About

Incidents (of Travel) explores the chartered day-long travel itinerary as a format of artistic encounter and an extended conversation between curator/s and artist/s.

An expanded phase of a project conceived by Latitudes (Barcelona) in 2012, this new series of tours is conceived as fieldwork and an expanded studio visit. It is presented as reportage and dispatches from invited curators and artists working around the world.

Destinations

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Curator: Alejandra Aguado
Artist: Diego Bianchi

Hobart, Tasmania

Curator: Camila Marambio
Studio College: Lucy Bleach

Yerevan, Armenia

Curator: Marianna Hovhannisyan
Studio College: National Center of Aesthetics

Terengganu, Malaysia

Curator: Simon Soon
Artist: chi too

Lisbon, Portugal

Curator: Pedro de Llano
Artist: Luisa Cunha

Suzhou, China

Curator: Yu Ji
Artist: Xiao Kaiyu

Jinja, Uganda

Curator: Moses Serubi
Artist: Moshen Taha

Chicago, April

Curator: Yesomi Umolu
Artist: Harold Mendez
Photos by: Nabiha Khan

Incidents (of Travel)

Curator

Artist

Becky Forsythe

Þorgerður Ólafsdóttir

Introduction

Itinerary

Reykjavík, Iceland

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As I write there is just one month until the midwinter solstice falls upon Iceland, marking the shortest day of the calendar year and the day of least light. In Reykjavík, one of the most northerly capital cities in the world on an island known for its proximity on the 66th parallel north, this time exposes a new way of seeing. Dark mornings and early, colorful sunsets dictate the atmosphere and pace of things from late November until early spring when the days lengthen again. A full moon awaits us on Friday to come, and the sea follows the lunar day as marked in the almanac with a swaying and bulging tidal range.

This sets the stage for Þorgerður Ólafsdóttir’s practice as an artist. Its backdrop is Iceland itself—its geology, weather systems, symbols, and literature, as well as changes that have taken place in the landscape and key moments in the island’s past that spin threads between natural and human history. Þorgerður's work (Thorgerdur when anglicized) considers all of the above in the context of different measures of time and site—the here, there, then, when, and the spaces in between.

The air is crisp and it is bright outside, even though the ever-present darkness of winter cycles close. With the moon in Gemini we are nearing a sign of two-ness, and this duality aligns with Þorgerður’s current interest in Icelandic spar, a form of transparent calcite crystal known for its optical properties of double refraction. Duality also relates to our thoughts and discussions as we visit sites where we experience nature in the real, as well as those where it is safeguarded in protected areas, or presented in a museum. We race with daylight between sites, collecting moments and considering the ways in which geologic time surfaces in the context of human duration. The timing of our first stop is especially key today, as we aim to meet at low tide, shortly after 11:10 am, by the remains of a tree long lost to the ocean.

This first site in Þorgerður’s itinerary has us leaving Reykjavík’s city center and heading northeast to Kjalarnes. We step out into the wild in search of a seaside bog. It is rather unknown to the general public, but something of a well-known topic within the circle of geologists and natural history enthusiasts who study such things. The remains of an ancient forest lies here, untouched by obvious human intrusion, not yet on the circle of “things to see” while touring the Icelandic countryside.

The light seems low in the sky at this time of year, when it decides to come out. At different points during our time together Þorgerður points out that it is difficult to determine between sunrise and sunset.

The remains of trees can be found at the edge of the sea—an unusual place perhaps, especially for an island that was once nearly 40% forested yet is now considered more or less treeless (with a few notable exceptions). At very specific moments which can be determined by tide tables, the sea rolls out and exposes this site, and it is possible to stumble upon a root in an unexpected meeting with the past.

The root system of a tree that stopped growing somewhere around 9,000 years ago surfaces in the peaty sand, its details having stood the trial, not only of a vast span of time, but also the unforgiving seaside elements.

A tree knot encapsulated all those years ago now depends on the movement of the sea and the microenvironment of the peat that surrounds it.

With only a collection of quickly gathered maps and some written directions, our previous attempt to locate the ancient woodland proved more difficult than we had anticipated. Despite a methodical wander along the shoreline, we ran into quite different evidence of the passage of time among the sediment and stones in the form of these decaying concrete slabs. It wasn’t until the later excursion that we eventually discovered the tree remains.

A brief view looking back over to Reykjavík from Kjalarnes through a rainbowed-fractured chunk of Icelandic spar. It has been speculated that Icelandic spar was at one time used for navigational purposes—it is also known as sólarsteinn (sunstone) and silfurberg (silver rock). The mineral, with its cloudy gem-like quality, could be used to locate the sun in the sky even when it was overcast or snowing. As Þorgerður explains and demonstrates, it can also be used as a tool for locating the sun during this current time of the year when it disappears more with each day.

This piece of spar, borrowed from geologist Auður Ingimarsdóttir, becomes a lens which shifts our vision, doubling what we perceive through it. Light is split into two polarized rays through it—vibrating on an electromagnetic field—each with different brightness and in a process that produces rainbows, blue skies, and assists in orientating migrating birds.

The Rauðhólar (Red Hills) are comprised of c. 5,000 year-old “pseudocraters”, or what is left of them, and are found in the Elliðaárhraun lava field in Heiðmörk Nature Reserve. The site is part of the wider Leitahraun lava field, which spread from the eruption of the shield volcano Leitir. Lava once travelled across a marshy swamp area, allowing for gas in the lava to build up underneath, which then exploded and left these large bulbous crater-like forms with jagged tops. The site is so singular that the Red Hills were protected in 1961 and declared a nature reserve in 1974. For a moment, we become lost in the landscape.

The fiery color of the pseudocraters comes from scoria, a volcanic rock that, prior to knowledge of its value in a global context, was once mined here for use in building the national airport, main roadways and other things. Þorgerður notes that the pseudocrater remains and leftovers might be overlooked in their quality as a tourist attraction exactly because they’ve been mined so drastically. They are no longer what they once were, singular features that no longer really represent themselves.

It is my first experience of this site, although I have passed by countless times before on my way east. We share our visit there with a couple of tourists. There is a sense that people are becoming more aware of the uniqueness of these features, and they have become a regular stop.

Scoria typically would have formed near the surface of a lava flow, and in this case thrown out as fragmented ejecta known as lapilli, blocks, or bombs. We talk about how, on Earth, these real-fake craters only exist in Iceland, but they have also been found on Mars. We think of how there are many other such parallel places on this island, creating meeting points in time between two different worlds, and recall that, since the 1960s, NASA has sent astronauts to Iceland to improve their skills for moving around unfamiliar territory.

Þorgerður scales the edges of the foundations of an old army barracks. This manmade presence is somewhat surreal against the backdrop of the cratered landscape. Her interest in this site comes from considering nature’s power to reclaim. It is as if we are in the company of pseudo-nature in the land of pseudocraters.

More than one foundation has been left imprinted into the landscape at the Red Hills, this one looking back towards part of the city in the distance. Each continues to co-exist with the surrounding nature in their own way—trees have claimed spots in their interior, moss follows the lines of old wooden beams and grows along cracks where the floor level has shifted. Evidence of a ventilation system offers more indication of former human presence. Although this is a barren and lonely place, a sense of the activity that must have long ago buzzed around the strange settlement is still in the air.

On the way back into the Reykjavík core, we pass by a glacial moraine (soil and pieces of rocks in various shapes and sizes, left behind after a glacier has melted away and receded). It is cut in sections by the road we drive on, one of the key arteries in and out of the city. Without knowing what to look for, the moraine would be easily missed, but it is evidently there, part of daily life in this northern city.

More evidence of ice movements from long ago.

The Icelandic Meteorological Office (IMO) rightly predicted broken cloud cover today which allows us enough hours of good day light to travel between the sites. From where the IMO office sits in Reykjavík, mountains can be seen in almost every direction. As if a symbol of the everyday reality for most of the country’s inhabitants, the IMO building is modest, subtle, and unassuming. Inside its walls weather information is gathered, researched, processed, and expelled at a high turnover, and our daily dependence on these processes is as imbedded in our consciousness as the physical landscape.

Sólveig Aðalsteinsdóttir’s outdoor sculpture Passage of time (Streymi tímans), 2012, is part of the collection of Reykjavík Art Museum. A great teacher and artist, this work is one of the best outdoor sculptures in Reykjavík, in Þorgerður’s opinion.

Passage of Time sits atop a hill in the centre of Reykjavík, marking a place and a moment. It is an attempt to uncover a history that has long been there, but that was covered by layers of other time. Sólveig excavated the site to reveal rocks that peek up from the soil and vegetation. She exposes evidence of the lines scratched by glaciers on the surface of the rocks before the ice retreated in a northwesterly direction 11,000 to 12,000 years ago. We admire the work as the daylight nears its end, rain begins to set in and homeward bound traffic hums in the distance. A small plane flies over head and we talk about this geological illusion of whales emerging from the sea as they come up for breaths of air.

Perlan (the Pearl) stands within view of Sólveig’s work. The structure houses Reykjavík’s immense hot-water-reserve storage tanks, and includes a newly-opened virtual showcase of the magic of Icelandic nature.

This simulated video shows images of the landscape in all its wonder. In fact, as Þorgerður explains to me, this recent interactive addition to Perlan is organized by the private company Wonders of Iceland. “It’s successful in many ways, but you get the feeling that here is another exhibition of things that we think people want to see”, she reflects.

It seems to me that this manufactured version of nature is the epitome of a situation in which the vulnerable position of nature faces increasing pressures from tourism in Iceland at the moment.

The famous Geysir in action. As Þorgerður explains to me, “in the nineties, a manmade geyser was constructed close to Perlan, at about the same time that it was evident that Geysir—the ‘original’ geyser after which all others take their name—had ‘retired’ and would never erupt again. No matter how much soap was thrown into it to try and stimulate eruptions, its activity had all but ceased. Before the new fake geyser was made there used to be one inside Perlan, on the ground floor. When it ‘erupted’ the water gush came bursting up to the fourth floor, usually followed by squealing kids running up and down the stairs.”

Exhibitions visitors even have the opportunity to travel through a simulated ice cave, a pseudo-natural experience.

The ice cave mimics representation of an actual ice cave with the inclusion of sediment lines apparently marking time in the compacted snow and ice—the pressure of an Ice-age past faked for viewers.

Natural history objects on loan from the collection of the currently-homeless Icelandic Museum of Natural History can also be viewed in a new setting at Perlan in Water in Icelandic Nature: Science and real time data. This part of the exhibition attempts to bring together science, technology and natural history.

Icelandic spar, this time seen under the lens of the microscope.

The water exhibition is the museum’s first show in more than 11 years and attempts to bring together numerous aspects of water on Earth. According to the Director of the museum, Dr. Hilmar J. Malmquist, the space allocated to the water exhibition is around 10% of what the museum will need for a more permanent venue to exhibit its collection.

The entrance to Perlan as night falls, with its lights shining bright, launches into the orbit of Þorgerður’s childhood memory. As she tells me, “I grew up in the neighborhood below the hill and many kids, including myself, thought that Perlan was cool and a bit exotic with a palace-like presence. I also remember thinking that the building looked a lot like a spaceship and wondered if it would ever just take off into space with a bang, bursting the water tanks at the same time, so that the neighborhood would flood.”

In a place where natural history has potential to take on the form of a spaceship, the otherworldliness of the Icelandic landscape reaches new levels. It carries the thought of the relevancy of some of Iceland’s landscapes to Mars and NASA’s interest in the island for training purposes. In a few days I will be on a plane flying north over the island, removed and over the lines, surfaces and forms in the landscape we have visited–looking from another point of view, as if on my way to another entirely different place.

Icelandic spar continues to refract our thoughts, just like the last rays of this short day’s light that we had watched through Þorgerður’s studio window.

Incidents (of Travel) explores the chartered day-long travel itinerary as a format of artistic encounter and an extended conversation between curator/s and artist/s.

An expanded phase of a project conceived by Latitudes (Barcelona) in 2012, this new series of tours is conceived as fieldwork and an expanded studio visit. It is presented as reportage and dispatches from invited curators and artists working around the world.

Þorgerður Ólafsdóttir (b.1985, Iceland) is an artist based in Reykjavík. Her practice considers ideas and definitions of identity, place, and the systems we use to understand the natural world as it meets, overlaps, and is interpreted within human environments. Þorgerður often adopts a scientific method as part of her artistic process and conceptualization of her work. Her solo exhibitions include þá, þegar Harbinger gallery, Reykjavík (2016), and Predictions, Demon’s Mouth, Oslo (2015). She is co-founder of Staðir (Places) a biannual exhibition project and mobile residency in the Westfjords, Iceland. From 2014—2018 she was the Director of Nýlistasafnið / The Living Art Museum in Reykjavík, a non-profit, artist-run museum founded in 1978.

Becky Forsythe (b.1984, Canada) is a curator based in Reykjavík. Her curatorial work considers how the roles of artist and curator intersect and can be made manifest through diverse spaces and situations. Her interests span varied systems of collecting—natural and found and brought together—and alternative and evolving ways of presenting both local and universal representations of nature, not least nature’s evidence of human impulses. From 2015—2018 she was the Collection Manager at Nýlistasafnið / The Living Art Museum, where she contributed to facilitating a number of artist projects and organized exhibitions including Adorn (2015), Rolling Line (2017, co-curated with Þorgerður Ólafsdóttir), and Distant Matter (2018).
Incidents (of Travel)
Episode No. 9

Edited by Latitudes
Produced by Kadist
Photographs by Þorgerður Ólafsdóttir © 2018
Special thanks to Auður Ingimarsdóttir
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