The weather has shifted. The clouds rolled in from the north last night and I woke this morning to grey skies and light rain. The land needs the rain as it has been the driest summer on record up here. It’s interesting to see the change in light and the softening of tones that comes with the moist air. It’s also a treat to have a darker night. I slept soundly until an, appropriately termed, Discomfort of Ravens disturbed the morning quiet as they tangled with the local whimbrils and godwits.
The world is spinning quickly. The days are getting shorter by 6 minutes every day up here. The night is over 30 minutes longer than when we arrived just a week ago. When we leave at the start ofAugust, the days will be 2 hours shorter than when we arrived a the beginning of the month.
Last night, with our first clear horizon for several days, I noticed for that the sun is setting much further to the west.
I can sense for the first time the planet’s drift towards winter when the sun will rise and set in the south only.
I’m thinking about ways to capture that in some work, but a strategy eludes me at the moment…..
I’m inspired along this path by some rough hewn analogs I saw in the National Museum of Iceland.
This mechanism is very inspiring. It’s like a whittled Antikythera. Very cool!
As I’m considering the possibilities, I’ll coninue to savor the changing sunset behind Þórðarhöfðí .
Every Sunday our fabulous host Steinnun organizes a day trip for us to drag our compulsive workaholic butts out of our studios and give us a look at the broader context of where we are. Yesterday we headed up and around the Tröllaskagi Peninsular to our east. Skirting the northernmost point, we could see the low island of Grimsey on the northern horizon which sits on the Arctic Circle – my first sighting of the circle from land. We stopped in the little town of Siglufjörðu for a lunch of delicious pickled herring, rye bread and stout and then a long wander through the great Herring Era Museum. The whole ambience was improved (at least for me) by burping up my herring lunch while wandering the displays.
In its time, Siglufjörðu was like a gold rush capital as tens of thousands of barrels of pickled, salted, and dried herring and fish oil was processed along the miles of wharves and shipped around the world. The museum does a great job of conjuring that time. There are three separate buildings. ‘The Boathouse’ is a huge shed containing whole fishing boats and assorted wharfside shacks dimly lit as if at night which you can wander around at your leisure. You can climb up onto and into the holds of the boats as if you were sneaking around the wharves at night unnoticed.
The atmosphere in the Boathouse was excellent. The air was pervaded with a sweet, faint residue of gasoline, oil, bundled hemp ropes, and ground fishmeal – yum!! It is like walking into a very ambitious project by Michael McMillen.
There are two more buildings in the museum. One dedicated to the processing of herring into fish meal and fish oil. Sounds dry I know, but its more like wandering around in an busy factory on a quiet sunday afternoon when its all closed down. It feels transgressive, as if you’ve found yourself behind the scenes and out of bounds in something that’s fascinating but hard to fathom.
The last building is the ‘salting station’ or brakki - an original building dating from 1907. It housed the office and dormitories for the workers.The museum’s website says “The old brakki has largely been left as it was when inhibited by dozens of girls working in the herring in the summer. When walking through their former lodgings on the third floor, one can easily sense the atmosphere of the old times.” Its true! The tiny bunk beds on the third floor have hand embroidered quilts, suitcases stuffed under them and early Life magazines strewn about, depicting the glamorous America life. You can almost hear the gossip and laughter as the girls come off their long, hard shift salting herring.
We drove back home up the luscious Öxnadalur valley and under the brow of the spectacularly jagged Hraundrangi.
In the foreground is the birthplace of Jónas Hallgrímsson – poet, naturalist and one of the fathers of Icelandic nationalism and independence. You could see how all of those characteristics could have arisen in him from interacting with such an amazing environment.
We drove home along the eastern shore of Skagafjöður to Baer with the evening sun sneaking under low scudding clouds.
Since I’ve been here I’ve been introduced to the works of some interesting Icelandic artists. Many of whom draw on nature as an inspiration – especially water.
I find it both interesting and challenging to find a way to work with found materials and the landscape that isn’t trite, sentimental, or didactic. A way that allows for spontaneity, openness, and multiple interpretation. I sometimes look to other artists to guide me (both by their good and bad examples).
I didn’t know of any Icelandic artists till I arrived here – shame on me. The closest I came was (New York born and raised) Roni Horn who has worked extensively here and is perhaps most famous for her On Place series of monographs begun in Iceland in 1982. Iceland has become her lasting muse. Her Library of Water at Stykkisholmur is definitely on my agenda.
Some of the artists whose work I’ve found engaging or enlightening since coming here have been (click on their names to go to their websites) -
Her Archive of Endangered Water which is currently installed at the National Gallery of Iceland in Reykjavik was Iceland’s entry to the Venice Biennale in 2003. It’s right up my alley in the way it encourages user interaction and then presents a strong physical experience of the landscape to the viewer, captured through digital means. I wish you had to don gumboots and a rain jacket a la Niagara Falls to enter the space.
Another lover of water. Friends in Rekjavik mentioned Finnbogi to me when I told them I was interested in wiring up the landscape and recording its resonances during my residency (more on that later). I like the way he uses electronic means to engage the physical.
He has been at Baer and with his great love of streams and the ocean I’m not surprised. He’s the first artist I’ve encountered who has visually deconstructed water and its movements in a way similar to what I’m doing in my digital prints – but he uses the much more painstaking process of oil painting to achieve his ends. In one catalog of his work the essay refers to his love of fishing and describes the oil paints all lined up as being akin to fishing flies and the act of painting as being a way to catch the river.
Ragna actually schlepps loads of pumice from the edges of Hekla and other Icelandic volcanoes into the gallery which she then adheres both gesturally and painstakingly directly to the wall or traps within sheets of glass like an ant farm. One installation of black pumice in the huge plate glass window of the Reykjavik Art Museum heated up so much during the day that it smashed the glass window threatening to hail volcanic detritus down on innocent passers by – a man-made eruption. Her work connects to minimalist sculpture but is enlivened and empowered by the raw energy of the materials that she uses.
It’s always a challenge to start new work in a new place with unfamiliar tools. That’s the joy of a residency, in fact – to be caught off guard and unprepared. To be surprised into new ways of seeing and working. Its also a challenge to find a balance between new ways of working and old. No one wants to be in their studio ferreting away at work that has been in progress back home, but then again no one can start from scratch as if they have no history of seeing and working and making. And who would want to? Our histories are what make us who we are and give us the tools to work fluently – both conceptually and physically.
I’ve bought a limited amount of equipment with me – not that you’d believe it from the weight of my bags. A Nikon D90 (with remote for time lapses and long exposures), my new sound recording gear (Marantz PMD 661 digital recorder, a handful of contact mic’s, Lawrence’s and my hydrophone, and a bayonet mic), my laptop to coordinate all this digital stuff and my whittling knives and saw as my token woodworking gear. That should be enough?
I started by stomping around the land trying to ‘see’ what it was like. Mark and I dragged back some fishing floats and driftwood on our first midnight hike out to Þórðarhöfðí . Which I knolled on my studio table – just a start to the gathering.
I’ve also been collecting sounds from around Baer – with all my different mic’s. I really enjoy the focus that the mic’s provide. My hearing is not 100%, so the amplification provided by the mic’s and the headphones really help to differentiate the various sounds in the landscape and let me hear sounds that are beyond even the normal human range.
I’m thinking of using an old shark drying shed close to the water as a sort of musical instrument. It already has some interesting acoustic qualities and I’m pondering how to augment them with fishing line, found objects and handmade resonators to make a more acoustically active zone. The singing of the sharks?
Actually it’s just a meat shed, as I found today when I went to do some experiments with fishing line and contact mic’s. There was a nice fresh and dripping sheep carcase hanging up alongside a rather delicious looking slab of fermented greenland shark (hákarl). In Australia they would have been maggoty in minutes – the buzzing of flies would have been an excellent audio element. But here it’s just like being in the cooler.
I’m sharing my time here with three very different artists and we are enjoying finding resonances and differences in each other’s work and working methods.
We are beginning to talk about collaborations, but are starting carefully with borrowing each others equipment, collecting and sharing materials together, looking at each other’s work in progress and, of course, long conversations.
My colleagues here are -
Mark Hartman a young photographer from New York with a keen and individual eye who shares my love of the crepuscular life. He’s rarely in his studio but out walking the coastline with his large format camera and Hasselblad in tow – his website
Tove Sudt-Hansen from Norway who’s primarily known for her paintings, but also works with drawing, clay and textiles. Like all of us, she can’t be easily pigeonholed and is using her time here to expand her practice. Tove has fallen in love with fish leather and is exploring its potential - her website
and two fellow Californians,
Diana Hobson, originally hailing from the UK but now living in the Santa Cruz mountains. Diana started her art career as a glass artist (a fellow craftsperson!) and has gone on to expand her art practice into photography, drawing, installation, sound, and anything else that serves her conceptual needs – Diana’s Baer blog
Linda Simmel from Sonoma town who works primarily on paper (huge luscious sheets of gampi) painstakingly recreating the flow of water in pencil - her website
There are many examples and traces of previous residents’ works on the land and in the main house. I’m amazed how quickly a shared language of experience and interpretation builds between generations of artist’s who have worked in the same residency. Its as if the culture of art-making itself begins to imprint on the landscape leaving clues as to directions both taken and abandoned.
I’m not sure if other pieces are intentional or accidental?
Some I can definitely identify. Such as this work by the architect and academic John Miller who was one of the first residents here and who connected me to Baer.
John’s piece connects two local landmarks. The basalt pile called Kerling south of the island Drangey – which according to folk legend is a troll wife frozen to stone by the rising sun. Her husband Karl was a turned to another pile north of the island but he collapsed in 1755. John saw the now unused, land locked, water tower nearby as the modern replacement fro Karl and set up this observatory so that the new couple could catch sight of each other.
Here’s another architectural-ish intervention that I think was also made by John.
Or perhaps a shelter from the perpetually dive bombing Arctic terns!
One thing I’ve been doing so far is making time-lapse videos of the changing landscape and of the sun’s move towards duskdawn. Its the only way I have devised so far to capture the movement and quality of the light. It definitely satisfies the constraint that I placed on myself to ‘be aware of the passage of time’. I didn’t realize when I made that constraint how profoundly imbedded time would be in everything I see and do here.
Speaking of imbedded time, here is the early part of the evening from 9pm to 1pm. Four hours compressed to 20 seconds.
I found that acute angle the sun follows as it slides towards the evening so surprising. Even in the few days we’ve been here the sun is getting lower in the night and staying down for longer. I love the way you can see where the sun is even after it’s gone down from the reflection on the clouds. At the end of this movie the morning was just beginning to lighten towards dawn.
Must be time for bed! Góða nótt!