Outside, the egg is grand and golden, with faceted mirrors reflecting the snow and sky around it. A sculpture. A sight. But stepping into the egg reveals another purpose: In the center of the room, lined with wooden benches, stands a stove. A sauna.
The 16-foot-tall “Solar Egg,” clad in 69 geometric mirrors, was pieced together this week at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis, where visitors can sauna in its steamy, 180-degree heat. A pair of Swedish artists, known as Bigert and Bergström, dreamed up this otherworldly structure as a way to gather small groups of people, stripping of them of their cellphones and their pretenses and encouraging them to talk to one another.
Minnesota is the sauna’s seventh home — its first in the United States.
“It’s not just a funny thing, like a spectacular thing: ‘Wow. Wow. Wow. Take a selfie,’ ” said Lars Bergström. Instead, the artist said their sculpture is meant “to push the idea that art could change the temperature or change the discussion.”
Discussion around climate change, perhaps. For decades, Bergström and Mats Bigert have invited people into their large-scale sculptures to see and experience global warming’s effects in new ways.
“Art can actually make a difference through communication around these very abstract phenomena which have enormous time spans,” Bigert said. “I think artists can make projects or create images which cut through this fatigue when it comes to just reading news.”
[Open video in mobile YouTube app for full virtual reality]
On Wednesday morning, Bigert and Bergström circled the egg in the Swedish Institute’s courtyard, where it reflected, in a few stainless panels, the historic Turnblad Mansion and, in others, its new, modern addition. The artists had considered a smooth, round exterior but settled on the facets, which they hope reflect fragmented views on climate change, politics and other topics that might arise amid the steam inside.
A ray of light bounced off the egg and onto Bergström’s face.
“It’s a sauna,” he laughed, “but it’s also a sunshine tanning machine.”
Stepping up the stairs into the egg, Bigert paused to gently jostle the slim hand railing, making sure it was secure, and run his fingers over a pair of bolts. The egg is held together by some 1,400 bolts and nuts, a number that has grown at each of the sculpture’s stops.
“If we had known it would travel,” Bigert said, “of course it would have been constructed differently.”
In fact, they designed the egg for a particular place — Kiruna, Sweden’s northernmost town. Kiruna was facing an epic, controversial move to enable a mining company to extract iron ore from a vein beneath it. As the town prepared to relocate, its leaders wanted Bigert and Bergström to design a place where locals could meet to discuss the changes and the challenges.
A sauna seemed natural. As in neighboring Finland, the warm, wood-fired rooms play a key cultural role in Sweden, acting as social hubs. Importantly, Swedes shed their clothes before entering, the artists noted. “When you’re walking into a sauna, you don’t have your costume on anymore,” Bergström said. “All the social codes are gone, and we become more like equals. So it actually became like a think tank and a platform for discussions.”
The artists have been curious about what’s come up during those talks, he added with a sly smile. “We would like to record the discussions, but we are not allowed to do that.”
Dazzling photographs showed the mirrored egg perched in snowy Kiruna, glinting gold. Then in Björkliden, mountains in the distance. Those photos made their way across the world, inspiring gasps, curiosity and, for the sculpture, future trips — to Paris, to Copenhagen, to Minneapolis.
The Swedish Institute was drawn to the sculpture as part of its mission to “be a gathering place for important conversations,” spokeswoman Karen Nelson said. Conversations that are positive, not divisive, she added, “in ways that are true to the Swedish traditions.”
“You have this sauna, which is almost like a UFO, and it draws your attention,” Bigert said. “And then when you enter it, you could dig down a bit deeper and then you end up on this possible topic.”
Since the 1990s, Bigert and Bergström have used large-scale sculptures, installations and documentary films to draw attention to the effects of climate change, interrogating humans’ relationship with the world. The works are often interactive and immersive, employing both science and sharp humor. In 1994, their five Climate Chambers placed people in wild extremes — 100 percent humidity in one, intense winds in another.
“One intention with this climate-related work is to make people more aware,” Bigert said. “There’s actually weather going on out there. ... Go out and experience it more strongly. We’ve built ourselves into these perfect incubators that are lukewarm.”
Art can make visible the complicated, long-term problem of climate change, Bergström said.
He noted a recent performance: In 2015, the artists placed a huge, reflective golden cloth on the glacier-topped peak of Kebnekaise, the country’s highest mountain, which was melting at a rate of one meter a year. It resembled a cloth draped over a dead body, commenting on the loss of a national symbol.
“That’s a great image that addresses the climate situation that we’re having now and also gives a strong idea of what’s going to be in the future,” Bergström said. “Then you actually can discuss it more strongly, I think. It’s not abstract anymore, in a sense.”
An interview Wednesday morning turned into a passionate discussion between Bigert and Bergström about global warming, with the two artists occasionally debating each other’s points. The pair, who met in 1986 while studying at the Royal Swedish Academy of Arts in Stockholm, seemed at turns hopeful and frustrated, acknowledging the possibilities and limits of their work.
Their dream for the sauna, Bigert said, would be to fill it with decisionmakers. A little like how former Finnish President Urho Kekkonen famously invited visiting leaders to sauna with him, negotiating in the steam. Climate scientists and maybe politicians. President Donald Trump.
“You become a different person in the sauna,” Bigert said. “It’s like when you’re stripped from all these social markers, I think you have a different type of discussion.”
Want to sauna?
Cost: $30-$35 for a half-hour.
When: Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday through April 28.