Thursday, 15 July 2010

The world outside Manchester part 3 - The Oslo to Bergen railway

The Oslo to Bergen railway links Norway's two biggest cities, a journey through nearly 8 hours of eyes-glued-to-window scenery of fjords and mountains. As the train leaves the suburbs of Oslo behind, rich green forests spread quickly over the landscape. Coming up close to the train lines, thin trunks look like sticks, as if they could be picked up and snapped in half but, as they climb up the hills, the rows of tree tops give the feathered, soft appearance of a shag pile carpet so dense that, if a giant hand was to appear and grab a handful of trees, it would be as noticeable as plucking one strand from a head of hair. The fjords are seemingly endless, beating the train into the distance, dark blue, glossy expanses with a slightly rippled sheen like fabric pulled tight.

As the train leaves the outlying towns behind, the landscape gets more and more barren, almost desert-like. It dims to khaki, with mossy, lime green rocks strewn across the floor, and the trees thin until the hills evolve into bald mounds, veined with the patterns of rock. Electricity lines swinging across the hills are the only sign of man, aside from small, scattered huts clinging to the rocks with withered Norwegian flags blowing in the breeze. The fjords become choppy, splitting into streams and waterfalls and rivers and the colour of the fjords changes as frequently as the sun goes in and out. Sometimes, the water is so clear and turquoise blue it looks as if it's been dyed the colour of animal pools at the zoo, with blue and green waves swirling at the shore, and frothing where they catch on rocks. Sheer cliff faces end in deep black water whilst others lead nowhere, stopping suddenly as if someone's roughly snapped the bottom off.

Snow starts criss-crossing the hills, appearing in primitive shapes like chalk carvings, and mountains break though puffs of cloud. In mid July, they're still snowy on top. The train rattles through long tunnels, contained by wooden snow sheds on steep ledges, gaps in the wood offering fragments of what's going on outside. The train enters into a tunnel in sunshine and, when it emerges, the sky is grey and still as if a curtain's come down and is just hanging there. At Myrdal, we're allowed out to stretch our legs and the whole air is wet and chill like it's made of raindrops.

Then, suddenly, the landscape is tame again. The water pales to dark calm green and silver. Valleys reveal rolling farmland with sheep lazing in the sun, and children wave from houses. Some passengers have slept through the whole journey, or had curtains pulled across the window — they do it on a regular basis, saying that although you can fly, by the time you've traveled to the airport it's just as cheap and easy to get the train. I don't see how it's a journey of which you can ever tire — just as dramatic as the landscape is the speed at which it changes, even just across the course of a few miles, without taking into account the seasons or even the changing qualities of light at different times of day — I'd love to see the journey again in the winter months when everything is ice and snow.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

The world outside Manchester part 2 - Copenhagen

Scott Walker is the most romantic of singers. In his songs, everything from the regret felt at the end of relationships to rainy days and elusive love affairs glanced through train windows is framed as if taking place in cinematic widescreen. Like silent movies, the accompanying string arrangements and orchestral flourishes say as much as the words, which capture memories of childhood and distant places and people. Copenhagen, from Scott 3 (his prettiest album, containing his most delicate and ephemeral compositions as well as some of the Jacques Brel covers for which he is famous) is one of his most romantic songs of all. Scott's almost perpetually lonely baritone drifts through the changing seasons in Copenhagen, remembering a love affair which he compares to 'an antique song for children's carousels' (maybe he was referring to Tivoli, the famous Victorian amusement park in central Copenhagen). He's at his most relaxed, his voice mimicking the motion of the ride, before the song takes off into an instrumental outro which swirls like a fairground ride.

It would be hard not to make Copenhagen sound romantic. Copenhagen smells of roses, literally - they grow up the side of nearly every building and up from roadside verges. It's a city of bright, dense rows of houses and orange rooftops, the gilded domes and turrets of churches and palaces peeping out from narrow cobblestoned alleys. The city constantly reminds you of its famous son, Hans Christian Andersen, with one of the main roads named after him (and his grave, in Assistens Cemetery is marked by a thick daisy chain and a child's drawing of a princess). The streets are dotted with sculptures, from statues guarded by cherubs in its parks to people carved into wood by the side of the road. Everyone glides around on bikes, children seated in their own little carriages on their parents' bikes. Even in the heat of a Scandinavian summer, you're always close enough to water to find a breeze, from the fountains and lakes of Copenhagen's parks to the wide reservoirs and canals that divide the city into islands. Spring is lingering in Copenhagen - everywhere swans are followed by a parade of cygnets, ducks are surrounded by ducklings and the Canada geese are slowly reaching maturity.

Copenhagen's charm isn't just in its quaint prettiness, though. The city also accommodates striking new architecture, like the Black Diamond extension to the Royal Library, with its huge glass facade looking out onto the waterfront. Copenhagen also has some of the best museums and galleries of any city I've visited, and the Statens Museum for Kunst (Danish National Gallery) is a perfect example of old meets new, with its lakeside glass sculpture hall linking the old building to a new extension. The glass corridor is filled with changing sculpture displays - currently an installation by the Argentinian artist Tomas Saraceno, who's filled the space with big biospheres suspended from the glass ceiling. Some are transparent and catch the light like soap bubbles whilst others, spidery, are like seed pods floating on a breeze away from the trees in the park outside. Some have plants growing inside them, with ropes extending like roots, whilst others are weighed down with water, resembling jellyfish. The museum houses work by international artists, but it's also home to a cross section of Danish artists, such as Per Kirkeby.

Several of Copenhagen's museums open for free on Wednesdays, including the Kunstindustrimuseet (Danish Museum of Art and Design), which offers an overview of Danish design and its context in wider social movements, from Lego to fashion to eco-friendly furniture, with displays on designers like Arne Jacobsen, who designed everything from cutlery to furniture, carpets and curtains for Copenhagen's modernist landmark the SAS Radisson hotel. Outside, in the garden, rehearsals are taking place for a play that's going to take place on a stage that looks like a plywood version of something Frank Gehry would design.

On the same street are several smaller galleries, displaying contemporary art - often colourful and collage based, including Galleri Christoffer Egundi, which has a display of street artists. A short walk away is Kunsthallen Nikolaj (Copenhagen Contemporary Art Centre), which sits in a tranquil square just off the city's main shopping district Strøget. Here, in an old church, is an exhibition by the French artist Zineb Sedira, which fits the space perfectly. The high, domed ceilings mean her video and sound installations, which are often preoccupied with memory (including films of her parents memories of fleeing Algeria for France) reverberate around the building. Floating Coffins is an immersive video installation about the effect of the west dumping its old ships on the developing world, the audience looking out onto a sandy, rust-coloured scene through four screens as if through a window. On the surrounding walls, all painted white, are screens of other sizes, onto which are projected videos of abandoned buildings, shipwrecks and the sea, in varying degrees of close-up - when people appear, they're anonymous. The screens fade in and out, some panning around like memories and others static like photographic fragments of a story. You can still see the church's organ high above, and sounds are just as important as images - screeching birds, the vaguely industrial scraping of metal, the ominous sound of aircraft. It's like the whole building's rumbling.

About 35 minutes up the coast from Copenhagen in Humblebaek, the modern art gallery Lousisiana overlooks the clear green water of the Øresund strait that divides Denmark from Sweden. Although the gallery houses everything from pop art through Francis Bacon to Damien Hirst, as well as temporary exhibitions (at the moment, the brilliant French artist Sophie Calle, whose works are playful interventions into real-life and the everyday) the most interesting section is dedicated to Danish artists, including a section on colourful, primitive artists like Asger Jorn and their links to the international CoBRA movement. Corridors lead off from the main gallery, filled with light like greenhouses, cutting through the sculpture garden outside, where pieces by Henry Moore and Louise Bourgeois look out over the sea from one side and the strange, stunted stone forms of the Danish artist Henry Heerup look in at you from the undergrowth. An Alexander Calder sculpture dominates the view like a primary coloured mobile, swaying slightly in the wind and resembling the ships' flags blowing just below and art is built into the landscape itself - George Trakas' installation Self Passage leads you down to the beach.

A further fifteen minutes up the coast, Kronborg, the inspiration for Hamlet's castle, looks out to Sweden across the Sound from Helsingør, the point at which the two countries are closest. Sweden's third city, Malmö, is a short train ride from Copenhagen across the elegant Øresund bridge, built ten years ago to connect Sweden and Denmark (a striking sight, flanked by spinning wind turbines, from the aeroplane as you descend towards Copenhagen). Malmö's new waterfront area, Västra Hammen, has sandy beaches and jettys for swimming and diving, as well as platforms for evening concerts. It's dominated by Sweden's tallest building, the Turning Torso tower, which consists of nine twisted white cubes