Bjørn Berge treats his stamps as secret histories. His isolated home and architectural practise in Lista, Norway (‘a bit like the Orkneys,’ he says) contains a stamp collection which favours abandoned and provisional nations. To the despair of more conventional collectors, he likes roughly handled items, which he eagerly rubs himself, seeking resonant remnants of lost times and places.
Nowherelands: An Atlas of Vanished Countries 1840-1975 is a richly researched, sharp-witted compendium of 50 representative ex-nations. The Penny Black and full-scale imperialism began in tandem in 1840, and there are quirks and horrors on every page. In Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), the absurdity of an actor-convict’s attempted escape disguised as a kangaroo collides with the genocide of its Aboriginal people. From the origins of Tsingtao beer to Rimbaud’s arms-dealing in Obock, all human life can be gleaned from Berge’s collection. For many of his book’s doomed cultures, only their stamps remain.
You travel on a very human scale, walking gradually around the coast of Europe each year. Do you travel more widely now in your imagination, by looking at these stamps?
Bjørn Berge: Yes, that’s right. I travel in my head, with the use of the stamps to transcend my surroundings. Stamps are like Harry Potter’s portals. You can just touch them, and then you travel in time and space. I smell them, and even lick them, just to get closer contact. There have been more than 1,100 countries which have issued stamps, so that’s a lot of potential for journeys. I have a lot myself – 800 I think.
You’ve got a very impish imagination. You write about an Eastern Karelian postmaster and the crackle of gunfire as invading Russians approach, and decide that your stamp must be a forgery, because the hand that stamped the postmark wasn’t shaking.
That’s an example of the intensity of that kind of fantasy travelling. You put yourself in the place, because you have this stamp, which is real, and has in a way experienced the whole thing. I just have to translate it into words.