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‘The Vikings Begin’ at ASI is small but sensational; Cantus covers Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’

Warrior's helmet, 7th century, Valsgärde boat grave 5.
MinnPost photo by John Whiting
Warrior's helmet, 7th century, Valsgärde boat grave 5.

When you view art and precious artifacts in what was once a private home, even a grand private home, it’s a more intimate and domestic experience than visiting a gallery or museum. The American Swedish Institute is kind of our Frick and our Isabella Stewart Gardner. There is an actual gallery space in its modern Nelson Addition, and exhibitions start there. But then they wind their way into and through the historic Turnblad Mansion, aka the Castle, built in the early 1900s for Swedish immigrant and publishing mogul Swan Turnblad and his family. When you turn a corner or enter another room in the Castle, you never know what you’ll encounter.

From now through Oct. 27, you’ll find ample evidence that the Vikings were more than the brutal, bloodthirsty warriors portrayed in movies and on the History Channel. They were artists who covered their helmets and sword scabbards with intricate scenes from their own mythology. They enjoyed the finer things in life, like silks from China, jewels from Sri Lanka and glass from Rome. Women held the keys to the gods and the supernatural.

“The Vikings Begin,” the new exhibition at the ASI, is small but sensational. Held in the Osher Gallery and five rooms in the Castle plus the mezzanine, it’s about 40 objects, not hundreds. But all are exquisite and none has traveled outside Sweden since first being discovered in an ancient boat grave near Uppsala. In fact, this is the first time most of these objects have toured anywhere. They’re very old and very fragile. Some are iconic.


On loan from Uppsala University and its Gustavianum museum, each item is a glimpse into a world we mostly know from stereotypes. And each is presented in accordance with the latest scholarly research. Not saying this is a dry, academic show – hardly. But it’s good to know that what you’re learning is the best, most current knowledge about what you’re seeing. There are no written records from the time – these items were buried 1,500 years ago, and some were burned – so all we have to go on is what the scholars say. But the Swedish government considers research into this era so important it gave Uppsala University a 10-year, $6 million grant to go digging, as it were.

Uppsala University professor of archaeology Neil Price and Gustavianum director Mikael Ahlund were both in Minneapolis for the opening on May 16. “This is a strange old building, with small rooms,” Ahlund said of the Castle during a press preview. “But this exhibition is sort of designed for that. It’s a little bit like a maze.” Price added, “The rooms are free-standing as well. It doesn’t matter which order you see them in.” Going in, that’s helpful, since ASI mostly turns you loose on its exhibitions without telling you where to go.

“Everyone’s heard of the Vikings,” Price said a bit later. “This enormous, energetic expansion of Scandinavians out into the world. The question we want to ask is why? Why did they do that at just that time? What was it in Scandinavian society that pushed them out into the world?” For one, he explained, the Roman Empire had collapsed in the 400s and 500s. Political stability and trade routes had suffered. And in 536, two volcanic eruptions threw so much material into the atmosphere that it blocked out the sun for more than a year. “We think 50 percent of the Scandinavian population died between 536 and 545,” Price said. So it wasn’t just the urge to explore and kill people that drove the Swedes, Norwegians and Danes from their homes.

Price told a fascinating story about the helmets you’ll see in one of the rooms, if you go. “These helmets, two of five from the boat burials, are unique in the whole of Scandinavia,” he began. He indicated one that’s flat on the back. “You can see this one has been a bit crushed in the ground from the weight of the soil. If you look on the surface, you can see it’s divided into little squares. These are covered with pictures depicting scenes from mythology.

“One of the things we know is these helmets were worn indoors. There are poems that describe the wearing of these helmets at feasts. We’ve done experiments with little replicas. The little pictures all over them – the designs – are in relief. Which means if you’re sitting in a very dim hall just lit by fire, with flickering light, those pictures look like they move. So all these guys are sitting there with their helmets crawling with images.”

Turns out factual information can be as magical as fiction.

“The Vikings Begin” is included in museum admission.

The picks

Tonight (Wednesday, May 29) at Next Chapter Booksellers: Danny Klecko discusses “Hitman-Baker-Casketmaker: Aftermath of an American’s Clash with ICE.” In January 2018, Klecko had a thriving business called the St. Agnes Baking Co. Then an ICE audit led to 23 employees being terminated. In three weeks, the business was gone. Klecker is both a poet and a Master Bread Baker. He tells the story in poems. 7 p.m. Free. P.S. In case you haven’t heard, Next Chapter is the former Common Good.

Before his performance at the Amsterdam, Hans-Joachim Roedelius will take part in a 30-minute interview and Q&A onstage.
Courtesy of the Amsterdam
Before his performance at the Amsterdam, Hans-Joachim Roedelius will take part in a 30-minute interview and Q&A onstage.
Tonight at the Amsterdam: Hans-Joachim Roedelius with Jake Rudh. An electronic music pioneer and a living legend at 84, Berlin-born Roedelius has inspired artists from Brian Eno (with whom he recorded a pair of albums) to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. DJ Jake Rudh will open the evening with a short set of music and video of musicians inspired by Roedelius. Before his performance, the artist will take part in a 30-minute interview and Q&A onstage. 7-10 p.m. FMI and tickets ($16 advance, $20 day of show).


Thursday through Sunday at the Mixed Blood: “How It’s Gon’ Be.” The third play from Underdog Theatre, the company founded by Kory LaQuess Pullam in 2016, “How It’s Gon’ Be” is a story of missed connections and family ties. Written by JuCoby Johnson, directed by H. Adam Harris, it stars Pullam, Aimee K. Bryant, Brian A. Grandison, Rajané Katurah, Dan Akak and Wariboko Gabriel Semenitari. Underdog’s mission is to “create art for the underserved, underrepresented, and unheard.” We haven’t yet seen “How It’s Gon’ Be,” but we saw Underdog’s “Luna Gale” at the Southern in 2018 and would go to this in a heartbeat based on that. FMI and tickets ($5/pay what you can). Closes June 9.

Friday at the Bockley Gallery: Spring Show opening reception. With art by Carolyn Anderson, Julie Buffalohead, Andrea Carlson, Cara Romero, Maggie Thompson and Dyani White Hawk. If you haven’t yet been to the Bockley, it’s small but so worth going, and on a spring night, people will spill out onto the sidewalks and wander next door to Birchbark Books and maybe stop into the Don Saunders’ Kenwood Restaurant for a drink and a bite. 6-9 p.m. Closes June 15.

For this year, Cantus has chosen to cover Joni Mitchell’s “Blue.”
Photo by Nate Ryan
For this year, Cantus has chosen to cover Joni Mitchell’s “Blue.”
Starts Friday at the Cowles: Cantus: “Covers: A Pop Concert.” Since forever, the Twin Cities’ magnificent male vocal ensemble has closed its season with a program of pop songs, sung and arranged by its members. In 2016, they tried something new: covering a whole album. Its Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” concert was such a hit the group followed with the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper” in 2017 and Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” in 2018. For this year, they’ve chosen Joni Mitchell’s “Blue.” With Lee Blaske on keys and woodwinds, Jeremy Boettcher on bass and Dave Schmalenberger on drums. 7:30 p.m. tonight and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday. Also next Friday and Saturday, June 7 and 8. FMI and tickets ($27-37).

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