It isn’t always pretty here. The autumn colours have gone, and the wet cold weather has arrived. The landscape has taken on a grey-brown tone, unrelieved by white. It snows, off and on, but the snow doesn’t settle, it just adds to the sludge. Driving out of Kiruna, though, there is one point of bright colour on the horizon, a glowing yellow blob standing tall against the sky. As you approach this blob it begins to look less blob-like, more spaceship-from-the-60s-like. However hard you try (and after the first few sightings, believe me, you try) you can’t stop your eyes gliding in its direction, and wondering, why?
I had to Google it. It was paid for out of the local council’s art fund, and with funds from the mine, and it was placed where it is as part of plans for the new railway line. In other words, when all is falling down around you (see, mine’s underground activities), those with the power (the council, and the mining company) and the money (the mining company) look for things to distract us from the bad news. So here it is, Oskar Aglert’s ‘Totem’, put up in August on a small hill out of town.
It looks like a kid’s toy abandoned in the landscape, not a serious work of art at all – hard to see that it has any point. However, according to the inscription beneath it represents ‘the meeting between mechanistic industry and the natural world’. One side is grey so it looks like a boulder, and the other side is bright yellow. The yellow side is a mass of pipes and grills and knobs, straight out of the rocket-building shed in Nick Park’s ‘A Grand Day Out’, or from a setting for a children’s science fiction drama.
On second thoughts, no – children’s imagination is far too sophisticated for this. Instead I should say it’s machinery straight out of ‘Esrange’, the nearby rocket-launching site, where everything was built in the ’60s and is still used, ‘because it works’. (‘Do you know why the Russians achieved so much in space?’ our guide asked us when we visited. ‘Because when the Americans were inventing a pen that could work in zero gravity, the Russians just used a pencil’.) So I suppose, in a way, it’s appropriate. There’s plenty of advanced technology in Kiruna (you do know, don’t you, that very few people actually work down the mine these days?), but mainly this is a place where people use things because they work.
Among all the pipes and knobs, when you get up close, there’s what looks like an open mouth, that still has tonsils, and deep within it is a light. Like the inside of a temple, or sacred burial place, it’s an inner sanctum, an area which can contain you, possibly swallow you up. This representation of industry isn’t a comforting one. It looks harmless on the surface, but as you get closer, it’s a bit alarming, and you don’t really know what’s inside.
At night ‘Totem’ lights up. That’s yet more light pollution to deal with. So you’re out at night, you’ve got out of town and you want to see the northern lights, and what you get on the horizon is an illuminated ‘Totem’. That’s how it is with industry; it distracts from nature.
I seem to be talking myself into this one…