Hanna Styrmisdóttir & Hulda Stefánsdóttir
Iceland University of the Arts
As we start our journey through an exhibition with a title in five languages, we might start by acknowledging and celebrating their different looks and sounds, the perspectives they portray and the cultures they express. As translation between languages becomes increasingly accessible, a lot is gained, and yet a lot of meaning, positions, and poetry, is lost in that translation. Entire languages are in fact lost every day. Owning one’s language and using it, is powerful, political and, to some, threatening. The use of language has repeatedly, throughout history and the world, been repressed and even banned, in an effort to change or control people’s identities, knowledge and agency.
A century ago, children in Iceland made up languages, adding letters, e.g. P, to every word in a certain sequence, to keep their parents from understanding what they were talking about. Now, their fluency in other means of communication serves the same purpose.
The eleven artists whose works compose this exhibition in five languages, currently live in an area comprising Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Denmark, but their lives and stories reach almost across the globe. As they research and address in their works matters of global urgency; the climate crisis that is increasingly rapidly engulfing us all, no matter where we live; they are also radically engaged locally, reclaiming histories, perspectives and positions, examining personal relationships and experiences; their innermost feelings.
They give their attention to the years of a polar bear’s life, who was shot and killed on arrival in Iceland, to understand the link between lawmakers’ work and the bear’s fate. They excavate scientific research from the 19th century on people living in Greenland and Iceland, resulting in plaster casts in the collections of museums in Europe. They dive into the seabed, examining how we are destroying it and how our environment will change in the near future as sea levels rise because of our activities. They explore the amazing architecture we have made, what we have built it with, and what the impact of that is. They delve into family film archives to collapse harmful stereotypes that someone else made up, and talk candidly about the close friendships that save us in the most dire moments of our lives. They use their extraordinary imagination to tell stories of how in the future, art history has been excavated to reveal women’s part in it, and impact on it; and they immerse themselves in landscape to communicate to the rest of us how a single fjord in the north of Iceland is being transformed through connecting isolated communities to the rest of the country.
Kinaassuseq – identity
Pinngortitaq – nature
Samleiki - identity
Náttúra - nature
“The alien element that is at play is ourselves” in the words of Pia Arke (1958 – 2007). An art practitioner and thinker from Greenland, living in Denmark, she constantly shuffled through a double existence, refusing to be seen as an ethnographic object in the West, and unconventional in her country of birth, always a stranger, never at home:
“All the same – even when realizing that studying the marginalized is marginalizing in itself – there are quite a few of us who belong neither in the West, nor in the marginalized rest of the world. If we are to belong in a place, we shall have to create that place ourselves. We need an expansion of the border; we need to create a third place that will seriously disturb the binary logic of First and Third World relations.“ *
That binary logic is now being seriously disturbed in large waves of change, major shifts in our attitudes and understanding of the correlation of all things and the causal relationship between our acts and their effect on the environment and the societies that we have built. As if on cue, having struggled as local and global communities over decades to come to terms with this causal relationship, massive change is now unfolding for all to see. While we continue to wish not to face the larger change, we rush to see a volcanic eruption in a part of Iceland easily accessible, where an eruption has not taken place for 800 years or more. It tells us perhaps this; that we long to understand the larger forces at play in our lives than government, or gossip in our hometowns. That we perhaps seek the third place that Pia Arke described; the wilderness, the wild nature that brings us together, collectively.
To be continued.
“There is a sense of urgent necessity about our play with the pieces of different worlds.“**
*and ** Pia Arke: Ethno-Aesthetics/Etnoæstetik. First published in Danish by Kunsttidsskriftet ARK in 1995. Republished in 2010.