August 21, Cai and Kelly (Project Manager) landed in Aalborg, three weeks before A Clan of Boats opened on September 6. Aalborg is a city in North Jutland, the peninsula that connects Denmark to continental Europe. Jens Faurschou, co-founder of the Faurschou Foundation (formerly Faurschou Gallery), and Tine Harden, photographer and friend of Jens’s since the two were toddlers (their mothers are life-long best friends), joined Cai and Kelly on the trip to offer a Danish point of view, as Cai explored the land of the north, something still foreign to him with his southeast China upbringing.
The relationship between Cai and Denmark began in 1997, when Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebæk hosted his first solo exhibition in the Western world, Flying Dragons in Heavens. During the installation period, Cai and his family stayed in the boathouse next to the Museum for over a month. There, he was first exposed to the long and brutal winter of Scandinavia, and developed an interest in the Vikings, their culture and history.
Cai decided to explore North Jutland after reading National Park Thy, a book the foundation sent for Cai’s reference while brainstorming the theme of the exhibition, right after the initial site survey in summer 2011. The lyme grass covered sand dunes under the dramatic clouds photographed in the book intrigued Cai, as they did so many artists before him. The foursome first arrived at Svinkløv, a seaside town 2 hours west of Aalborg, close to Thy. The northwestern coast of Jutland, facing the North Sea, is lined with sandy beaches, where it is so windy, that only plants as close to the ground as the sand-loving lyme grass, and certain subshrubs, could withstand the gust. The athletic Jens led the group up and down the dunes, right next to the Svinkløv Badehotel, a small, simple retreat that dates back to early 20th century. “Many couples come here for a romantic getaway,” Jens explained. “That is why apart from us, you see mostly elderly and young pairs.”
The traditional dinner served at the hotel restaurant was very relaxing, hearty, and delicate. Jens and Tine monitored their watches, as they wanted to make sure Cai gets to see the sun setting into the North Sea. And indeed, though very cloudy, the dusk turned the sky a coral pink. Many of the diners put down their silverware and napkins, and joined Cai to capture the last ray of summer sun. Even though it was mid-August, the temperature during the day was at an average of 18C/65F, and as the sun went down, the mercury would drop to around 11C/51F.
The next morning, the quartet set off early to Thy, after a simple, healthy Danish breakfast.
Denmark is largely a plain, and the flatness of the landscape makes it easy to see faraway. Vast fields of various crops unfolded from either side of the highway, with one-story houses straight out of fairy tale illustrations dotting the greenery, and rows of wind turbines steadily turning in the background. Horses in capes, cattle, and sheep, all grazed quietly in the scenery. Before entering the district of Thy, Jens drove along the Limfjord, and made a stop to show Cai a generic ancient church in Hanstholme. The church appeared a minimalist structure with no tower and bearing no cross, common in the area when Christianity first arrived in Scandinavia and later under Lutheran influence.
Next, Jens told Cai about the history of the region as the four got back into the car. “During the Second World War, the Germans were afraid that the Alliance would attack from Denmark, so the German troops were stationed here, along the shore.” He took a turn, and the road was no longer paved with asphalt. “I am pretty sure this was paved by the Germans,” he pointed ahead.
The foundation scheduled an appointment with Professor Thomas Højrup, an enthnologist at the University of Copenhagen, but resides in Thorup, very close to Thy. There was some time until the meeting, and Jens suggested another quick stop at Vorupør Strand, a beach covered with empty crab shells, making crunch sounds as people walked over. Fishermen took only the claws of large crabs, leaving the body of the crabs to nature, namely flocks of seagulls that had their eyes set on the feast. Tine asked one of the locals, who loaded baskets of claws onto his truck, and found out that only the claws were consumed as a base of stock. In order for Cai to take photos of the birds flying instead of fighting over dead (partial) crabs, Jens, Tine, and Kelly waved their arms as they jumped, mimicking birds flapping their wings, tricking the seagulls to think large predators were close. Unfortunately there was no photo of this silly action!
Professor Højrup can qualify as a Renaissance man. He led the group to the Thorup Strand, a beach only a stone’s throw from his house, and explained in great detail about the tradition of boat building and seafaring. Thorup is an active fishing harbor, but unlike harbors of the rest of the world, here on the west coast of Jutland, they continue the Viking practice of pulling the hulls ashore instead of docking in the sea. This is why the boats are all built with a flat bottom, and the reason the Vikings could very quickly raid and trade along the coastline of Europe.
At lunch time, Professor Højrup welcomed Cai and co to his house to dine with his family of four. The food was simple, fresh, and delicious, and everyone felt satisfied and grateful for the warmth and hospitality. Then, Professor Højrup drove everyone to his boatbuilding workshop at Slettestrand, where he and a small team teach the local young people the trade of traditional boatbuilding by hand. “In the old days, this would be a craft passed down from fathers to sons,” he said. “We want to continue this tradition, as no two boats are built the same – because no two trees are alike. The art of boatbuilding is not something that can be written down into a formula to follow; it is mostly by experience, by touch. Everyone’s method is slightly different.”
The boats the workshop built are not just for display; many of them were on the beach, just a few steps away from the workshop. The workshop also has a showroom, where they explain to the public where they have found the original vessel or wreck, what period they think the boat was from, and how they either repaired or replicated it. What they do is very similar to that of conservators in a museum, especially those in departments that deal with older artifacts; for instance, piecing together an ancient painting that is now in shreds. The shipbuilders (or “skippers”) at Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde often consult Professor Højrup and his students when they have a new project of replicating an existing, historical boat.