Wednesday, 21 September 2011


Malmberget, Gallivare Municipality, a small mining town in Lapland, Sweden, is on the move again. The tunnels of the mine stretch for miles and have created a network under the town. Older tunnels have made the structure of the ground unstable to the extent that part of the ground started to cave in, starting in the fifties. Each year more of this residential area falls away into the mouth of Gropen, 'the Pit'. On the standard map, Gropen is represented as a grey, nondescript, mass. But the birds eye view shows a huge cavern. Not the mine itself, but what was the town, now a pit, gradually getting bigger.

Small posts, seismometers, stuck in the ground are dotted around the town. A fence marks off the area around the pit that has shown to be unstable by the readings. Within that fence are many abandoned homes. The people that lived there have had to move on.

Here is Gropen in the 60s:

And now:

Malmberget established itself as a result of high wages from mining work, it began to flourish from the 1880s onward. When Gropen became a danger, offices and houses were moved. But even these settlements and more around them are transient. When the mining companies (now LKAB, a state owned company) realised there was more ore under the town, and more danger of subsidence, they attained permission to enforce the removal of houses to nearby Gallivare. Some houses can be moved successfully, not all. The upheaval has been well documented.

I don't speak Swedish but I can tell from the facial expressions of the Malmberget residents in this report that they are sad to leave their homes. At one stage the woman in her kitchen looks perturbed, this is because everynight around 11pm the mine blasts can be heard, in this video the vibrations are visible.

Children's nightmares here, possibly, are not of a bogey man under the bed, but of the bed, and the house falling into the ground. To the east of Gropen are a hundred or more houses due for demolition. Gropen threatens their foundations and the owners have mostly packed up and gone. The abandoned, detached, residencies look recently vacated. They have been. There has been no chance for maintenance to lag. Paint is fresh on the walls, windows are boarded up, but others are in tact. Strangely no graffiti here, no break in, traces of teenage fires. Round the back of a house a chair only just has a twine of ivy growing round it. Gardens are yet to overgrow. The place has more of a sense of evaccuation than desertion. The reasons to leave are invisible, but the rumbling of explosions heard everynight from the mine, are a reminder. The blasts, to mine for iron ore, copper. Also, more sinister, and unexpected rumbles, small tremors are also reminders.

Walking through this area at night in the summer renders it even more strange. An unearthly light, midnight sun behind a clouded over sky. The dank, bleak emptiness met us with bone cold. Deserted roads, boarded up windows, silence. Intrigue and aesthetic interest was dragged down, indeed by the 'oppressiveness of the place'. This puts me in mind of Andre Breton's Mad Love (1937 Chap. 6), where he questions whether the oppressiveness of some places was due to their history, or whether some primordial, metaphysical presence 'made' people act immorally or despairingly:

As we gradually moved forward, the dismal nature of the site, which developed without changing in any sense, took on a poignant twist we could sense in our conversation, however increasingly vague...The presence of an apparently uninhabited house a hundred metres along on the right added to the absurd and the unjustifiable nature of our walking along in a setting like this. This house, recently built, had nothing to compensate the watching eye for its isolation. It opened out on a rather large enclosure stretching down to the sea, and bordered, it seemed to me, by a metallic trellis, which, given prodigious avarice of the land in such a place, had a lugubrious effect on me, without me stopping to analyse it. My gift of observation, which is in general not remarkable, was noticeably diminished by sadness.

Breton goes on to say that the walk between this house, across a stream and to a small fort gave him a sense of inner despair, and a rift grew between him and his lover. When he returns to his parents they explain that they had passed the site of a murder, a woman shot by her husband. He speaks also of the painting The House of the Hanged Man by Cezanne.

This is not just anecdotal: it is a question, painting for example, of the necessity of expressing the relationship which cannot fail to exist between the fall of a human body, a chord strung round its neck, into emptiness, and the place itself where this drama has come to pass, a place which it is, moreover, human nature to come and inspect.

He establishes, from his parents accounts, that the space between the house and the fort was 'the world' of the man, Michel Henriot and his wife, the site he and his lover had walked through earlier that day. He too had felt diabolically separated from his partner. Was it the site itself, the genus loci, that was the cause, or the gory details of the crime that had happened there that had made it so miserable:

Thus the space between these two buildings, which had been for me that afternoon such an exceptional place of disgrace, revealed itself in its very limits, to be the previous theatre of a singular tragedy.

Black and white archive images above courtesy of Gellivare Bildarkiv.

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