Bergen is dead set on ensuring its fame isnt merely for fictional noir murders by pouring huge sums into raising its global artistic profile, writes Vanessa Thorpe
Bergen, with its protected historic waterfront and romantic, low-hanging mountain mists, is quite used to being packaged for foreign consumption. Long sold as the gateway to the Norwegian fjords, the Viking port is an established stop-off for Nordic cruises and, since the recent international literary boom in Scandi-noir fiction, it also finds itself a big draw for fans of the bestselling crime genre.
Some of its surrounding geographical features have become synonymous with gruesome fictional deaths, largely thanks to the enormously successful Norwegian writer Jo Nesb. And Bergens streets, with their processions of hooded quilted jackets, zipped against the rain, now say only one thing to most modern tourists: murder.
The release this weekend of the mega-budget thriller The Snowman, a film starring Michael Fassbender and based on the seventh book in Nesbs detective saga, should really mean that the city is bracing itself for another icy blast of association with grim homicide. After all, much of The Snowman was shot on location in and around Bergen and the popular Vidden hiking trail between the Ulkriken and Floyen mountains is the scene of one of the horrific murders detailed in the book.
Yet this weekend, the people of Bergen are actually busy celebrating the advent of an entirely different cultural landmark. Their gleaming new Kunst Musikk Design (art, music and design) faculty building, which opened its doors to students four days ago, is a key part of a concerted national bid to put Bergen back on the European cultural map. The aim is to be recognised as a destination for more than just stately Saga cruise daytrippers or devotees of BBC4s hit Scandinavian dramas. Backed by Norwegian government funds, the countrys second city is pushing for renewed status as an international centre of creative excellence, able to attract students and top artists from around the world. So the founding of this 100m home for just 350 arts students at a time is a deliberately lavish strategic move.
Applicants from abroad, Frode Thorsen, the dean at KMD, promises, will be welcomed with open arms. Already about one in three of those who receive doctorates are foreigners and some are even funded. Most universities in Norway are state-owned and fairly heftily endowed. Students are supported by the kind of loans and grants that would astonish British freshers. Tuition fees are covered by the government and those studying for a PhD at Bergen University are paid employees. Whats more, much of the teaching is done in English.
Last week, Britains Turner prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller was one of the high-profile guests invited to mark the opening of the building, now formally absorbed into Bergen University. Talking to a central hall full of students and lecturers about his work, ranging from his re-enactment of the Battle of Orgreave during the miners strike to his bouncy castle Stonehenge, Deller emphasised the idea that an artist can bring their work to the public in a variety of forms. I havent really done any work that is conventional art for a long time now. Everything changed when I realised I could work with people, with communities, instead, he said.
It is a particularly appropriate message for this new building, which has been designed by the acclaimed Norwegian architects Snhetta specifically as a home for multi-displinary collaborations. The idea behind the KMD building, an amalgam of six schools previously scattered across the city, is that sculptors and ceramicists should be able to work right alongside fine artists and fabric designers. It is interactions like these, said project manager Astrid Renata Van Veen, that may spark new ways of thinking: These encounters cannot be forced by an architect, of course, but you have to create spaces where these things might happen, to find ways for students to see each other and see their work.
Indeed, the logo Deller has created for the opening celebrations shows an octopus deftly juggling several musical instruments, a paintbrush, a camera and knitting needles; a different artistic tool in each tentacle.
The first school of art was established in Bergen in 1772 and, while there is some regret about leaving the old faculty buildings in the city centre, the big investment in the new site, coupled with the multi-disciplinary dream, seems to have won over most of the teaching staff.
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