Distorted Landscapes

Distorted Landscapes

Frida Sandström



Geological glitches between land, nation and citizen

45 kilometers east of Reykavik, Iceland, the Eurasian and the American tectonic plates meet. Each year they are slowly drifting apart, uncovering a lowland of a previously hidden fauna in between the two tectonic shelfs. This is the Þingvellir fields, referring to the Icelandic word for parliament: ”thing”. At this very spot, the world’s oldest parliament, the ”Althing” was once was situated. Founded in 930, the Althing hosted parliamentary sessions until the 19th century, when it moved into the present location in the city of Reykavik. Today the oldest stories about the parliament can be read in the Icelandic Njals Saga from the same period, constituting the foundation of the history of literature of the north. 

In 1918, Iceland was made independent from its colonizer, Denmark. A decade has now passed since the financial crisis of 2008, which hit hard on the small country of around 300 000 habitants. It was the tourist industry that helped it get back on track, quickly rebooting the economic downfall of the country. Alongside the 100 years independence, a national identity is rebuilt through a reinstitution of the time before colonisation, from the era of paganism. Vikings, stone graves, patriarchy. This is a history and aesthetic continuously referred to by the Swedish alt right movement Nordiska Motståndsrörelsen. Their aim is to construct a Nordic kingdom with a shared army and economy, where inhabitants are exclusively of nordic ethnicity, namely arian. Just like the Icelandic tourist industry, they also aspire for a return to the oldest cultural heritage known - the sagas and beyond - searching for a pure identity of the north. Turning back time, narratives are rewritten from new perspectives. 

In late October 2018, the grass of Þingvellir started to move. When approaching the piece of land, a discrete circular cut appears in the grass-covered soil. Forming a piece of land that is separated from the rest of the field, it takes the shape of a small island on dry land, slowly turning counter-clockwise. Around and around. Fifty meters away, a steep rift rises above the wet grass, reminding us of the linear geological fractions, insisting on sharp-edged divisions between land and time. This small island tells a different story. Through the anachronism of the moving grass seeds, it redistributes land for each turn. A slow refusal of cultural geography is manifested on the lowland. 

Anna Rún Tryggvadóttir:  Þingvellir Turning  (2018).

Anna Rún Tryggvadóttir: Þingvellir Turning (2018).

It was visual artist Anna Rún Tryggvadóttir who once dug a hole in the Þhingvellir National Park, now reserved for its unique flora and fauna. Below the moving circular piece of grass is a costum designed engine, similar to the ones in large boats. It keeps the small island in movement every 24 hours. With Þingvellir Turning (2018), Tryggvadóttir highlights the absurdity of history being approached as a quarry from which we extract historical moments much like the minerals in the ground, melting and blending them into useful shapes and alligations. I witness the artwork on the first day of the Icelandic winter. In the center of Reykavik a few hours later, artist Jeannette Ehlers sits still in front of a fast stream of images taken from a variety of visual representations of blackness. From photo journalism to animation, she absorbs the high resolution jpegs projected onto her body. For a few minutes more she sits all still, until she suddenly turns on an air pump and  what seems like a pilates ball slowly grows. 

The room is quickly filled by the intense wait for the ball to fill up, or to… burst. I cover my ears but can still hear the sharp whispering noise of the air passing through the pump. The ball continues to grow, stealing more and more of the projection light that was previously directed onto Ehlers. Soon, it grows so large that it covers the artist herself, still immobile and focusing on the pump’s continued execution. As the ball grows larger, the squared pictures are distorted, taking the shapes of corrupt geometry, bending and turning, alongside the continuously growing size of the ball. I start to think that it might sustain the intense pressure of the air, slowly letting my ears go. I am hypnotized by the spheric corruption of the jpegs, distorting time as well as the RGB colours. BANG! It bursts loud, and the light goes out. We are left in darkness. 

The two artworks were presented as part of Cycle Music Festival, a four year old festival for music and arts in Kopvagur, Iceland. The 2018 edition marked the 100 year memorial of Icelandic independence, the title Inclusive Nation, tackling contradicting phenomena such as national identity and openness. In Gerðarsafn Kopavogur Art Museum, the exhibition Exclusivity Inclusive, curated by Jonatan Habib Engqvist, echoed the core of these themes. In this suburban city south of Reykavik, Anna Rún Tryggvadóttir’s artwork is presented as video documentation alongside the artist duo Julius von Bismarck’s and Julian Charrière’s quite different interaction with the nature of Iceland. As part of the ongoing project which gathers a series of landscape photographs, entitled Kunst, Bismarck and Charrière have placed a large graffiti work on the monumental mountains of the country. Using direct translations of the actual material they paint upon, they write words like ‘Lava’ on lava, ‘Dune’ on a sand dune, ‘Mountain’ on a peak, et cetera. As is so often when it comes to land art, their actions were left without signature, and as a result it took some time for the Icelandic news and its terrified audience to realise that two foreign artists had inflicted these severe violations to their national heritage; to their nature. In the exhibition hall of Gerðarsafn, two of the artist duo’s photographs were accompanied with prints of a dozen of the emails that Bismarck received from angry Icelanders after the news event of May 2013. From serious complaints and questions of how the artists could ever do such a thing, the correspondence also includes fierce threats that have resulted in Bismarck not  returning to Iceland since, even for the opening of this very show.

”Jarðrask” is Icelandic for “human interference with the landscape” and in the case of Bismarck and Charrière it is also a perfect notion to explore a discussion of who actually owns land. In Iceland, natural heritage cannot be separated from the economic security that its resources provides. However, a nation’s economy isn’t always comparable to it’s heritage and certainly not in a country that was colonized for almost 400 years. From independence, new perspectives develop, be it in former Yugoslavia, post-Soviet or on the African continent. And the question arises: should a new national identity be formulated? A hundred years after the formal liberation of the Icelandic state, humankind’s grasp over nature is put to the test. Alongside the financial crisis, there is now a crisis of the anthropocene – of mankind’s domination on earth. Through the lens of Tryggvadóttir’s work, the collisions between geography and ecology are made visible. Whilst the first is a social and cultural construct, the second is a ready made by nature, not mankind. The two will never totally fit, and whilst the landscape continues to move, the urge to shape it’s narrative and economic contours accelerates - be it in terms of cultural canonization, of language, or of employment. Nationalism grows on the steep slope of the state as a construct in an era of multinational capitalism. 

Bismarck and Charrière:  Crater  and  Lava  from the series  Kunst  (2013).

Bismarck and Charrière: Crater and Lava from the series Kunst (2013).

The production of and discourse around contemporary art is deeply involved in this paradox and several attempts to deal with the matter are seen in recent biennales and exhibitions where heritage and histories are  reorganized much like the tectonically affected land of the Þingvellir fields. When the stony constructs withdraw, hidden grounds are now touched by the sunlight. What stands out from these - most often curatorial attempts - are artworks that critically engage in the material history of their own media. Here we will have to step away from the worn-out notion of “rewriting”, and rather speak about forms of corruption. Tryggvadóttir and Ehlers certainly do distort the inscriptions that are made onto their bodies from the inside to out and onto the land where they live. This is a direct translation of imagery and space, where the dislocation of sources and connecting points force new links to grow forth. It is not a refusal of a past, but rather a direct interaction with it. Through the cultural history of the photograph, the landscape of democracy and the language of naming, both artists corrupt the idea of mankind’s history as a natural fact. Together, they also foreground the anthropocentric crisis as being deeply connected with mankind’s disability to regard one other as equal. To take care, to curate. 

Meanwhile, the alienation of black lives goes on, just like the extraction of aluminium from the Icelandic ground. Post-crisis, several artworks refuse to align with such linear continuations of violence. Instead of extracting history to weave new narratives, they chose to corrupt the pre-existing matter onto which they stand or through which they already work. Ehler’s distortions are comparable to the contemporary video-collages by Arthur Jafa, countering the colonial history of western documentary aesthetics. Similarly, Tryggvadóttir continues the track once started by the landscape art movement in the 60’s and 70’s, but just like Ehlers she include a bio-political layer to the practice. Locating the immanent critique in the medium itself, the artworks also complicate their own position in a western canon, a contemporary art-world and in human society at large. Turning back to the Þingvellir fields, the parliament as a construct is repositioned by the landscape itself. Through the geological glitches, a geometric refusal arises.  

Sweden is without government since September 2018, and the recent years there has been an intense debate on whether the age of young migrants can be measured through x-raying their skeleton, their teeth or other aspects of their human geology. The use of this method has emerged simultaneously with the increasing amount of people seeking refuge in the north. Swedish doctors have criticized this approach for being unethical and also very insufficient, since calcium ages so different depending on the specific body, its level of health and all that it has endured. The debate remains in contention, and many migrants are awaiting their final objective decision based on the data extracted from their bodies. Iceland has barely no immigration and still a large proportion of the younger generation emigrate themselves. What is then left behind is tourism and nature, a full circle of natural resources where human ones are lacking. Defining such a recent dilemma is not an easy task especially when the subject is not openly discussed as is the case in other former colonies. Belonging to the cluster of Scandinavia, the country keeps it’s northern pride.

In the newly opened art gallery Midpunkt in the suburban Icelandic city of Hamraborg, the exhibition Sounds of Doubts presented a new collaboration between visual artist, Jeannette Castioni and composer Thuridur Jonsdottir. In the space, I encountered two half-meter zigzag-shaped stripes of white plastic. Their obscure format could be understood both as three dimensional musical scores or as two pieces of a stock market diagram or as small castings of the barren land of Iceland. The recognizable white sterile color from a 3d-print reveals a digital history behind the shapes. On the wall behind the installation of the shiny white pieces, was an interactive projection of colors changing in relation to the sound in the room. All that is said and done is absorbed by a microphone positioned in the middle of the room. I’m told that the plastic zigzag-shapes are digital mixes of the deepest water around Iceland in the east - and the sound of the national anthem, analysed just like my voice when I speak into the microphone. In this amalgamation between topology and melody, a three dimensional structure was created and printed. No colors were added to the abstract model of the voice and place and in the white pieces of plastic, nature and culture are visibly distorting one another.  

The Icelandic hymn was never heard inside the gallery space, and neither was the deep water surrounding the country’s coastline. Inside the white box, the nation state as a solid entity of history and belonging was put to the test by the very rhythm of continuous movement. Instead of directly engaging with the source material of their research - sound and landscape - Castioni and Jonsdottir have added the objective mirror of the 3d-print, fusing the two materials into one. In this ”third space”, the hybrid identity of space, history and experience that the post-colonial theories Homi K. Bhabha once called it, is activated. Applying this socio-linguistic notion onto the physical matter of a landscape, something interesting happens to our understanding of the idea of the nation state itself. Whilst Castioni and Jonsdottir presents the blank matter of the other ”self”, Ehlers and Tryggvadóttir let their spectators embody the glitch that takes place in the medium that they corrupt. As such, the dysfunctional human relationship to the landscape is brought forth as a positive force through the very encounter with the artwork - something that can never be translated into a specific belonging, origin or value. Is it even so that art, through its immanent contradictions, disables all attempts from humankind to draw straight lines between land, nation and citizen? If so, the title Inclusive nation must be inverted: the nation must be included in the distortion.