“Leave Y alone,” is among the exclamations made on yblokkfoto.no, a digital exhibition by the photographer Adrian Bugge documenting the demolition of the Y-blokka and the protests this decision has caused. Below the brief, but telling, text is a picture of a man enjoying a break in front of the Y-blokka on a sunny day during the winter of 2011, just a few months before the terrorist bomb went off in Oslo’s government district. With his back to the camera and his face towards the towering dark building, a vast mass of natural concrete, the figure recalls Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (c. 1818). The comparison is also conceptually relevant, given that Bugge’s exhibition – like Friedrich’s painting – depicts an experience where powerlessness and fascination meet and merge.
Just as the Barcode redevelopment zone played the leading role in Bugge’s previous project, the photo book Den nye byen. Oslo 2014–2018 (Uten Tittel, 2019) [The New City. Oslo 2014–2018 (Untitled, 2019)], the Y-blokka building takes centre stage on yblokkfoto.no. However, whereas Den nye byen did not adopt a clear-cut position, yblokkfoto.no is primarily an activist project and a visual protest against the government’s decision to destroy Erling Viksjø’s late-modernist government building from 1969. Home to a number of significant integrated works of art, with Pablo Picasso and Carl Nesjar’s concrete relief The Fishermen as the most talked-about, the building epitomises Norwegian optimism after the Second World War. More recently, the building was only slightly damaged by the devastating events of 22 July, taking on newfound significance as a symbol of united national resistance against terror and divisive rhetoric.
As a result of these qualities, the decision to demolish the building has prompted intense interest and protest, to the extent where the citizens of Oslo gradually became accustomed to finding a crowd outside Y-blokka, protesting with posters, art, music and performances. When COVID-19 made this type of physical activism difficult, yblokkfoto.no was duly established on 18 April. The photographs on the website date from 2011 onwards; most are in colour, uniform in size, and taken in a landscape format. Presented in conjunction with short descriptive captions, they speak of art activism, human chains, posters, flower demonstrations, and appeals against the Norwegian state’s decision to demolish. The photos were mainly taken from down in the square where the activists were, expressing a sense of affinity with the support action, now ultimately failed.
Despite strong objections from professional circles in Norway and internationally, as well as the Oslo City Council’s desire to preserve the building, state authorities are now carrying out the destruction of the Y-blokka building, cutting the integrated works of art out from the architecture and the totality of which they were once part. In light of this development, yblokkfoto.no has taken on a more documentary function, and the site is updated daily with photographs of the demolition process. Although the site obviously expresses despair at the state’s wilful ignorance of the people’s will, it is interesting to note that the images also hold a fascination with the advanced engineering required to tear down the building – and not least to dismantle the site-specific works of art. This fascination is apparent, among other things, in the way Bugge imbues the various machines with life, such as when he describes, on 27 August 2020, how a “dragon-like head tears out large chunks of the concrete.” Similar sentiments are expressed in a picture taken on the night of 1 September 2020, which shows the work conducted inside the building as an aesthetic shadow play presented on the transparent canvases that now cover the windows in the block, and in the photo series where Bugge seems to dwell on the process that is bringing down Viksjø’s concrete colossus.
Bugge’s portrayal of the fall of the Y-blokka building as a simultaneously repulsive and fascinating process evokes Romantics such as Friedrich, who portrayed the sublime as an experience composed partly of powerlessness and partly of admiration – an experience that can arise in the face of phenomena we cannot control, and which are greater than ourselves. Unpleasant in their origins, such experiences could, according to the Romantics, be transformed into pleasure. For in the recognition of our own attempts to understand the uncontrollable, we also perceive ourselves as beings of reason. A similar transformation of discomfort into well-being lies beneath the surface in Bugge’s project, giving it a sustained energy despite the fact that the fight against demolition is lost. The reason for this is that Bugge’s photographs not only document the demolition of the Y-blokka, but also transformations of destruction into creative energy, and injustice into social commitment, prompting a defence of a shared cultural heritage that we Norwegians have hitherto failed to properly care for. Despite the fate of the Y-blokka, this is cause for optimism on behalf of the many other works of art currently languishing in public spaces throughout the country.