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Going against the grain: How an old corn silo became Norway's artistic hot spot

The Kunstsilo in Kristiansand.
The Kunstsilo in Kristiansand. Copyright Alan Williams
Copyright Alan Williams
By Amber Louise Bryce
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Home to the largest collection of Nordic art, a converted grain silo is putting Kristiansand on Europe's cultural map.

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Ask any taxi driver, waiter, or friendly local selling crocheted monsters in a vintage boutique: Kristiansand has the best weather in Norway. 

Warm and bright in May, its pier is pimpled with people eating ice cream and yappy Yorkshire terriers, little kernels of life lolling beneath the towering cylindrical structures of a grain silo turned gallery. 

The story of the Kunstsilo begins nine years ago, when hedge fund manager Nicolai Tangen - known in Norway as the "trillion dollar man" - decided to donate his art collection to his hometown. 

Made up of modernist pieces spanning 1930-1990, Tangen's collection features approximately 5,500 works that cover 560 different artists from every Nordic country. Most of them are unknown, their styles a blend of experimentation and European influences like surrealism. 

"It's the art that appeals to me and it's the art that I grew up with," says the 57-year-old, who began his collection in the 90s and also completed a master's degree in art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London when he was 36. 

Nicolai Tangen
Nicolai TangenAmber Bryce

"I like to buy things which are out of favour so that you can build proper volumes of works and you're not always in competition with a lot of other people," he says. 

Kristiansand has roughly 130,000 inhabitants and was previously known for its zoo and amusement park (Norway's most popular attraction, apparently.) In recent years, locals like Tangen have been cultivating a cultural sector to encourage more visitors and enrich the lives of current residents. The development of the Kunstsilo, from an old industrial building into a slick contemporary gallery, has been key to this.

"It's an important student town and it will be more interesting to be a student here. More interesting to work here, and more interesting to live here. Just better. Then, I hope [the Kunstsilo] will get a bit more competition [going] between the museums in Norway," says Tangen. 

From korn to kunst

Kunstsilo
KunstsiloAlan Williams

Staring up at its ceiling, vast prisms beaming with blue sky, it's impossible not to feel as small as a piece of corn. The Kunstsilo's spaces are at once intimidating and welcoming: from the brightly lit, oak-lined spiralling staircase, to the woozy glass-bottomed views that turn visitors below into a flurry of dots.

"We built upon the structural system of the original building to then create a kind of idea of variation within," says Barcelona-based architect Magnus Wåge, who, alongside two other companies (Mendoza Partida and BAX studio) won the project after entering a competition in 2016. 

"This building is a very special example of Norwegian industrial architecture," explains Wåge. "It was very interesting to see how we could sort of enhance the sculptural and expressive character of the space," he continues. 

Curving into a seeming abyss at the Kunstsilo
Curving into a seeming abyss at the KunstsiloAlan Williams
A mixture of old and new.
A mixture of old and new.Alan Williams

Built in the 1930s and once home to 15,000 tons of grain, the silo's stern and imposing functionalist design established it as an iconic landmark of the city. 

Then, in 2008, it ceased operations for good: a waterfront husk of history. 

Preserving and expressing this history has been core to its glow-up from grain to gallery. 

"The new and the old sort of play together, but are clearly distinguishable," says Wåge. "We have allowed the silo to have a very strong character so you can see the traces of the new concrete versus the old concrete, also allowing it to be a bit un-precise."

"The new and the old sort of play together, but are clearly distinguishable."
Magnus Wåge
Architect

Reaching this point wasn't all a can of corn, however. Disputes began during development that led to the then-mayor losing his job after the city realised it would also be footing the gallery's €60m bill (of which Tangen put in roughly €18m).

Any lingering resentments seem to have dissipated with the building's opening on 11 May. As night falls and its insides glow beside the tutu-inspired ruffly roof of a neighbouring performing arts building, there's this sense of a once dormant energy dancing again. 

'Angst, melancholy, jealousy - all the good stuff in life'

One of the most memorable pieces inside is an installation on the top floor, by Norwegian artist Marianne Heske. 

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First presented at the Biennale de Paris exhibition in 1980, 'Gjerdeløa' is a nearly 400-year-old hay barn that was transported from a mountainside in Sunnmøre.

Marianne Heske's 'Gjerdeløa'
Marianne Heske's 'Gjerdeløa'Alan Williams

"It's [made from] pine tree, which is very, very strong. It's as strong as steel, so they knew how to build houses in the medieval age," says Heske, showing visitors the intricately carved symbols inside. "You see that living people have been here, and the traces of them," reflects Heske.

Considered one of the most important examples of Norwegian art, it's a striking reminder of how important artistic spaces are, and have always been, to communities in expressing themselves and connecting with people past and present. 

It's a part of the inaugural exhibition 'Passions of the North', a display of over 600 works from the Tangen collection. 

A painting on display at the Kunstsilo
A painting on display at the KunstsiloAmber Bryce

Unlike other curated exhibitions, there isn't one style or specific narrative thread that ties these works together. Instead, it seeks to capture a specific type of mood.

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"Angst, melancholy, jealousy - all the good stuff in life," says Tangen, when asked what he feels defines Nordic art. 

"There's a pretty fair element of loneliness and sadness in the Nordic region, balanced by light and sun and good days." 

Judging by the excitable reception to the Kunstsilo, it feels like the latter are here to stay in Kristiansand. 

'Passions of the North'is open now at the Kunstsilo in Kristiansand, Norway.

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