Barensburg & Pyramid by Basia Sokolowska


The scarcely populated arctic archipelago of Svalbard has been fascinating Christian Houge for several years. During his regular visits to these northern reaches of Norway he photographed their eerie, moon-like landscapes featuring vast expanses of uninhabited land. Svalbard is covered by ice and snow during its long polar winter whilst in summer it reveals its rocky, inhospitable texture. Houge, who is particularly interested in the relationship between civilisation and wilderness has also documented economic and scientific activities in the archipelago including its scientific and communication facilities and its Russian mining communities.

In many ways the establishment of mining settlements in Svalbard resulted from the over-inflated colonial ambitions of the Soviet Union. Russians, who have often stressed their historical claim to Svalbard, have tried to inhabit and exploit its natural resources since the 1930’s. Using the right to scientific and economic explorations to this region of Norway, granted to other countries under the Svalbard Treaty of 1925, Russia set up three mining communities: Grumat, Pyramid and Barentsburg. The energy and confidence of the young Soviet Union in its ambitious undertakings in Svalbard is evident in setting up of such facilities as a sports centre with an indoor swimming pool, a library and a museum. The harsh climate with the dwindling of coal resources followed by the decline of the Soviet state resulted in a slow decline of the settlements. The closure of Grumat was followed by shutting down of Pyramid. In Barentsburg, which once boasted a population of almost a thousand, the number of inhabitants has decreased now to merely three hundred.

Houge’s photographs of Barentsburg and Pyramid are a study of a decline of a colonial culture, functioning away from the centre that gave these communities their ideological, social and aesthetic identity. The panoramic format of his photographs often allows him to include the hostile, surreal surroundings in which they are embedded and thus to emphasise their isolation from other settlements as well as from the mainstream of civilisation and its changing fashions.

Many of Houge’s photographs reveal complex tensions between the ideological drive of the Soviet Empire responsible for the establishment of these settlements, with the grim reality of their decline. A good example is a photograph of a brightly coloured mural, showing an explosion of light emanating from a miner’s raised hand accompanied by a poem set in bold, Constructivist type stating, in a somewhat illogical way, the community’s mission:

The work of the coalminer provides peace and energy for space rockets.

A miner’s hardworking hand yields heat and light for everyone.

This image of heat and energy set in one of the coldest places in the world stresses the confidence that Russians had in their ability to conquer nature. However, nature has proven invincible, alluded to by a drift of snow which covering a large section of the mural, obscures the imagery of mining machinery and a space rocket. Interestingly, Houge, whose photographs often show vast, open spaces, here uses the panoramic format to promote a sense of claustrophobia and  spatial disorientation. Tight cropping of the image denies the viewer the luxury of context emphasising the surrealism of the image and its message.

The ambiguity of spatial relationships characteristic of many of Houge’s Barentsburg and Pyramid images reflects a sense of disorientation often experienced when faced with a an unfamiliar environment. His photographs reveal a haphazard topography of Barentsburg which seems to consist of isolated blocks of flats and barracks which have become buried in the snow. The absence of streets, trees, shops or cars robs the place  of its urban integrity. Lenin’s monument, an obligatory element of every Soviet town seems a lonely figure, heightening the sensation of a frozen, lifeless place.

A sense of stillness and silence pervades all Barentsburg and Pyramid photographs, whether they are expansive landscapes, or photographs of people, their workplaces and dwellings. Some landscapes are laced with a fine pattern of coal dust deposited on the vast expanse of pristine snow. Photographed in the eerie twilight of the polar winter the coal deposits are starkly contrasted with white hills on the horizon. Unlike his  Arctic Technology series, where high tech communication facilities are shown at their most flattering, Houge’s Barentsburg photographs expose the ugly side of technology. In  Arctic Technology series, a field of antennae creates a perfect, uniform rhythm of black lines against the whiteness of snow. Their equivalent in Barentsburg are low tech aerials, made from scraps of metal by miners and stuck on the roof of their barracks. 

 In contrast with the winter photographs of Barentsburg, the images of the relatively recently shut down mining settlement called Pyramid, were taken in the summer. The treeless landscape with its rough terrain is dominated by the presence of a large mountain which gave the name to the community. With most of its impressive facilities left intact, including the books in the library, miners’ shoes and clothing left around the settlement, the place speaks of a sudden abandonment. The barren landscape surrounding it is punctuated by the rhythm of technical installations, strangely complementary to the colours and textures of the mountains.

Houge is clearly fascinated by the geographic and temporal sense of isolation of the Russian community, which seems to exist in a time warp, untouched by social and aesthetic changes that have been taking place in the outside world. His photographs of the interiors show a style prevalent in the seventies, with brightly coloured walls, bold patterns and rustic furniture. It is evident from his photographs that the place is in state of decline and the facilities have not been updated for many years. Similarly dated are the clothes worn in Barentsburg, where fashion has been irrelevant.   Ironically, many elements of the style present in Barentsburg interior design, which a decade ago seemed dated, now seem strangely fashionable.  Focusing on  a style of interior design, which only recently  has been taken up by designers as ‘the latest thing’ Houge’s photographs are a reflection on the nature of society, with its restless and constant need to reinvent itself by means of devising new styles, often inspired by the fashions of the past. 

A sense of stillness and isolation is strongly present in the way Houge portrays the inhabitants of the settlement. A solitary man sits on a bench at a indoor swimming pool surrounded by green tiles of the walls, the colour chosen perhaps in order to compensate for the lack of greenery in the surrounding landscape. His diminutive, naked figure appears lonely and vulnerable like a man lost in a jungle. Equally motionless are two canteen workers, photographed standing upright between stacks of plates. They look straight at the camera in a direct, almost confrontational way, oblivious to their surroundings and their tasks. Miners often appear in Houge’s photographs as singular figures standing near trucks or mining machinery. Motionless, often with hands in their pockets they seem lonely and waiting. Far away from their homeland, suspended in time they are captured in a moment of hesitation, a state between belonging and alienation, the past and the uncertainty of the future. These photographs are a metaphor of the nature of their presence in Svalbard.

Basia Sokolowska