Five hundred yards up from the Norwegian town of Rjukan, high on a mountainside, sit three mirrors. Computers move them throughout the day. An installation dreamed up by local artist Martin Andersen, they don’t just represent something pleasing on the eye. This artwork has a serious purpose that becomes apparent when the winter shadows begin to lengthen.
The town of Rjukan can be found in the Telemark region of Norway. It sits in Vestfjorddalen, in between the lakes Tinn and Møsvatn. Although only small, with a few thousand people living in it, the town houses the administration of the Tinn municipality. It’s named Rjukan after the nearby falls.
The town had a long association with industry, being born when power firm Norsk Hydro set it up to support its workings. Rjukan grew up from 1905 through 1916, becoming a center for the production of saltpeter, a vital component of fertilizer. It lies between two huge mounts, a few hours’ drive away from Oslo.
The area around Rjukan is quite lovely. In the winter, drifting snow blankets the mountains and the icy waterfalls in the half-light. As dark comes on, the town can be picked out from the air as a sprinkle of lights in a rugged, wild country. This land once formed the background to myths about trolls that were imagined to lurk in its gloomy recesses.
South of the town is the towering peak of Gaustatoppen. It is not far off 6,000 feet, a glowering presence that blocks out the light through a large chunk of the year. Hunkering in the valley beneath it is Rjukan, which as we’ve said sprang up as a factory town, home to its employees in the saltpeter works.
The site of the town was picked because of the nearby waterfall, Rjukan Falls, caused by a 340-feet drop of the Måne river. The plan was to generate electricity by hydropower, using the rushing water to turn turbines. One side-effect was to illuminate the waterfall with the very same electricity that it created.
The man who had the idea to use the Rjukan Falls and build a town nearby was engineer Sam Eyde. He’s commemorated by a striking statue in the town center. Grasping plans in one hand, he stares into the distance – although he cannot look far, because there’s a mountain in the way.
Although a Norwegian, Eyde learned his engineering trade in Germany, graduating from university in Berlin in 1891. His career started in Hamburg, where he worked on the railway network. A few years later, he teamed up with his former boss to found a new company. Gleim & Eyde soon opened offices in Stockholm and Oslo, growing to become one of Scandinavia’s leading engineering firms.
As the new century dawned, Eyde began to acquire the property rights to waterfalls. He used the massive flow at the Rjukan Falls to create what was then the largest power plant in the world. His innovative techniques were put to use in the production of saltpeter via nitrogen oxidization and in creating large volumes of hydrogen by electrolysis.
The plant at Vemork, nearby to Rjukan, took four years to build, reaching completion in 1911. It was followed more than 20 years later by a hydrogen facility, which was producing heavy water, something that was significant when Hitler needed the substance in his atomic bomb program. Eyde spent a great deal of money in the Rjukan area, twice the budget in fact of the whole country.
The Rjukan plant didn’t just create saltpeter; it also produced ammonia. In the end it was responsible for creating more than 30 million tons of the product, enough to fill no fewer than a million-and-a-half wagons. Now that they’re closed, some of the works remain as a monument, along with the railway that served it.
Indeed, the Norwegian Industrial Workers Museum can be found at the site. One of the parts of history that it celebrates is the sabotage of the heavy water plant during World War II. Norwegian partisans took it out, dealing a savage blow to Hitler’s dreams of building a nuclear weapon.
In the 1960s the firm in charge of Rjukan started to produce saltpeter at a different site in Norway. Although the town lost most of its heavy industry when Norsk Hydro moved out, the government softened the pain with cash. Now only a little industry remains, but the town is a center of tourism.
Tourists come to the country near Rjukan for the good skiing. It’s also a fine jumping-off point for a hike into the Hardangervidda plateau. To aid exploration of the country around the town, back in the 1860s the Norwegian Mountain Touring Association opened its first hut right next to the Rjukan Falls.
The hut was sold off when the hydropower works were built, but today it’s back open again. It sits on the high road between Rjukan and the area of Vinje on the plateau.These days Rjukan is also renowned for its local ice-climbing opportunities. Given the hard winters in the area, the season lasts for several months, and there are plenty of nearby falls.
Another attraction of the town is its cable car. Seeking to give the workers in the town access to more sunlight, Eyde built the car to take people up the nearest mountain. For a small fee, the people could escape the darkness of the mountain’s shadow and get a dose of vitamin D.
The “Krossobanen” has run since 1928, and even now it costs less than $20 to get up to the cafe on the mountaintop. A sign in the ticket office tells visitors that the cable car was the company’s present “to the people of Rjukan, because for six months of the year, the sun does not shine in the bottom of the valley.”
The cable car was one answer to a longstanding problem from which Rjukan suffers. At the bottom of a valley, crowded around by the peaks that surround it, the town doesn’t get much light in the winter. It wallows in a sort of gloomy twilight from late in September until the middle of March.
Eyde considered it a problem to which it was worth turning his engineering talents. In 1913 he thought about building mirrors on top of the mountains to reflect the light of the sun down into the valley. However, even his prodigious ability as an engineer wasn’t equal to that idea, so he turned instead to the cable car.
Wind forward to the 2000s, and the problem of the gloomy winters in Rjukan was taxing the mind of an artist who had made the town his home. This man, Martin Andersen, might be considered by some to be slightly eccentric, sporting bushy mutton chops. Still, he did eventually solve the problem!
Having spent time as something of a globetrotter, living in places as diverse as Mali, Paris, Oslo and Berlin, Andersen brought his family to Rjukan in the early 2000s. He was looking for somewhere conveniently close to his parents, where he could make money to support his family. And the rugged nature of Rjukan’s existence clearly appealed to his artistic nature.
Andersen got jobs here and there, including as a lifeguard at the town’s pool, and ran a vintage store too. In his spare time, he’d walk his toddler in her carriage. And every day he had to go a little bit farther to find any sun at all. The gloom began to take its toll.
Andersen told the BBC in 2017, “I felt it very physically; I didn’t want to be in the shade.” Indeed, although the region of Telemark – in the south of Norway – does get sun in the winter, Rjukan’s situation meant that it never got high enough in the sky to shine on the town.
The artist came up with the idea of an artwork, which he called Solspeil, meaning “sun mirror.” He explained how it became obvious that a solution was needed to U.K. newspaper The Guardian in 2013. The local topography meant that by the end of September, the town’s central square got no sun at all and wouldn’t until the next March.
In the past, bookkeeper Oscar Kittilsen had also had the idea of putting big mirrors that could be rotated up on the valley’s northern side. He planned that they could then “first collect the sunlight and then spread it like a headlamp beam over the town and its merry inhabitants.”
Andersen found out about the idea when he was awarded a grant from the municipality. He delved into the history of it and worked up his own plan to reflect light into the town. His plan centered on a heliostat: a mirror set up so that it follows the Sun across the sky, constantly sending light down towards a target.
The artist used a stadium in Arizona as a model, which deployed little mirrors to keep the grass under its covers growing. He found out too that heliostats were used across areas with plenty of sun. The town helped him out financially so that he could carry on researching. He ended up visiting the Italian town of Viganella, which had put in a small mirror in 2006.
In the end, a German firm that specializes in solar power sent in a helicopter. It lifted three mirrors onto the mountainside, about 490 yards above the town’s market square. The mirrors are about 180 square feet and are under the control of computers sitting in a town in Bavaria, Germany.
Andersen told The Guardian, “It took a bit longer than we’d imagined.” But it was important to the artist that everything was done properly so that it all worked, and it’s not the kind of thing a Norwegian town does every day. As Andersen noted, “There’s no rubber stamp for a sun mirror.”
Andersen could not after all use Viganella’s mirror as a precise model. That’s because it threw light across a wider area, but didn’t concentrate it sufficiently. Andersen said, “I wanted a smaller, concentrated patch of sunlight: a special sunlit spot in the middle of town where people could come for a quick five minutes in the sun.” And that’s what he eventually got.
The square is now bathed in light. Even the people who were against the scheme have to admit that it worked. And there were plenty who did protest it. Some wrote petitions and letters, and there was even a Facebook page that gathered those who thought it was just a vanity project.
One who didn’t favor the idea was Nils Eggerud, who had worked for Norsk Hydro for five decades. He thought the project was a waste of money. But he’d been won over. He told The Guardian, “Well, it does feel nice, standing here. And really, you just have to look at the people’s faces.”
Another skeptic, Anette Oien, had changed her mind once the mirrors had become operational. Sitting in the sunshine in the town center, she explained why she had come to love the mirrors. She said, “I miss the sun here in winter terribly. It can be so hard. This is the light I long for.”
The mayor at the time, Steinar Bergsland, set aside complaints about the cost, pointing at the benefits of having the mirror. Chief among them was the boost to tourism. Visitors had flocked to the town, bringing money to local businesses. And there were hopes that tech companies would be lured by the high technology on display.
Bergsland shared with The Guardian, “This is a powerful symbol for Rjukan. The whole history of this town is about new and crazy ideas; about Sam Eyde saying, ‘Okay, I’m going to tame the water and generate power and build a town and make a product from air and water that the whole world will buy.’ This fits.”
Despite the project’s success, Andersen was left with a small complaint. For a work of art, his mirrors weren’t very pretty; he felt that the square mirrors weren’t attractive. And if a person was to walk up to where they sat up on the mountain, the area hadn’t been made too pleasing to the eye.
So the question remains whether Solspeil is, as Andersen intended, art. A buddy of Andersen’s, Daniel Paida Larsen, who was born in Rjukan, gave his opinion to The Guardian. He said, “The people here don’t see it that way. They see it – and, thankfully, now welcome it – as a technical project. Or a marketing tool.”
Larsen continued, “I don’t know how exactly I’d define it. An installation? A sculpture? It makes me think about how we need the Sun, what happens to light when you reflect it. But what’s really special is that it goes so deep into the public sphere. It touches something absolutely fundamental in this town.”
Employee at the tourism office in town Ingrid Fagerberg told Australian broadcaster ABC in 2018, “We get so many people asking about the Sun mirror. From China, Britain, America – it has made a difference. [Locals] see today the effect it has had on Rjukan as a tourist destination. So the [critics] turned.”
Ultimately, Andersen was well satisfied with the outcome of his work. The artist summed up the success of the project for ABC. He said, “It really makes a difference in our cold, dark winters… I think we really needed this.” And certainly, he has shed light on the town of Rjukan.