark history—a history that, in some ways, follows it into the present as the livelihood of its fishing communities has declined significantly, with the town’s population in tow, and the vast technological movements of modernity place military radar bases on its ground but pass down little technological benefit to its people.
The twice-a-day stop-by of Hurtigruten passengers is not enough to sustain the businesses that could make a place like Vardø vibrant—restaurants, shops, artisans, theaters, or fish markets. Moreover, the Hurtigrute ships bound for Kirkenes stop in Vardø at 3:15 a.m. for just 15 minutes, while southbound passengers get one hour in the mid-afternoon before departing.
But in recent years, a powerful force has begun to shift the town’s identity and create new possibilities for its cultural selfhood: art.
A particularly moving work of public art was dedicated and opened in 2011 at Steilneset, the southwestern point of the island, called Steilneset minnested, or Steilneset Memorial. The work is a combination of architecture by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor and sculpture by the late renowned French-American sculptor Louise Bourgeios. It memorializes the 91 women and men who were burned to death in the witch trials.
The architectural component is a long, narrow hallway made of sailcloth and supported by a wood lattice. Along the inside of the hallway, which is (intentionally) not windtight, there are 91 small placards commemorating the executed and quoting from their sentencing documents, each with a tiny window and a single light bulb that remains lit 24 hours a day.
The memorial, located at the water’s edge, is free and open at all hours. It receives the sea winds, which interact with the sailcloth walls and create a somber and unsettling mood. I visited Vardø in March, when the daylight was still somewhat scarce, and went into the memorial at night, while the northern lights hung in the skies outside. It is hard to think of a better setting to reflect on the hard forces of history, and the strange possibility of hope.
Bourgeois’ artistic component of the memorial is in a foreboding cubic building next to the memorial hall. Inside, one finds a single metal chair encircled above by nine large oval mirrors suspended from the ceiling. From the middle of the chair, a flame burns upward. I’ll refrain from offering interpretations, except to say that the self-reflection the piece evokes is truly affecting.
In 2012, the year following the installation of Steilneset minnested, Vardø was again the benefactor of the spirit of public art. The Norwegian street artist Pøbel curated an international exhibition of street art by gathering artists to create highly public visual artworks throughout the town, from murals grand and minute to ornate etchings in building walls.
Some works are centrally located while others are tucked in out-of-the-way corners. Some are abstract geometrical shapes and some are word paintings with thought-provoking messages or wordplay, and some are simply beautiful scenes or comical depictions of the strangeness of life. A walk through the island, especially an unguided, meandering walk, will lead the walker to surprising insights and new curiosities. Every corner reveals a new visual thought.
One especially striking work in the middle of the town, visible from Hurtigrute ships, is the phrase “COD IS GREAT” on an old warehouse. One local told me that “Vardøværinger tror ikke på Gud, de tror på torsk”—that is, “Vardø residents don’t believe in God, they believe in cod.” A belief that for hundreds of years was enough. Still, whatever contemplations these works evoke, they bring new life to the very bones of a once-vibrant fishing town that can feel abandoned by late modernity.
I was fortunate to be one of the visitors of Vardø who got to stay longer than an afternoon hour on the Hurtigrute. I came there to visit Vardø High School and give several workshops on American culture to students. I expected an easy hotel booking, given the remoteness of the place, but when I tried to make a reservation, all the hotels were full. Luckily, I found an open room on Airbnb.
Who would be visiting Vardø in droves in early March, when the sun still sets around 4 p.m. and the north wind off the Barents still has an unforgiving bite? As fate would have it, I arrived in Vardø on the opening day of Yukigassen, the international snowball-fight tournament started in Japan. Teams of snowball-throwers from Japan, Norway, Russia, and Finland found their way to a remote fishing village on the outermost edge of Norway to battle it out in perhaps the oldest and most inviolable of winter activities.
Vardø may be down, but it’s far from out.
This article originally appeared in the March 6, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.