Reading the Odal Rune

Dania Burger lives and works in Norway and Berlin. Her art, rooted in conceptual and feminist traditions, is often an exploration of the ornamental, ranging across a spectrum from crocheting on paper to multimedia installations and performance. She studied at the University of Fine Arts in Hamburg and the Bergen Academy of Art and Design, and has exhibited in many museums and galleries in Germany and Norway.

Burger is particularly interested in techniques associated with tradition female handicrafts, and many of her projects explore aspects of ornamentation, heraldry and design. She uses her own life as a narrative point-of-departure and poses critical questions of the relationship between the individual and the collective, gender and society. In Armory (2008) she took the emblems of heraldic iconography – symbols of territorial, economic or familial status – and turned them into a series of imaginative expressions. State symbols that are employed to communicate strength and power, such as the German Bundesadler and the lion on the Norwegian coat of arms, were given a softening make-over. As the symbolism of heraldry is moved from one sphere to another, a feminisation takes place. The confrontation between the masculine grammar of the symbols and the associations crochet has with feminine crafts succeeds in throwing light on the problematic relationship between public and private, power and impotence, strength and weakness. There is also a clearly humorous dimension to the fall of symbols from the level of heraldic power-rhetoric to that of the cuddly toy.

In using her personal story in her art, Burger applies a highly personal approach to her exploration of aspects of society. For instance, in her performance I love Norway and Norway loves me she highlighted the tensions of her Norwegian-German identity, inviting her artist-partner Peder K. Bugge and their dog Tasso into Galleri RAM in Oslo for a week, during which they constructed an installation from textile donations made by friends. Dokhtar was an installation similarly concerned with relational perspectives; here, she used her own hair to embroider Arabic texts – an expression of her longing to know more of the identity of her deceased father.

A wish to venture further into her own childhood and upbringing also forms in part Burger’s contribution to Viking Mythologies I, and with her Odal Deconstructed she achieves a balanced position between personal and political content. The point-of-departure for her installation is the runic character known as the Odal, which she interprets through various media. The geometric shape of the rune is abstracted and distorted in her monumental murals, setting the room in motion; it is woven into the carpet at the entrance to the installation; its shape is recognisable in the embroidered paper that hangs from the ceiling; it is depicted in a photograph; and it is the subject of a film. The range is remarkable – from the almost threatening mural depictions of the rune to the intimate and delicate character of the tapestries, the rune now almost unrecognisable. A fragment of the runic character can also be detected on an obelisk and on a stone wall. There is a rhythmic counterpoint to the embroidered drawings that hang from the ceiling at various heights and angles, seeming to suggest the close relationship between abstract art and music. This same constructivist process is also evident in the ways the geometry of the rune is broken down until it is unrecognisable. The embroideries – executed with a thin black thread that resembles ink – wake associations with architectural infrastructure drawings. The overlapping of the stitches sets up a rhythm that is repeated in the different heights and angles at which the works have been hung. The graphic inscription of the runic character is present in these three media, setting up a movement between various energy fields – the active paintings that destabilise the room in contrast with the minutiae of the embroideries, the monumental and agitative with the intimate and weightless.

This rune, the Elder Futhark sign for ‘o’, was also thought originally to be an ideograph signifying possession, family and inheritance. This perhaps goes a long way to explaining the Nazi regime’s adoption of the symbol – along with other ancient Nordic and Germanic symbols – to signify the superiority and continuity of the Aryan race. In Hitler’s Germany the rune was employed, among other uses, as a logo for the SS Central Office for Race and Settlement (RuSHA, Rasse- und Siedlungshauptamt). In her abstraction of the runic character, however, Burger liberates herself and the rune from its dark past. It moves from being a symbol with a charged content to an abstract language beyond trauma. Or, at least, this is the question Burger challenges us with: Is it possible for the Odal rune to throw off its poisoned history?

The Odal rune has been inscribed in the room with the same power and ambivalence as it has in the artist’s personal history. Odal Deconstructed has grown out of an experience Burger had during her childhood in a small village, near Harburg, in the 1970s and 80s. One of her family’s closest neighbours was active in the neo-Nazi organisation Wiking-Jugend, a successor to the Hitlerjugend. Until it was disbanded in 1994, the Wiking-Jugend was a youth organisation with a branching network of contacts to similar groups in several European countries. Wiking-Jugend represented destruction, racism and violence, with direct associations to the mass extermination of the Jews and immeasurable human suffering. Burger recalls that an obelisk decorated with an Odal rune – the symbol of the organisation – stood in front of her neighbour’s house. (When the use of the swastika was forbidden after the war, neo-Nazi groups adopted runes instead as their political logos.) The family’s eight children were given Norse names and Dania Burger was forbidden by her parents to play with them. Despite being stigmatised in their local community, the neo-Nazi family were not met with reprisals and could openly flag their political affiliations. They carried large packages to the post office with literature for distribution, but no one protested about their activities. Although the family publishing business was affected when the Wiking-Jugend was outlawed in 1994, the family still sell neo-Nazi literature on the internet. Burger associates the Odal runic character with the anxiety she experienced during her upbringing. She passed the obelisk every day, feeling waves of anger at both her own impotence and the indifference of the local society. When she left the village, 18 years old, she carried with her a heavy burden of frustration and – in common with many of her generation – a sense of shame about the ravages of the Nazi regime. Through the works of many leading German artists today, including Josef Beuys and Anselm Kiefer, it is possible to see the trauma of post-war shame being processed, and for Dania Burger this discourse about the problems of identity in relation to the nation has been influential. Open debate about the collective trauma has undoubtedly led to greater political awareness in younger generations.

In 2013, Dania Burger travelled back to her childhood village to film the location and to rediscover what it was like to be there and see this family still producing their propaganda. On this first visit she saw again the stone wall ornamentation with interlaced odal runes, but not the obelisk. During the final preparations for Viking Mythologies I she felt it necessary to visit the location once more in order to supplement her film material for the installation, and on this occasion she discovered that the obelisk was still there, though now with the odal rune somewhat altered, to comply with the German ban on runic inscriptions.

In her interpretation of the symbol Burger has added layer upon layer, in order to visualise the inherent conflict. The runic figures that have been machine-woven into the carpet form an ornamental pattern that visitors will be have to tread on in order to enter the room. It is a physical act that literally leaves its mark, but metaphorically can also be regarded as a gesture: we all have a responsibility to fight racism, violence and dehumanising practices. In the way Burger’s runic figures dissolve into an abstract language, they represent a fight for liberation. But this rune will not go quietly – it can put up a fight to avoid losing its destructive ideological power. By showing this, Burger suggests that, even though the runic character has more than a thousand years of history behind it, a new interpretation can build on old history and again present a challenge. The artist herself has characterised the installation as a delayed revenge on the shadows that hung over her childhood. It is also an installation that reveals that there is still an ambivalence attached to many Norse symbols – that the Nazi exploitation of them left a deeper mark on them than we have previously been aware of. This became abundantly clear when an far-right organisation in Norway, Norges Nasjonale Arbeiderparti, adopted the odal rune as its logo – before its webpage was shut down in 2014 because of anti-Semitic and racist statements. Even today, in a globalised society, Norse runes and Viking motifs seem to have an enduring appeal for groups disseminating neo-Nazi and extreme right-wing ideologies. Dania Burger´s experiment was all about resisting that assimilation, by reclaiming the symbol and by deconstructing it.

Tone Lyngstad Nyaas