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Esbjerg - Gateway To Scandinavia

Tony Brooks
Aalborg University Esbjerg, Denmark

Welcome to Esbjerg, Denmark’s 5th largest but youngest city which, in August, was crowned as the Danish “City of the Year”.

Esbjerg is located in Jutland, which is the Danish mainland that borders Northern Germany. Upon experiencing the region’s unspoiled natural beauty that is exemplified through its clear flowing waterways, secluded bays and inlets, and the expansive white sand beaches that are fringed with emerald green forestry and rolling countryside, one can easily understand why Esbjerg is referred to as the jewel on the west coast and the ‘Gateway to Scandinavia’.

In the mid nineteenth century when King Christian the 9th declared that a harbour be built in Esbjerg to satisfy the growing agricultural exports, little could he have believed the magnitude his foresight would one day contribute to the region. This realised when, in celebrating its centennial in 1968, the city luminaries acknowledged the harbour as the region’s main industrial hub. Today, the harbour hosts the international DFDS passenger ferry terminal and related industries that are channelled from the North Sea; typically fish and energy, the latter being specific to the growing oil exploration rigs and offshore wind farms that are serviced from the city and its airport.

Departing the harbour northwards along the coast road one arrives at the Esbjerg memorial, a statue made from granite that acts as a harsh reminder of the strength and power of nature and the inherent dangers of the sea. The memorial commemorates the community’s lives lost at sea since 1900. This memorial’s neighbour, the nine-meter-tall sculpture “Man Meets the Sea”, created by Svend Wiig Hansen in 1995, depicts man gazing out into the magnificence of nature.

Opposite the Wiig Hansen monument is the Fisheries and Maritime Museum. The museum was opened in 1968 in celebration of the harbour’s centennial. This venue offers an illustrated history of fishing and shipping in the region, while in the large outdoor exhibition it is possible to experience a real harbour environment. The museum also contains a large saltwater aquarium, a ‘sealarium’ (the seals are fed at 11:00 and 14:30), and a live mink enclosure.

A few kilometres further north is Hjerting Church, which boasts an altar decoration from 1992 by Robert Jacobsen that tells the story of Christ’s Passion with both simplicity and empathy. The architecture is also interesting, since it combines the medieval church tradition with a modern conception of space. Additional alternatives are the twelfth century Jerne Church and the thirteenth century Guldager Church, which offer original gothic interior decorations.

At the West Coast road is Eva Koch and Steen Høyer’s interactive work titled ‘Light Mound’ (1997), a colossal mound of earth with tiny cupolas of light spread out over it. It is Denmark’s largest work of art, 180 metres in diameter, with an adjacent earthwork of 320 metres that is intersected by a road. The ‘Light Mound’ will not be complete until it is clad with heather, a process that will take years. The pulsating of the light is best seen at night – the light intensity and rhythm being determined by the intensity of the traffic on the West Coast road.

The oldest town in Denmark is Ribe, which lies thirty kilometres south from Esbjerg. Famous as a central point from which to explore Viking folklore and history, Ribe, in addition to its Viking museum, hosts a summer Viking market and village scene (including tradesmen, artists, huntsmen and warriors’ battles) at the authentic Viking Centre which lies on the outskirts of the town.

Ribe Art Museum was inaugurated in 1891 and has a valuable collection of work dating from 1790. The museum is housed in one of the most important private buildings in Ribe: the factory owner Balthazar Giørtz’ large private establishment, built 1860-64 after drawings made by the royal surveyor L A Winstrup. The collections show the main line of Danish pictorial art from c. 1750 to 1940 with masterpieces by Jens Juel, C.W. Eckersberg, Christen Købke, Kristian Zahrtmann, L.A. Ring, P.S. Krøyer, Anna and Michael Ancher, William Scharff, amongst others.

Perhaps you get the feeling that you are surrounded by art? Indeed, the region proudly boasts a reputation as a cultural Mecca that is embedded with numerous art galleries, museums and private studios. Prominent amongst the traditional on offer in the city is the Esbjerg Museum where, alongside historic recreations of city shops and streets from the 19th century are Iron and Viking Age exhibits. The museum also contains Denmark’s finest amber museum, which illustrates the history of amber over a period of 10,000 years.

For the more contemporary in taste the Esbjerg Art Museum, housed in the same building as the conference venue Musikhuset, should satisfy even the most discerning. It is a collection of approximately 800 works that include Danish art produced from around 1920 up to the present day, by names such as the COBRA painters Richard Mortensen, Robert Jacobsen, Svend Wiig Hansen and Per Kirkeby, and by representatives of the latest trends in art including Christian Lemmerz, Michael Kvium and Peter Bonde. The sculptured sign “Esbjerg” residing outside the museum is a spectacular example of Robert Jacobsen’s work from 1963. The museum features two novelties in the museum world: open storehouses and an aesthetics laboratory. In the open storehouses paintings that are not on display in the permanent exhibition can be seen on forty pullout walls. This allows visitors to create their own exhibition selection. Visitors can also experience the aroma installation, (“Wittgenstein’s Garden”) by Skeel & Skriver, a work that challenges traditional notions of what art is all about. In the aesthetics laboratory, groups can experiment with various aesthetic phenomena.

Adjacent to the Esbjerg Art Museum is the nineteenth century Water Tower (1896-7) that was designed by the local architect C. H. Clausen, whose many other buildings may be seen in the city of Esbjerg. It is uniquely designed in the theme of a noble German residence of the Middle Ages including an imposing battlement. As well as its stunning exterior, the tower offers some of the best views of the harbour and Esbjerg as well as contributing its own art exhibitions.

Overseeing the bustling central square, where most visitors to Esbjerg congregate to shop along adjacent walking streets or to enjoy the relaxing café atmospheres, proudly stands the equestrian statue of Christian IX – king of Denmark when Esbjerg was founded in 1868. On the distinctive corner of the square lies the former courthouse and county jail, which now houses Esbjerg Tourist Office. Across from the Tourist Board is the Henry Heerup garden featuring a number of his granite works. Heerup was also a member of the COBRA group with featured exhibits at leading museums around the world.

A short walk further east is the West Jutland Academy of Music is in a converted electricity factory that now houses the city’s latest work of art, Thorbjørn Lausten’s “The Clock” (1998); this combines image and sound in a rigorous composition that is governed by the aesthetic principles of geometry.

In recent years the heart of the city has a clearly detectable energy directed towards an ambition to evolve, achieve and lead. Two universities are amongst eleven higher educational institutes supporting the city’s ambition to further develop its profile as a nucleus for knowledge exchange, innovation and entrepreneurship. The city has established an innovations centre with professional advisors where the graduated students can go and get advice, and establish their own company after leaving the University, with financial support being provided in the start up phase.

The thriving business community is made up of companies with international customer databases. Such global networking reflects the city’s youth and the ambition of a forward momentum towards an identity with inherent contemporary vision. The city’s cultural infrastructure substantiates the vision with substantial investment that is exemplified by Esbjerg possessing one of the leading venues in the country for conferences, exhibitions and entertainment – namely the Utzon designed Esbjerg Performing Arts Centre, Musikhuset (1997). This vision is also reflected through the top international celebrities that are engaged to perform here: in 2006 the featured artist was Placido Domingo who performed to a sell out international audience in July.

Culture is never far away in Esbjerg as theatre, dance and live music can be found on most nights in the city venues, clubs, bars, and selection of fine cosmopolitan restaurants. Also, give a moment to meet the congenial natives of Esbjerg who have a reputation as being amongst the most “Hygge” in Denmark.

My first experience of Esbjerg was when my exhibitions toured leading Scandinavian Museums of Modern Art in the late 1990’s. During my stay I remember being struck by the city’s abundance of art and the community’s interest in promoting their artisans. Esbjerg and the people left its mark on me and I am pleased to have returned to contribute in whichever way I can to assist in promoting the city, develop the profile and to educate the next generation of artist innovators.

I hope truly that your experience of Esbjerg approaches mine, and that you, too, return.

Acknowledgements: I am grateful for the invaluable assistance of Lise Retbøll, Tourist Board, Esbjerg, in compiling and checking the details in this essay.

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