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Art versus aesthetics

Interview: Gabriel BorrudAugust 23, 2013

The Norwegian government is in the process of deciding what to do with the buildings damaged in the 2011 bomb attack in Oslo. DW spoke to Ellen Oeseth, state secretary of the environment ministry, about the debate.

Image: Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images

DW: Several buildings in downtown Oslo - where the government quarters are located - remain damaged from the bomb attack perpetrated by Anders Behring Breivik in 2011. The government is currently deciding whether to demolish or repair the structures, but this is no simple matter of cost. Two of those damaged buildings are adorned with unique murals by Spanish artist Pablo Picasso, and the buildings themselves carry an emotional significance for Norway. Can you talk about this?

Ellen Oeseth: We have in our government quarters, when it comes to the damaged buildings, a kind of a symbol of what happened two years ago in Norway. Certainly, we have the art, but that's only one piece of it. There are manifold feelings connected to the damaged buildings; among Norwegians, some think that if the buildings are torn down that it would be completing [Breivik's] enterprise. And others think the opposite: If the buildings are left standing, then this will function as a constant reminder of what happened. So there are a lot of feelings connected with this debate.

What is the stance of your ministry?

The Ministry of the Environment wants the buildings to be kept standing. But first I must emphasize that, unlike in most other countries, here in Norway our ministry is also responsible for cultural heritage. And our government acknowledges the value embedded in the buildings with works of art by Picasso, Nesjar and Sitter. You have to understand that these works of art were created during the construction of the buildings, so they are an integral part of them, meaning that they cannot be removed and will be destroyed if the buildings are demolished. We are fully aware that if these works of art are destroyed, it would attract attention internationally - and not just in Norway.

We are very engaged in preserving these values for the future. The artistic value of these works have been documented in the studies that have been carried out thus far. And securing these values for the future is the central issue in the ongoing planning for the forming of a new government quarter.

Ellen Oeseth
Ellen Oeseth is state secretary for Norway's Ministry of the EnvironmentImage: Ministerium für Umwelt Norwegen

What do these damaged buildings mean to the Norwegian people - or to the country's cultural heritage?

Well I think they carry a real significance. Perhaps most of all they function as a symbol. Norway may be a large country, but not that many people live here. Almost everybody knows somebody who was affected on that day [July 22, 2011].

The buildings themselves, at least architecturally, aren't exactly a beloved part of the capital. Some 34 percent of Norwegians are in favor of doing away with the structures on aesthetic grounds. What do you say to people who want to have these buildings torn down?

For me, it's important to take care of the value - not only national value, but internationally - that we have in the art in these buildings. We've looked into the possibility of preserving the murals despite demolishing the buildings, but it's simply not possible to do this adequately. Because the art is a part of the buildings; it's not paintings on the walls. The murals have been blasted into the concrete, so this wouldn't be possible.

If the buildings aren't demolished, how should one envision the restoration process?

Well, we're not finished with the planning. So we don't know how it will be done. And there are also very many differing opinions on how to repair the building. We, as the responsible authority for cultural heritage in Norway, are very much concerned about the art. And we want to make sure that this art isn't destroyed.

Verletzte bei Explosion in Regierungsviertel in Oslo
The explosion did severe damage to several buildings in the heart of Oslo's government quartersImage: picture-alliance/dpa

To return to the symbolic significance of the buildings, you said before that some Norwegians want to preserve the structures as a statement against what Breivik did two years ago: If this is the case, could we say that Breivik himself has become part of Norway's cultural heritage?

This is almost impossible to answer. I wouldn't say that he's part of our culture, but he is part of our history. What happened two years ago is burned into Norway's modern history. And no matter what we do with that building, it will still be part of our history. Even things that are not nice are part of our history.

It's just like with these buildings. Some people do not consider these buildings pretty - at least from the outside. But still it's very important to preserve pieces of our culture and our history, also pieces that are not nice and pretty. They are still part of our heritage.