CCA  Center for Contemporary Art and Ecology 

02 September – 19 November 2023

Sissel Marie Tonn


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In THE PORTAL, Sissel Marie Tonn expands on her artistic research on the bog, once an awe-inspiring site of contact with spirits, ancestors and gods, now a threatened ecosystem that is key to counteract ecological decline. Conceived as a sensorial exploration of the bog, THE PORTAL presents new video, sound, and ceramic work that reflect on the ecosystem’s cultural and ecological entanglements, learning what it is to be human, both in deep past, present, and in speculative futures. Just as the soil counterbalances carbon dioxide produced by plants, normal human behaviour makes up for the artificiality of our surroundings. Are there chances we once again regard this ecosystem as a portal, alive and inseparable from us, in the pressing need to consider posthuman subjectivities and bodies?

Arguably, THE PORTAL is a carrier bag–in the sense of writer Ursula K. Le Guin–for the murmurs of thousand years old bog bodies, who utter the whispers of posthuman subjectivities deep in the thick, spongy layers of wetlands. As Tonn writes, bog bodies contain both ”the past and the future, as they continue to exist in an intimate relation with those environments that we, the living, continually shape and reshape to fit our needs.” In a posthuman transition where bodies are no longer thought as singular nor exclusively human, what potentialities would emerge for an embodied advocacy for the conservation of ecosystems?

Image credit: Moesgaard Museum

About two thousand and two hundred years ago in contemporary Denmark, the body of an adult woman was laid dead in a bog, a freshwater wetland mainly composed of peat, an accumulation of decayed plant matter at a preliminary stage before turning into other kinds of fossil fuel, mainly coal. She was found by a peat digger in 1879 in Huldremose, in the peninsula of Djursland, by the Kattegat. The specific acidic and poor oxygen conditions of the bog, in combination with the seasonal conditions under which the woman was buried, enabled the corpse to be preserved for a long period of time. The woman was fully clothed, had a ring on her finger, amulets in a cape, amber beads around the neck, and a willow branch on her chest. While in the Scandinavian Iron Age the dead were commonly incinerated, the woman of Huldremose was intentionally laid in the bog, possibly as part of a ritual sacrifice. Bogs were considered sacred spaces for spiritual transition between the human world and the realm of gods. Rituals in honour of deities of fertility were commonly done in bogs, and sometimes they would include human sacrifice and burial.

The woman of Huldremose was taken to the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen, where she is still preserved and exhibited. It was there when, at a young age, Sissel Marie Tonn saw a bog body for the first time, marking the beginning of a long time fascination with them. This childhood fascination later became an important object of study in her artistic practice, with a first iteration in SPAGHNUM TIME (2020-2021), a video and ceramics installation that is now expanded into THE PORTAL (2023), which debuts in this exhibition.

The bog bodies that every now and then were discovered at peat-digging sites during the first half of the twentieth century, were taken to museums for analysis and preservation. Archeologists would observe the visible bruises and cuts in the bodies and deduct that they had been victims of violence and crime before being cast into the bogs, most likely because they had been considered outcasts under the social conventions of the time. However, thanks to advancements in forensic technologies during the early 2000s, more nuanced theories emerged, arguing that the bruises and cuts found in the bodies were likely to have occurred postmortem. Moreover, interpretations of ritualistic sacrifices gained popularity, most prominently the research of Pauline Asingh, an archeologist who has studied the Grauballe Man, a bog body preserved at the Moesgaard Museum, Denmark. Asingh argues that sacrifice in prehistoric Scandinavian communities was a means to address their dependencies to the environment, as well as a plea to the deities of nature for favourable weather conditions. In this way, the bog was understood as a ‘portal’ through which humans could establish communication with the world of gods, spirits, and ancestors.

While the very few examples of discovered bog bodies have been painstakingly preserved, becoming an object of marvel that attract many visitors, the bogs wherein they were found have long been neglected and uncared for. Continued extraction of fuel from bogs and depletion as a result of agriculture and deforestation is fatal for the environment: when the ecosystem of the bog becomes unbalanced, the CO2 it has been storing over the past thousands of years is released. Long misunderstood as wastelands, bogs are precious ecologies that play a crucial role in the carbon cycle as they are the most efficient carbon sinks on Earth. Bogs in Scotland, for instance, hold the equivalent of around 140 years of the nation’s greenhouse gases. In realising the pressing need to protect bogs whilst climate change critically unfolds, countries like Denmark are making efforts to reintroduce bogs for carbon sequestering.

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  1. Martha Henriques, ‘The Promise and Danger of Scotland’s Bog’, BBC Future Planet. (link)
  2. Carbon sequestration is the long-term storage of carbon in plants, soils, geologic formations, and the ocean. Carbon sequestration occurs both naturally and as a result of human activities. In response to growing concerns about climate change resulting from increased carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere, considerable interest has been drawn to the possibility of increasing the rate of carbon sequestration through changes in land use and forestry and also through geoengineering techniques such as carbon capture and storage.

Curated by Niekolaas Johannes Lekkerkerk, assisted by Sergi Pera Rusca.

THE PORTAL has been made possible the support of the Gieskes-Strijbis Fonds, Municipality of Delft, Mondriaan Fund, Stroom Den Haag, Stichting Stokroos, Stichting Niemeijer Fonds, Danish Art Council.