Stendhal Syndrome along the Norwegian Tourist Routes
05.21.2011, 2:33 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Grunnfør, Rest house for cyclists, Architect: 70° Nord – Gisle Løkken

Only two images exist from our drive that night. One was taken early in the journey. It is an image of a snowy peak looming over a wet reflective road leading into a tunnel that passes through the mountainous wall of rock in the distance. The other, taken hours later, is of a sharp and tilting stone form. In the space between the taking of these images, we had fallen into silence and found ourselves unable to speak.

Highway E10, Lofoten Norway and Olstinden peak in Hamnøy harbor in the early morning hours of May 5, 2011

We had been traveling since 7 a.m. and it was now 9:30 p.m.  The light was surprisingly even as we disembarked from the boat in Svolvær.  We were now at 68° N , 2° above the arctic circle on the archipelago of Lofoten, Norway.  Here, a grade of light that usually passes in 10-15 minutes at sunrise or sunset will hang on for hours, transitioning into darker hues at a rate barely perceptible to the human eye.

When we told the Avis rental car employee that we thought we had a two hour drive ahead of us, he simply answered back, “well, it’s 122 km.”  We thought, “yes, just less than two hours then, and it will still be light out when we arrive.”

We were heading for Å, the last town at the end of the road on this remote island chain off of northern Norway.  What we experienced along our drive can be explained at least partially by the mix of bodily sensations and mental states that we arrived with:  jet lag, general disorientation, traveler’s glee, and the still vivid reality that just days before we had actually walked inside the eruptive crack between two continental tectonic plates.

But what we cannot account for is the mounting tension and sense of foreboding that overtook us during this drive.  During the three and a half hours it took to cover 122 km, something portentous engulfed us.  We seemed to be traveling in something other than space and time.  Even as we grew more exhausted, we felt ourselves becoming ever more implicated in—more drawn out, into and across—our surroundings.  The outside and inside of the car blurred as rain began to fall.  Rock faces darkened and moved closer to the road’s edge.  The sea beside the road grew more immediately present.  The only two photos we took were afterthoughts, anomalous moments when we felt capable of actually reaching for the camera. During most of the drive, we had lost ability to act or understand our feelings or our situation with any distance or perspective.

The road narrowed from two lanes to scarcely one.  Our driving surface became a thin and fragile ribbon that curved with the contours of the fjords and lifted us towards the low fog-clouds when we crossed the multitude of one-lane bridges.  At each bridge only one car was allowed to cross at a time.  We sat anxiously at our end, unable to see who or what might be cresting the arch of the bridge, until a glowing traffic light signaled apparently safe passage by silently changing from red, to yellow to green.

Despite the light of the near midnight sun, it was late and getting later.  We passed only a handful of cars and many road signs whose Norwegian we couldn’t decipher.  The longer we drove, the more it seemed that our small car was being pressed against impenetrable vertical walls of black wet stone.  On the mountain-side of the road, the formations rose immediately from the pavement to their 3000′ heights, where, instead of sloping away from us to form a peak, they actually curved forward to loom over the road and our heads.  On the fjord-side of the road, an even-toned twilight descended into and became the lapping sea water.

After two hours, guard rails and reflectors disappeared.  Agility driving became the primary task as the wet road could be distinguished from the foggy dusk by a few shades of gray.  We passed through tunnel after tunnel—long channels blasted through mountains and the raw rock left exposed.  Descent into these kilometers-long tunnels conjured visions of entering Onkalo.  When some plunged downward—we realized we were driving under fjords of the arctic Norwegian Sea.

Twilight developed into near-night outside the window, but somehow we were able to sense color in the water on the fjord side of the car.  Along our peripheral vision, our retinas managed to pick up a faint, glowing turquoise color from inside the waves.

By now, we could have been easily convinced that something unknown to us had happened—and that the drive had become, literally, endless. Fishing village after fishing village continued to appear around each turn—even after we were certain that next one would be Å, our destination. We were heading directly into the area Edgar Allen Poe dramatized in A Descent into the Maelstrom (1841). The further we drove, the more impossible a return seemed.

Later, in the full light of the day, we disclosed thoughts to each other about the drive and the process of arrival to Å.  We realized that something profound had happened to each of us, and that we had been unable to speak about it while it was happening.  We used words like “menacing beauty” and “sense of peril” to describe feelings that had sent us into a deep silence as, separately, we lived out the situation.

One of us had been reminded of our first trip to Walter DeMaria’s Lightning Field in New Mexico. There, the work of art had spontaneously transformed into a malevolent array of organized confinement. The piece appeared as a closed loop of piercing steel, referring only to itself—a tight grid of calculated, inward turnings. Yet after several hours of walking around and through the site, the work opened and became an experience of the process of arrival and place.  In the morning’s light, DeMaria’s piece seemed to vanish into the magnificent air, light, soil and solitude of the remote high desert.  That was the moment we realized we had truly “arrived” there and that the piece had actually afforded this process.

The next morning at Å, even when inside our cabin, we could “feel” the mountains outside. We had the sense that we were in the presence of something very, very old.  Something that had spanned time vaster than we had ever come in direct contact with.  How else could these mountains, which were much smaller than peaks we had traveled through in the United States, such as the Sierra Nevadas, exude the commanding force that had seeped into our car?  What monumental events and spans of time had they endured?

After several days, we found language for these sensations. We invented terms such as “latitude sickness.” We also found ourselves googling Stendhal Syndrome, the “disease” that plagues art lovers, causing them to sweat, faint, weep, vomit, experience vertigo, heart palpitations or even collapse in front of paintings (most commonly in front of Italian works of art).  Stendhal syndrome was coined in the early 1800s by Graziella Magherini, the head of a department of psychiatry.  She proposed that the syndrome be considered a medical affliction.  As visual studies scholar James Elkins details in his book, Pictures and Tears: A history of people who have cried in front of Paintings, Stendhal himself described his dizzying experience in Italy in the following words, “I was in a sort of ecstasy… I had arrived at that emotional point where one meets the celestial sensations given by the fine arts and by passionate sentiments. I had heart palpitations leaving Santa Croce—what they call ‘nerves’ in Berlin—and the life was nearly drained out of me.”

Another of Magherini’s patients, Kamil, a young man from Czechoslovakia, explained his experience this way:  “I couldn’t move, I was stretched out on the ground, and I felt as if I were leaving my body… as if I were leaking out of myself like a liquid.”

After further research, we learned that the syndrome also can be induced by exposure to extreme beauty not only in art, but nature. People have reported feeling inexplicable sensations and an intense disarming, as one physically endures even while being overcome by “exposure.”

We weren’t surprised, but reassured, when we learned that the mountains in Lofoten are 3.5 billion years old.  This rock is some of the oldest on earth.  The peaks seem to have been hardened and deepened by incredible spans of time, and by forces that extend into distant, pre-human histories.  More recently, they have been scoured by the last ice age and sculpted into menacing towers of teeth and pinnacle.

Despite the apprehension we experienced during our drive, we came to describe our feelings as a non-personal terror in the face of a spectral force.  We sensed our exposure to this place’s raw materiality directly, yet the force was everywhere.  It did not single us out.  In fact, it seemed terribly indifferent to our existence.

We were in Lofoten for several days.  We learned more about what might have contributed to our involuntary emotional and cognitive responses during that first night.  The landscape of this archipelago is far from static.  It has been highly engineered to allow humans to drive over, through, under and along its sharp edges.  A thin strip of the landscape has been designed to be “moved through.”  We’ve come to think that this motion—the act of passing through and between so much force and discontinuity—contributed to the intensity of our experience. Perhaps if we had merely gotten off the boat, stood still, and taken in Lofoten as a pictorial landscape, we might have felt less exposed to its edges and walls.  Yet, our reason for coming to this archipelago had been to traverse it.

In 2009, we saw the exhibition, Detour, at Parsons School of Design.  This show had been the catalyst for our trip to Lofoten, and for our desire to experience it by driving its section of the Norwegian Tourist Route.

While Lofoten never lost its “charge,” we adjusted to this place and learned to navigate its twisting roads with a sense of play, responsiveness, and joy.  We began to experience the road as a medium that afforded our need to adjust the processes of navigation, exposure, and pause.

Architects, artists, landscape designers, and Norway’s state officials have worked to create an aesthetic context for navigating the Lofoten archipelago. They have collaborated to build and maintain roads, infrastructures, and resting and viewing sites for visitors like us.

Along the Lofoten National Tourist Route, several stops have been designed to encourage humans to get out of their cars and into the landscape. Some stops are stocked with conveniences such a bathrooms or information booths.  Some are picnic spots or short walking trails that afford incredibly expansive views.  Some draw you into the landscape, down to the water’s edge or to bird watching apertures. Some, such as the rest house for cyclists in Grunnfør, simply afford a pause to exhale in a shelter that, at the same time, does not deny the forces that continuously compose the place.

As literary critic Janike Kampevold Larsen has written of the Lofoten Route in the Detour exhibition catalogue:

“All these installations encourage a striking focus on the landscape as something through which we move, use our senses in, and not least locate ourselves in. They preserve the experiences we are all familiar with of wanting to find the right place to sit, to walk over a bit to get a better view, and not least the experience of seeking shelter from the wind and weather, or vice versa—wanting to walk towards something:  down towards the sea, across the meadow, always away from the road, towards nature, always seeking yet another level of intimacy with it over there.  These installations address one’s urge to stop the car and enter into that which we are otherwise left to watch.  They take into account the fact that we have a strong desire to be in touch with it, to do away with the distance between it and us, like we are constantly trying to do by driving, hiking, fishing, swimming, paddling or lying down in it, in grass and heather.”

What follows is a visual diary of sorts that illustrates the landscape we passed through in Lofoten.  By picking up our cameras we were able to extend ourselves in ways that allowed us to better see and understand where we were and the process of engagement we had entered:  an exquisitely extreme encounter between humans, design, art, architecture, infrastructures, and vast geologic materiality.

American artist Dan Graham’s Untitled (part Skulpturlandskap Nordland)

outside Eggum

Eggum, Rest area, Architects: Snøhetta AS

Akkarvikodden rest area,  Architect: Manthey Kula. Landscape architect: Landskapsfabrikken – Inge Dalmann

Grunnfør, Rest house for cyclists, Architect: 70° Nord – Gisle Løkken

*all images this page FOP

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