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All trash is treasure to Thomas Dambo

Arts | June 20th, 2024

New Minnesota sculptures include artist’s largest troll

By Sabrina Hornung

sabrina@hpr1.com

According to Danish artist and environmental activist Thomas Dambo, “All trash is treasure.” So far, he and his team have built 138 giant recycled troll sculptures in 17 countries and 19 states in the U.S. This summer, they added Minnesota to the list with a new installation in Detroit Lakes. Now the hunt is on to find them.

“I make them in a big treasure hunt,” Dambo said. “So I hide them — and I went to great lengths to hide them because I want to show us all that trash is a treasure. I want to put trash and recycled materials and scavenged materials in the hands of people.”

His team consists of 17 members and 400 local volunteers who have helped with everything from meals to transportation. His installation in Detroit Lakes consists of five giant sculptures, one of which is the tallest troll he’s ever undertaken at 36 feet high, with one “Bad Bunny” and three smaller pieces. The project has taken the team four weeks to complete. This will be his largest installation to date with the most sculptures, as well as the tallest sculpture.

Why trolls? Dambo cited two reasons.

“I think there's two reasons for why I like stories and fairy tales, and the one is that my mother only used to make up stories about trolls, and she would read me different stories about trolls and Viking mythology,” he explained.

Trolls have a huge role in Scandinavian folklore and these age-old tales have become incorporated into Scandinavian pop culture via children’s literature and programming. Dambo mentioned troll theme parks, as well as troll legends that accompany certain natural landmarks.

“But then, also I come from the city where the Danish poet Hans Christian Andersen comes from and I used to be a rapper,” the Copenhagen-born artist said with a smile. “We always used to feel that it was so annoying, why everybody in our city will always talk about the old poet, and what about us? We are the new poets, because we are the rappers. I think in some way, these things made me appreciate stories and fairy tales.”

My Modern Met placed Thomas Dambo at number five on its World Art Installations list in 2023 and he has gained a worldwide troll following. His eventual goal is to have a sculpture in each state. Dambo’s trolls in Detroit Lakes were made possible by Project 412, a non-profit dedicated to elevating the public art and culture of lake country.

On June 6, Project 412 and Thomas Dambo invited the media to come out and meet a few trolls — which were still under construction at the time. The Detroit Lakes Chamber of Commerce held a ribbon cutting ceremony on Monday, June 10. It might sound repetitive to note that a press conference was so well-documented, but Dambo had his own team recording the process as well. In fact, he has a Youtube channel called Trash Talk, documenting the trolls and his team’s travels.

The first troll we encountered was located in Detroit Lakes City Park. Also onsite were a number of volunteers making clusters of birdhouses that would accompany the sculptures. The title of this work is “Alexa’s Elixir.” The names he gives the trolls are inspired by family, friends, and folks he meets in his travels. This sculpture was inspired by his wife Alexa, who creates elixirs such as fire cider to keep the family healthy. She’s also in charge of public relations. The two met while traveling in Barcelona in 2017, married in 2020 and the rest is a globe trotting love story.

The mythology of the trolls is a story in itself, full of magic and mischief. This mythology is key to Dambo’s style. But it also guides visitors from troll to troll.

Troll hunters will be able to find a series of portals represented by mirrors. Near “Alexa’s Elixir,” one will find a large book of clues and riddles that will aid in determining the location of each sculpture. If you can’t make it to the book, you can find the map at https://trollmap.com/. Each of the trolls wears a necklace with various symbols from Dambo’s mythology that all contribute to solving the riddle.

From the City Park, we boarded a large black van. Dambo made sure to note that the windows were blacked out, so we wouldn’t know the exact location of the next sculpture. We were asked to surrender our cell phones so we couldn’t leak GPS coordinates, for fear of someone spoiling the surprise.

Dambo’s love of treasure hunts started when he was a child. His mother would come up with treasure hunts for his birthday parties and this enthusiasm continued into adulthood. He loves how his work can bring a community together and feels this to be a symbol of the things that can be achieved by working together.

The second troll we met was “Long Leif” (pronounced “Long Life”), the tallest troll ever created by Thomas Dambo. Thanks to the help of the local telephone company, the sculpture is anchored with 10 foot poles drilled into the earth to ensure Leif remains long. When asked how he felt about “Long Leif” upon completion, Dambo replied, “Like a really small, proud dad.”

There’s a certain kind of magic to Dambo’s trolls. The detail and construction is a feat in itself. Not only do they have their own distinct personalities, with their features and wild shocks of tree branch hair, there’s a definite architectural quality to them. Dambo is self-taught. The only architectural background he has, he says came from building tree forts and skate ramps as a kid.

The trolls are made of recycled materials. In fact, Dambo was in Detroit Lakes last year exploring the Becker County landfill in search of building materials. Many of the materials came from discarded lumber, pallets, or trees from the Highway 34 road construction project. The bodies of the trolls were constructed onsite by local volunteers, alongside members of Dambo’s crew. The head, hands, mirrors and feet were constructed by Dambo’s team over the course of the year in Denmark and shipped back to Detroit Lakes.

As we walked back to our black van, we were greeted by a number of ATVs that could accommodate up to four passengers. The ATVs were driven by the “CBoys” who are self-described “professional fun-havers.” They operate their own Youtube Channel called CBoysTV. Originally from Cormorant, Minnesota (hence the “C”) they’ve gained a following of 3.6 million viewers at press time.

The next stop on our press conference would involve some off-roading. Members of the press were given red bandanas that would serve as blindfolds and told that, at a certain point during our ride in and out of the site, we would be asked to put our blindfolds on. To ensure that there would be no risk that the super-secret location of the next sculpture, “Bad Bunny,” would be leaked by the press, Thomas even did a walk through to ensure there was no peeking.

Once we got to our location, we were told to remove the blindfold. We walked a short distance into a wooded area. As we walked, we first saw the ears and then a large yellow rabbit head (and of course, ears) looming over the forest.

The “Bad Bunny” is the most difficult sculpture to find. Materials used for the golden rabbit are quite different from those used for the trolls. “Bad Bunny” has a wood frame like the trolls, but instead of being made of salvaged wood, he’s constructed of various “shingles” created using the bottoms of plastic boxes (1,700, to be precise) used by the Bismarck Tool and Die Company or BTD. The plastic shingles that inform the surface give the bunny a great sense of volume. His eyes are made of two black motorcycle helmets secured at the local secondhand store. His teeth consist of boat bumpers and his whiskers are made of wiper blades, Alexa smiled and added that, in Denmark, windshield wipers are referred to as whiskers.

By using these plastic shingles, Dambo showed the company how much waste it produces. As a result, BTD is looking into a more sustainable way of dealing with its waste products, creating an ongoing partnership between the Becker County Waste site and Becker County Work Release programs.

Dambo’s work will be on permanent display, Project 412 is planning to care for the sculptures long-term and will be on the lookout for a team of “troll huggers” to help out with maintenance after the build. For more information on becoming a “troll hugger,” email hello@project412mn.org.

YOU SHOULD KNOW:

https://www.thomasdambo.com/

www.project412mn.org

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