A group of almost nervous-looking Norwegians gather to greet the sun. It is rising in silver splendour over the mountains that enfold their little town, casting a pool of bright light around them. In this new morning they cast shadows on the town square. Real shadows at last!
But that is not the sun. It is a system of gigantic mirrors set up on the mountain to give Rjukan a sunlight boost. This town buried in a deep valley never gets any direct natural light in winter, when the northern sun is too low in the sky to get past its walls of rock. Until now. The mirrors are the brainchild of Martin Andersen, an artist who moved to Rjukan 10 years ago. His “heliostats” reflect this pool of sunlight on to the town square 365 days a year, keeping the sun in town even in the darkest winter.
Why is this artwork so fascinating? It plays with one thing that is generally deemed beyond human control. The sun is the raging force that sustains our solar system, a vast benign inferno of nuclear reactions and cosmic flares that dwarfs our orbiting and utterly dependent rock. We’ve done plenty to our planet, but changing the sun and the ebb and flow of its light and warmth as the earth spins will surely always be beyond us.
Modern life has found ways to avoid thinking about that fundamental primordial power that shapes our existence. Electric light creates 24-hour cities and homes that need never be dark. To change the sun itself and its impact on earth is, however, a bizarre, almost criminal, branch of underground science. There’s something unholy about it, or megalomaniac – wasn’t it his crazy scheme to rob Springfield of sunlight with giant sunshades that got The Simpsons’ Mr Burns shot?
The first person who is known to have dreamed of toying with sunlight was the ancient Greek scientist Archimedes. One of the secret weapons he is said to have invented to defend the Greek city of Syracuse from Roman attack in the 3rd century BC was a giant parabolic mirror that concentrated sunlight so fiercely that it could set ships on fire from afar. Whether or not this solar death ray really existed, it fascinated Leonardo da Vinci so much that he tried to recreate it in his workshop in early 16th-century Rome.
Andersen’s mirrors reverse the violent intent of these hubristic predecessors and bring light and warmth into a cold dark valley – a boon for “the pale little children of Rjukan”, as its mayor said. The mirrors address our deep human need for sunlight. In Isaac Asimov’s science fiction story Nightfall, a planet with multiple suns never experiences night. There’s always at least one sun in the sky. When, every few thousand years, an eclipse does create darkness, no one can cope and an entire society goes mad.
It seems to be a myth that suicide rates soar in the Arctic Circle in the long lightless winter months. In fact suicides in Greenland are at their worst when the sun comes back at the end of winter. The self-inflicted death rate soars in spring and summer. Greenland has an extremely high suicide rate and this is surely connected with its extremes of sunlight and darkness. This suggests a deep yet mysterious connection between the sun and mental wellbeing.
There are so many myths about the sun. Pagans still go to Stonehenge for the summer solstice when all the evidence suggests Britain’s neolithic monuments are aligned to the winter solstice. They seem to be “tuned” to the darkest day of the year. At Maeshowe in Orkney the sun on the darkest day sends a beam of light straight down a narrow tunnel into the central chamber of a burial mound. It’s a stone telescope set up for that one moment.
Why? Perhaps so the community could know when winter was at its deepest and start looking forward to the sun’s return. Then again, the ghost stories and folk tales of Europe reveal our peculiar pleasure in the dark, our ability to get gloomily addicted to winter. In Viking sagas they winter around fires telling stories and getting very, very drunk.
Our exact need for the sun is enigmatic and complex. Dark and light are both part of our lives and our minds. Perhaps, in meddling with these ancient forces, the little town of Rjukan is after all following in the dangerous footsteps of Archimedes and his burning mirrors. We don’t know how the sun shapes us and we cannot control our strange relationship with it, the greatest love affair in any of our lives.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010