A Found Bergen
I was the guy walking his bicycle around and around Neumann’s Gate, bike helmet askew, occasionally glancing at a wrinkled map. Object Number 5 of the Tracks in Bergen art tour was proving difficult to find. It was mid-morning and I needed my second dose of caffeine. As five minutes turned into ten, I became more and more desperate to discover the woodprint promised in the brochure. The Tracks in Bergen project presented fourteen woodprints, each of them displayed near a neighborhood site that inspired the art.
My decision to start with object Number 5, rather than at the project’s origination near the Fløyen funicular, could be pinned to a desire to maintain my morning routine: Number 5’s location lay near my usual café. In a hurry to uphold my much-repeated schedule, I had neglected to read the brochure carefully, and so hadn’t noticed Number 5’s title or exact street address. I was completely ignorant of the pictogram’s color, size, or neighborhood muse. As my frustration peaked, I realized that the problem was mine to fix. I needed a new plan of attack.
So I pocketed the map, tweaked my perspective, and began to consider what the artists might have found intriguing in this one-block square. The two visual artists, Simona Soare and Annett Fay, both from Berlin, completed the project during a feverish month-long session while visiting Bergen as part of a Goethe-Institute Norwegian grant. Foreigners like me, Soare and Fay chose objects that held aesthetic significance, objects that helped define neighborhoods and the people who lived and worked there – objects that did not necessarily include the city’s more famous cultural and historical icons. The Bergen cinema, and across the street, the Bergen swimming pool, might be common landmarks on Neumann’s Gate, but a foreign artist: what object would she deem interesting and powerful?
When I did this, when I ignored the provincial guidelines – Bryggen! Haakon’s Hall! Dyvekegangen! Ole Bull statue! – I saw what I hadn’t seen before. A large red bow tie adorning Café Opera; an intricate wrought iron fire escape reaching up a stone apartment house; a florist-like display of candy canes and lollipops luring passers-by in a candy store window. I noticed how a construction worker’s reflective yellow suit clashed with the rose-colored wrapping that covered a four-story scaffold. A threesome of mothers sat on a bench and rocked their babies’ blanketed strollers in a subtle rhythm. These images would never make a tour guide’s itinerary, but they were important when outlining a neighborhood narrative.
I failed to find the woodcut over the next twenty minutes. But – sans cortado! – my senses had been sharpened, and I had collected images that helped better define Bergen. Certainly the artists would be pleased, even with my inability to locate either the found object or their art.
With my usual routine wonderfully shattered, I decided to try a new café: the Retro Café, a coffeehouse adjacent to a permanently-parked blue bus in the Nordnes neighborhood. The old bus, I remembered from the artists’ blog, was included in the Tracks in Bergen project. But, it turned out that the blue bus would not be my first woodcut find. For as I opened the door to the café, I saw in the window a beautiful square woodcut: the blond etching of an open-armed, antique coffee carafe against a coal-black background. The artists had found the café worthy of including in the project. It didn’t feel earned – the discovery had been a surprise gift – but, regardless, I felt triumphant in locating my first woodprint.
And then another surprise. After studying the project brochure more carefully, I read that the candy store window that had impressed me on Neumann’s Gate had been Soare and Fay’s selection for object Number 5. The conversation I had relished with the pedestrian square had now expanded to include the artists themselves. They had found value in what I had valued. And how many others, local and tourist, had also noticed the bright, sweet colors in the store window? The world suddenly felt more tightly interwoven.
I spent another two hours in the Nordnes neighborhood, locating a half-dozen more found objects, as well as their respective woodcuts. The project refers to these woodcuts as pictogram plates. It’s an intriguing designation, as it spurs a comparison to ancient stone artists recording reflections and stories. Those old pictograms have aged with time and weather – moss and fractures and chips altering the images – but the core visions, their stories, continue to enlighten. Just as those aged inspirations have been altered, the objects in the Tracks in Bergen project have also evolved. In fact, at the time of my visit, the woodcuts had been exposed to the elements – and in Bergen, the elements are quite vicious – for nearly a month. It’s another charm of the project: the reminder that the woodcuts, like the found objects themselves – as well as the city, and us, for that matter – are all continually in flux, precarious and precious.
Each pictogram plate I discovered in Nordnes reinforced the joy – creative, physical, social – I had felt on Neumann’s Gate and at the Retro Café. My tour took me over steep, curving cobble streets; snaked me through miniature neighborhood parks where I crossed paths with slumbering cats and ski pole-tapping older women; and introduced me to “The Drummer,” a bronze statue recently adorned with a bouquet of red roses – a testament to the city’s admiration of their Buekorps.
Fourteen objects, fourteen pictogram plates. It took me two half-days to finish the tour. Others, I’m sure, if pressed for time, could spend a relaxed hour or two visiting the project. But, for me, the experience inspired wandering and pondering; I was often lured into taking drifting, unknown routes. During my walks, I was introduced to dozens of Bergen’s characters: unique landmarks, people and animals, plus a dense cityscape of angles, colors, shapes and textures. Most of the project’s locations and objects were less than obvious. The artists documented a wayward dragon, a Lego fish, a ballerina dress and an outdoor basketball court. Easy to overlook, these were objects that both locals and visitors would find fascinating, objects that had not been reproduced thousands of times.
One more image from that first morning while I sat in the Retro Café. A thin-faced woman wearing a slick black rain hat, sitting, along with twenty or so other tourists, inside an open-air tour bus. As the bus passed, I watched the woman hold onto the bus window’s frame; her neck twisted and her eyes twitched as she attempted to locate some unidentifiable object before the bus took her away. Her expression presented a disturbing tandem of emotions: desperate longing and anticipated regret. I should have run out to the bus with a Tracks in Bergen brochure in hand. I’m confident the tour would have quelled some of her anxiety. She appeared to be the type of person who, like me, is in search of a conversation, a story – a tale to take home that is intimate, unique and honest.