Story and Cultural Sensitivity
Icelanders are wonderful story tellers, many demonstrating a living connection with the myths of their Norse ancestors. Knowing the stories of one’s ancestors, the stories of the land one is born on, the culture and customs of one’s people, grounds one with a clear and solid reference system for all aspects of being, for inherent in the stories are instructions on how to interact each other and with the land.
And I think this relationship with the land makes the land happy.
It’s a sense I had in Ireland last year. The people who own the Burren College of Art had worked for years while they set up the college to support the local community in developing their region to the status of National Park, and a requirement of studying at the college is that your artistic inquiry is environmental. Like Icelandic people, the Irish are natural story tellers. And, like here in Iceland, the land in Ireland has a strong vibrant energy because the people care about and protect it.
Yesterday I had the good fortune to spend a couple of hours with local Olafsfjordur poet Ingi Johannesson, who is also on the Skammdegi residency. I had requested time to talk with him to help ensure I approach my community project with cultural sensitivity. A strong part of my project is specific reference to the relationship Icelandic people have with trolls, and other characters from Norse mythology and I’m concerned to inform the community about the project in a mindful way, with as much awareness of this aspect of Icelandic culture as I can. Happily Ingi confirmed the strong presence of mythology and the way it influences relationship with the land. And being Icelandic he demonstrated this by way of story! I’m hoping to go with him to hear the person whose story it is tell it first hand, so will wait until that has happened before writing about it here.
Some months before I came to Iceland I got in touch with Dr Terry Gunnell, Professor of Folkloric History at Iceland University to ask his assistance in deepening my understanding of Icelandic Folk Stories. Here is a 30 minute talk he gave at an exhibition opening, talking about the results of surveys he and his students made into the beliefs and belief attitudes (as well as supernatural experiences) ranging from dreams, telepathy and clairvoyance to beliefs in elves, ghosts and God in Iceland. He tells some great stories as he discusses the survey results. Click and listen if you’re at all interested.
The artists here at the Listhus Gallery in Olafsfjordur have had a rather social time over the last few days. We’ve had a presentation of work-in-progress that generated some very useful conversations about conceptual connections in a diverse range of work, solutions for technical requirements in some works - revealing lots of skills in the group - and potential installation locations for the Skammdegi Festival on 15th to 18th February 2019. And last night we hosted a dinner for all the artists here at the gallery, where I’m staying and have my studio. We feasted while it snowed outside!
Yesterday while I was swimming laps in the outstanding Olafsfjordur pool, a thought came to me. A big thought. One that will take time to digest and process.
Influenced by reading David Abrams on phenomenology, and developing my ability to perceive through my senses, including at the outer edges of my senses - observing that flicker of light at the corner of the eye and thinking about it, rather than dismissing it, and similarly with all senses. And reflecting on how my perception is adapting to Iceland, to the soft quiet light, the limited colour palette, the constant changes created by snow, wind, rain and ice. And attempting to use this heightened awareness to feel into the energy of the land, specially the mountains because they are so close and powerful and ever present.
If I want to communicate with the mountain I have to drop human senses. The mountain does not have these. Rather I need to open myself to an energetic exchange with the mountain, be aware of how my energy shifts in relation to the mountain. And this energy is not a recognised sense in the way that sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch are. It’s unpredictable and elusive, but a thing I’ve been quietly aware of always. Usually in that quintessentially anthropocentric way - about human energy, but increasingly I’m aware of the energy of elements of the landscape.
It’s another way of finding awareness with the mountains, however, it’s been snowing pretty constantly for the last two days, and I can’t even see them at the moment!
Walking every day here hasn’t been an easy possibility, and I’ve been thinking that being in the studio so much, rather than out walking, is impeding the process of engaging with the energy of the land, however David Abram alleviated these concerns. In Becoming Animal he writes:
“Certain built structures may invite and enhance the erotic pulse of the ground (like many earthen abodes, and thatch-roofed huts, and even a few unusually eloquent skyscrapers); others may muffle and mute that pulse, but they cannot, I think, immobilize the pulse entirely. Every solid thing, whether a toothpick or a trumpet, a porcelain plate or a helicopter, is fashioned from materials once birthed by the earth. Regardless of how profoundly they have been alchemized in the laboratory, the matter that gleams or sleeps in our creations - the stuff that lends its dull density or its porous whimsy to our tools and our machines, to our chairs and our computer screens - retains some trace of its old ancestry in the wombish earth, some memory of an age when it was not fashioned by an exterior will but bodies forth out of strain and exuberance,”
And I realise I am breathing air that has flirted over the Norwegian Sea and these mythological mountains, soaring with the aurora borealis; I drink and swim in water that has burbled up out of the depths of the earth here. The connection is being made in different ways from what I had anticipated. It’s also being influenced by a deeper understanding of the stories that connect Icelanders to their land. An awareness of a subtle but potent engagement with land energy is informing my experience of this residency.
“Only by temporarily shedding the accepted perceptual logic of his culture can [one] hope to enter into relation with other species on their own terms; only by altering the common organization of his senses will he be able to enter into a rapport with the multiple nonhuman sensibilities that animate the local landscape. It is this, we might say, that defines … the ability to readily slip out of the perceptual boundaries that demarcate his or her particular culture - boundaries reinforced by social customs, taboos, and most importantly, the common speech or language - in order to make contact with, and learn from, the other powers in the land … precisely this heightened receptivity to the meaningful solicitations - songs, cries, gestures - of the larger, more-than-human field.”
David Abram The Spell Of The Sensuous
And here’s a tiny glimpse of some screen shots from experimentation in preparation for making a video … or three!