1 April 1967 – 1 September 1971
FROM THE ARCHIVE
MARIUS HEYERDAHL’S GLOWING COSMIC CREATURES
Our young-hearted society is getting old! Which stories should we share, which actions were forgotten, and who should we remember from UKS’ first century? On the occasion of the jubilee celebration 100 YEARS OF CONVIVIALITY, we have invited various authors to dive into the archives and tell the stories that helped shape UKS. Our first long-read newsletter tells the tale of artist and UKS-member Marius Heyerdahl’s (1938–1979) passionate commitment to fighting environmental pollution in the 1960s and 70s and two of his most important works, Lucifer and The Last Auk, written by MA student of art history at the University of Copenhagen, Rasmus Thor Christensen.
MARIUS HEYERDAHL’S GLOWING COSMIC CREATURES
With its piercing red eyes set within a grinning cow skull, one must assume that visitors to the UKS Spring Exhibition in 1967 had a bit of a surprise the first time they laid eyes on Marius Heyerdahl’s 2.2-meter-tall sculpture Lucifer. Before the show, Heyerdahl had visited a slaughterhouse where he had acquired, in addition to the skull, a cow skeleton for the figure’s body and welded these remains together with rebar to constitute the figure’s fragile arms and legs. Like a crucifixion, Lucifer’s arms were open and in its hands were a red light and a globe-like object. A speaker is also said to have been connected to the sculpture, and reportedly the title Lucifer referred to a text (now unfortunately lost), a warning against rising levels of chemical emissions in nature, which was presented with the figure, either as sound or as print text.1 In the exhibition, Lucifer stood as the devil’s messenger and a reminder of the self-destructive behavior of humans.
Barely two years later, from 22 January to 5 February 1969, Heyerdahl darkened UKS’ exhibition space in the Anatomigården on Rådhusgata in Oslo. In the gloom behind closed curtains hung half-spheres and lightboxes embedded with colorful glass and mineral elements. Particular lighting made the works glow in their organic cores or spread ephemeral light throughout the exhibition space as prisms. The entire exhibition was accompanied by electronic music created by a French sound artist, an acquaintance of Heyerdahl.2 The experience was, according to art historian Oscar Thue, “[…] an artistic demonstration out of the ordinary.”3
The presentation was Heyerdahl’s only solo exhibition at UKS and is today largely absent from Norwegian art history and deeply buried in UKS’ archive, where it is only documented by one photograph and a few newspaper clippings and reviews. The exhibition from 1969 is a meaningful continuation of Heyerdahl’s environmental sensibility that began with Lucifer and later became characteristic of some of the artist’s most notable works, indicative of his interest in the unique light and energy that nature’s materials possess, but also in particular calling attention to pressing concerns about environmental pollution and conservation.
Heyerdahl’s preoccupation with the increasing pollution of the planet is expressed, among other places, in an interview in Norwegian newspaper VG in 1969,4 and his indignation would later turn into the comprehensive and important happening against environmental- and oil pollution Den siste alke (The Last Auk) in 1971. The auk, a bird whose breeding sites are particularly affected by oil pollution, became the symbol of Heyerdahl’s ecological sensibility and indignation. On top of an old Swedish caravan, he built a large, razor-billed auk and painted it in shiny black oil-like paint. With a speaker in its beak, the bird exclaimed high-pitched shrieks and passionate speeches by Heyerdahl about multinational companies dumping of chemicals and oil in the ocean, as a result of oil extraction in the North Sea.
The auk was shown for the first time outside Kunstnernes Hus for UKS’ 50th anniversary Spring Exhibition in 1971. Subsequently, it went on a tour of Europe where Heyerdahl, together with film photographer Jan Horne, sound assistant Lars Mørland, and local environmental protection nonprofits, organized protests against oil- and poison pollution in front of headquarters of companies who were suspected of dumping chemicals in the North Sea – gaining considerable attention in each city visited. The German environmental activist Holger Strohm was also intended to participate in the tour, but when Heyerdahl arrived in Frankfurt Strohm had, for unknown reasons, shaved half of his beard and head, and had to be omitted as his looks would potentially jeopardize the solemnity of the project. Instead, he is interviewed in the documentary about the project, S.O.S. Ocean (1971), filmed in profile so that the shaven part of his face is not visible.
The protests resulted in lively discussions and confrontations between Heyerdahl, environmental activists, locals, and company representatives. In a scene that would be unheard of today, a legal representative from the chemical and pharmaceutical corporation Bayer revealed that the corporation dumps diluted acid in the North Sea with permission from the Dutch authorities. The project might not have had any direct repercussions, but Heyerdahl was satisfied with the vast attention it drew. For him, the most important goal of the tour was to inform individuals of the scope and consequences of these issues.5 Though Heyerdahl did not just want to point fingers at corporations and authorities, but also to articulate individuals’ responsibility in these matters: “[…] we all have a responsibility to protest. But it is not enough to protest alone. We must all reevaluate our own personal habits and consumption. Only then does this film have a purpose.”6
In the final seconds of the documentary, a piercing Morse code sounds alongside images of Heyerdahl’s Lucifer, standing with its arms open on a Dutch beach with the waves surging over its slender legs. It almost appears to be surrendering, and now even more so, on the 50th anniversary of the project, when Heyerdahl’s prophecies have been realized even more violently and scarily than most could have imagined back then. Lucifer’s Morse code spells out the letters SOS, and the same letters appear in white font on a black background in the final still of the film. With a backdrop of the consequences of the climate crisis, globally rising temperatures, melting ice caps, rising sea levels, extreme weather, the biodiversity crisis, soil- and water pollution, and climate refugees, Heyerdahl and his art, his sensibility, and his message are even more important than ever to highlight. Save our souls.
1 Susanne Rajka, Eksperimentelle tendenser i norsk billedkunst i 1960-årene, Oslo University College, 2006 (1991), p.77.
2 The name of the French sound artist has not been possible to confirm. In a quote from VG in 1969, Heyerdahl explained: “I am also really into electronic music. Going to have an accompaniment of electronic music for the exhibition. The music is composed by a friend of mine in France who makes sound sculptures […] He has given me a record […] Incidentally I like electronic music as the longing for eternity in humans—a fundamental yearning—is expressed particularly well through electronic and atonal music.” Kitty Havers, “Mørklagt utstillingssal fylt med Glødende kosmiske urdyr,” Verdens Gang, 23 January 1969.
3 Oscar Thue, “Utstillinger i Oslo våren 1969,” Kunst og Kultur, vol. 53, 1970, p.60.
4 Havers: op.cit.
5 Asne Kolberg, “Svart alke mot urent hav,” Verdens Gang, 30 July 1971.
6 Heyerdahl quoted in Den siste alke, 25.58 min., Dir. Jan Horne, NRK, 1971. The project exists in two documentations: S.O.S. Ocean and Den siste alke. The two utilize the same footage but diverge in their editing, and an extra final speech by Heyerdahl is included in Den siste alke. This could imply that Heyerdahl re-edited the first version, or that the two were created for different audiences. The Den siste alke version was for example shown at the historical trans-Scandinavian exhibition The Nordic ’60s in 1990.