Space-Time Continuum

English below

Katrín Elvarsdóttir birtir ómstrítt samband tíma og staðar í verkinu Space-Time Continuum. Hvernig minning okkar um stað er í senn hliðstæða og andstæða við reynsluna að koma þangað aftur. Allt er eins en þó öðruvísi. Staðurinn er sá sami og við þekkjum hvert smáatriði í umhverfinu: útlínur fjallanna, glufur í gangstéttinni, áferð styttnanna. En þessi smáatriði voru búin að gleymast. Endurkoman púslar aftur saman heildarmynd sem við þekktum og þekkjum enn.
Verkið er unnið á æskuslóðum Katrínar á Ísafirði þar sem minningar um staðinn ljá endurkomu þangað draumkenndan blæ. Möguleikar ljósmyndamiðilsins til að umbreyta myndefni sínu eru notaðir til að birta breytt landslag. Dökkir fletir eiga skipti við ljósa í negatívu ljósmyndarinnar sem umbreytir ásýnd umhverfisins og brenglar upplifun okkar af staðnum.

Brynja Sveinsdóttir


Katrín Elvarsdóttir presents a dissonant relationship between time and place in her work Space-Time Continuum: how our memory of a place is analogous to, and at the same time the converse of, the experience of returning there.  All is the same, yet different. The place is the same, and we recognize every detail of the surroundings; the contours of the mountains, cracks in the pavement, the textures of sculptures. But those details had been forgotten. Our return reconstructs a complete image that we knew, and recognize again.
The work was made in Ísafjörður in the West Fjords, where Katrín grew up, and memories of the place imbue the return with a dreamlike quality. The potential of the medium of photography to transform the subject are employed to depict an altered landscape.  Dark elements and light ones change places in a negative photographic image which transforms the character of the surroundings and distorts our perception of the place.

Brynja Sveinsdóttir

The Search For Truth

Sigrún Alba Sigurðardóttir
Photography is Katrín Elvarsdóttir’s chosen medium for addressing pressing questions about our experience in time and space, about memories and the indistinct boundary between the imagined and the real. In the last fifteen years, Katrín has won her place as one of Iceland’s foremost photographers and played a significant role in changing people’s perceptions of photography as an artistic medium. She has held several private exhibitions in Iceland and abroad, including Gerðarsafn in Kópavogur 2016 and the Reykjavík Art Museum in 2010. Her pictures have also been featured in numerous group shows, including Martin Asbæk Gallery in Copenhagen 2017 and Hillyer Art Space in Washington D.C. 2014. Katrín has also received awards for her work, being nominated for the Deutsche Börse Photographic Prize in 2009 and winning the prestigious EIKON prize in Vienna in 2017.
The exhibition at BERG Contemporary is titled The Search for Truth and sees Katrín exploring the blurred limits of imagination and reality and how our memories tend to gradually come free of reality until something in our surroundings – an unexpected texture, a glimpse of something, or a sound – brings the past back to life. In such moments, the past takes over our body and everything becomes clear for a second, before it recedes again to rejoin the narrative of our own life.
Photographs of white statues silhouetted against a blue sky and verdant bushes are the product of such fusion of the past and present, being taken over a twenty year period (1998–2018) in Ísafjörður, the town in Iceland’s western fjords where Katrín grew up. The statues were made by Martinus Simson (b. 1886), a Danish sculptor, photographer and circus clown. Katrín was drawn to them every time she visited the town, using them to compare reality to her memories. She recalls how, as a child, she would look at these statues, standing proud, yet vulnerable in their swimming costumes, staring into the void like people under a spell. “Perhaps this was my first experience of art,” says Katrín.
In Katrín’s works time passes as in a dream. The theatre of the past merges with the present and the familiar takes on an uncanny hue. We see this in her photographs of the statues but just as much in her video Solar Eclipse Shadow which documents how the strangeness of nature becomes almost palpable under certain conditions. The piece also refers to the beginning of photography when a photograph was seen both as a cultural product and something created by nature itself, much like a well-shaped blade of algae or a leaf. The video reminds us of the origin of photography and how a photograph always belongs to both the outer and the inner world.
In the exhibition at BERG Contemporary Katrín continues to work with themes she developed in three photographic series and books from 2008 to 2016. In a few, strong images we see how drapery can add mystery to everyday objects, showing how even our daily surroundings can take on a strange and unreal character. This evokes the feeling that there is, behind our familiar world, another, more complex and mysterious world that can at any time transform the quotidian into an unreal universe where the real and the imaginary merge into one, indivisible whole.
Katrín’s works reflect ideas that have come to the fore in Nordic photography in the last ten to twelve years and focus on notions of lyrical narrative. The photographer’s subject becomes, more often than not, the lyrical moment when the individual’s experiences cannot be separated from the surrounding reality. The photographs do not merely convey information about the external reality but also mediate a poetic feeling for the world and our physical and mental experience of the passing of time. The search for truth is therefore about how we encounter reality and how this search, begun already in childhood, shapes our vision of the world and our experiences as embodied beings in a world of things and memories.

Katrín Elvarsdóttir’s Photo-Visions as Alloys of Reality, Light and Fiction

Lucas Gehrmann

If we are to accept Katrín Elvarsdóttir’s own explanations, in the beginning there was a TV room—at least in the beginning of her series of photos Equivocal, started in 2007.1 At the same time, this TV Room was more than just the beginning of a new project in some 40 parts by this photo artist, born in a small Icelandic town in 1964, who lived in Sweden during her youth and later in the USA as a student. In contrast to her earlier serial works—where she deliberately blurred her motifs in a quasi-transitory manner by means of imperfect focus, over or under exposure and changes of perspective and horizons in cinematographic style²—beginning with TV Room her images are characterized by calm composition and orderliness, focus on detail or even depth of field and in general great precision in reproducing the reality seen through the camera.

This suggests clarity and a lack of ambiguity rather than anything relating to the “equivocal”, while Margsaga, the Icelandic title of this series, could be translated as “contradictory/contradicting itself.” Particularly in TV Room, however, everything is clearly recognizable and structured: the horizontally flowing row of seats, the centrally positioned window with a view of the nearby green of a maple tree, the materiality of the upholstery, the curtains and the wooden wall, which closes off the interior head-on and thus defines it. The relationship between vertical and horizontal pictorial elements is also in balance, almost geometric as in a Low Country interior of the 17th century. And, if one so wishes, the red-green contrast between the interior and the exterior spaces could even be said to provide a balance to the color design of the image. In contradistinction to this description, however our sensation when we view the picture is something different: from the perspective of the lowly placed TV set (because it can’t be seen in the picture) we gaze at an empty audience row of monumental plush sofa immersed, like the entire interior, in a satin-twilight reddish brown—a light that we, in the monitor’s position, could ourselves be radiating. Only vis-à-vis and above the seats, however, “the picture” appears brightly on the window pane, seeming to flicker vividly. Are we now playing the role of the TV monitor ourselves or are we sitting in its position as viewers in a cinema, which Katrín Elvarsdóttir might conceivably have installed in the Red Room of the Black Hut in the middle of the woods of Twin Peaks?³

Curtain falls!—For here, as in all the photo series after Equivocal, it is not a matter of particular associative images or films that could run in front of, on, or behind photographed windows or their panes. The artist’s concern is rather to find and also understand situations evoking an atmosphere that oscillates between reality, fiction and dream, from where we are able to imagine pictures.4 A rich hunting ground for this purpose are the artist’s choice of interfaces between interiors and exteriors, such as curtains, sometimes like transparent drapes, sometimes thickly material and opaque, sometimes half or completely open, sometimes lit from inside, sometimes from outside, appearing repeatedly through Margsaga, as well they do in passages of all the artist’s later photo series. Curtains offer (back-) projection surfaces not only for sensations of light and sight but also for history and stories. For example, from ancient to pre-modern times they were used not only for windows but also for pictures, to protect them from undesirable light effects and strange eyes. Curtains begin and end moving pictures even today—in theatres and cinemas. In this way a curtain marks not only a place of in-between but also the moment of opening (up), excitement and expectation, the beginning and end of a story or drama. A moment in time, therefore, that is often indefinable.

In spite of this, the curtain is generally paid no attention, since it serves primarily the role of interruption and splitting of two realities, rather than being itself the location and object of any action. Meanwhile, the curtain of Parrhasius achieved fame, being painted so (photo-)realistically that his artist rival Zeuxis wanted to push it aside to see the picture behind it.5 This curtain, so greatly honored, was thus none at all, being nothing but fiction. Katrín Elvarsdóttir now lends the curtain-as-medium real significance by making it the protagonist in many of her scenarios. In doing so, she literally moves it into the light in her picture, so that the material essence of its substance also acquires energized mediality, making it shine.

As far as one can tell, in order to light and metaphorically illuminate all her subjects and spaces, the photographer uses the locally available, situational light, which is usually daylight. Thus, just as she rarely or never arranges and stages motifs—exceptions are perhaps some of the portraits she has interspersed in Equivocal—neither does she direct or manipulate the light, whether it is shining in through a window or whether it is falling on a wall, a floor or a stair.6 That last situation occurs in Image #6 of the series Vanished Summer, published in 2013, and does so as colored light, which—even though it presumably comes simply through a stained glass window and strikes the stair on its modestly patterned carpet in grey and white—lends the scarcely spectacular subject sacral to surreally magical qualities. Which, to be sure, is due to more than the (colored) light; The wooden staircase leading up to an unknown darkness, the absence of any traces indicating it might have been used despite its age of a good 100 years, the quasi-phallic presence of the similarly lit bannister post at the center of a visual composition primarily made of verticals and diagonals—all these contribute to an imaginary world of situations we might already have sensed in Alfred Hitchcock, Edward Hopper or the house of our grandmother.

Curtain falls!—For no matter how much Katrín Elvarsdóttir’s visionary images might animate a search for reference material in Surrealist or Neo-Surrealist texts, personal diaries, visual images from film noir or Magic Realism, more directly they will lead us to the photographer’s actual Kunstwollen7 (urge or ambition to make art). When asked about the source of her ideas, the artist also mentions the importance of literature, film “and many other kinds of art” without naming specific movements or people. More significance seems to be attached to other sources, directly appearing to her in real space: “My inspiration comes to a large extent from observing my surroundings and nearest environment. … I travel quite a lot and often get inspired by the places I visit, especially things that go unnoticed or fall into the background.”8 In addition to those already mentioned—curtains, views from windows or reflections of light—this could also be the dreary facades of terraced houses, mobile homes parked in the landscape or partly weather-beaten conservatories. The two last-named motifs lead us at once to another theme, to which the photographer closely attends: “The interplay between the natural and the man-made interests me tremendously, and I’m fascinated by the methods that people use in trying to improve upon nature. Sometimes I stumble upon expressions of the absurdity of it; sometimes it’s the beauty that captures me. It’s really a mixture of things.”9 For example, when her mobile home seems to observe us from its draped windows as it stands lonely in front of a half green, half snow-covered mound of lava. From here we can at last round the circle by returning to TV Room, in other words to the question posed by Katrín Elvarsdóttir, presumably consciously, about the ability to position and differentiate subject and object, observer and medium, sender and recipient. This question has become especially demanding in an age when virtual, media-related, fictional images and information are totally interconnected with analog, “real” ones. And there is, further, the question still caught up in all the curtain folds, namely why all the photographed things and situations bring with them something surreal or vividly uncanny, to which the media researcher Johannes Binotto even has a—quite pragmatic—answer: “Simply because the camera isolates things, framing them and cutting them out, it invests them with uncanny life. Seen through the camera lens, reality is changed and turns its surreal flip-sides towards us.”10 But as we come to the conclusion of this brief journey through the image worlds of Katrín Elvarsdóttir are we actually satisfied with this explanation? Perhaps it would be better to give a painter the last word, one who has spent his life devoted to the simultaneous or “equivocal” articulation of opposites—of inner and outer worlds, moments and continuity, emptiness and fullness, stability and instability, the visible and the concealed, Edward Hopper: “Great art is the outward expression of an interior life of the artist, and this interior life will lead to his personal vision of the world. No invention, however skillful, can replace the central element of imagination.”11

1 “The Equivocal project … started by one single photograph, a brown sofa and curtains with green Maple leaves outside the window [TV room]. Something in it captured my imagination and I wanted to ‘see the rest’ of that series – before it existed.” From: “A Conversation with Katrín Elvarsdóttir,” posted by Nina Corvallo, June 4, 2009, at: NYMPHOTO. A collective of women photographers, http://nymphoto.blogspot.co.at/2009/06/conversation-with-katrin-elvarsdottir.html

2 For example Revenants Proximal-Dimension (2004) or Longing (2005). Accessed at: https://katrinelvarsdottir.com/work-2

3 The allusion to David Lynch is based partly on the magical “Red Room” in the Black Hut of Twin Peaks (USA, 1990–1991) and partly on Maurice Lahde’s analyses of Blue Velvet (USA, 1986), whose locations are not “real” places introduced to the viewers in film “but places ‘generated’ with the first shot and developed from image to image.” And this has certain parallels with the story of the origins of Katrín Elvarsdóttirs series Equivocal. See Maurice Lahde, “We live inside a dream. David Lynchs Filme als Traumerfahrungen”, in: Eckhard Pabst (ed.), A Strange World – das Universum des David Lynch, Kiel 1999, 100.

4 On this point compare: “Katrín attempts to integrate her own observations and experiences from the past and the present into a single unified concept. She combines imaginary environments with real ones, implying a sequence of events that appeals to the subconscious as well as to logic and rational thought. Katrín underlines this highly narrative approach with a careful choice of subject matter and through the use of repeated forms and colors.”, from: “Gallery Ágúst Exhibition: Equivocal the Sequel,” in: Iceland Review, Reykjavik 2010, http://icelandreview.com/bin/58968

5 The Natural History. Pliny the Elder, John Bostock, M.D., F.R.S. H.T. Riley, Esq., B.A. London, Taylor and Francis, Red Lion Court, Fleet Street, 1855, Chap. 11. (5.)—The Art of Painting.

6 She said herself in an interview in 2009: “The atmosphere of various places, people’s faces and lighting plays a big part in most of what I do, whether they are found locations or partly constructed by myself.”, from: “A Conversation with Katrín Elvarsdóttir”, cf. fn. 1.

7 A polysemic term originating with the art historian Alois Riegl. See, for example, Andrea Reichenberger, Riegls „Kunstwollen“. Versuch einer Neubetrachtung, St. Augustin bei Bonn 2003; as well as the same author in: kritische berichte 1/03, https://journals.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/index.php/kb/article/download/10837/4696

8 “A Conversation with Katrín Elvarsdóttir,” cf. fn. 1.

9 Interview with Kenta Murakami, in: Anti-Grand: Contemporary Perspectives on Landscape, The Joel and Lila Harnett Museum of Art, University of Richmond, VA, 2015, www.antigrand.com/katrin-elvarsdottir

10 Johannes Binotto, “Für ein unreines Kino. Film und Surrealismus,” in: Filmbulletin – Kino in Augenhöhe, 3.2010 (April 2010), 33–39, accessed at: https://schnittstellen.me/essay/film-und-surrealismus

11 Edward Hopper, in: Reality 1, Spring 1953, 8; reprinted in: Lloyd Goodrich, Edward Hopper, New York 1983, 153.

Lucas Gehrmann

Heimþrá / Longing

Sigrún Alba Sigurðardóttir

Reykjavík, júlí 2005

Það er kaldur sumardagur í íslenskri sveit. Ég finn lykt af gömlum blúndugardínum. Rykkorn kitlar mig í nefið. Ég halla mér upp að kaldri rúðunn og fæ ofbirtu í augun. Samt er ekki sól. Þetta er kaldur sumardagur í íslenskri sveit. Þetta er ljósmynd af veruleikanum eins og ég man hann. Ég var barn. Ég var fullorðin.

Ljósmyndir Katrínar Elvarsdóttur eru ögrun við hinn línulega tíma og hið skipulagða minni. Þegar við virðum fyrir okkur hvít blóm á skógarbotni, hafflötinn sem er í senn tælandi og fráhrindandi eða skugga trjágreina á hvítum vegg er sem hið hefðbundna tímaskyn fari á flot. Löngu liðnir atburðir, augnablik sem við geymum innra með okkur, minna fyrirvaralaust á sig. Augnablikið heltekur okkur. Minningin er líkamleg. Við finnum fyrir henni með öllum líkamanum. Rifjum upp lyktina, áferðina og óljósa sýn sem birtist okkur eitt afmarkað augnablik líkt og í draumi. Þessi minning á sér ekki stað innan hins hefðbundna krónólógíska tíma. Hún er ekki hluti af endurminningum okkar.

Katrín Elvarsdóttir hefur fest óljósar endurminningar sínar á filmu og þar með gert okkur áhorfendunum mögulegt að framkalla minningar sem búið hafa um sig djúpt í undirmeðvitund okkar. Katrín deilir minningarbrotum úr lífi sínum með okkur og þau fléttast saman við okkar eigin óljósu minningar um blúndugardínur í íslenskri sveit og hlykkjóttan veg á fjarlægum slóðum.

Ljósmyndir Katrínar kalla fram tilfinningar sem skapa minningar. Tíminn er ekki tekinn með í reikninginn. Hann leysist upp og líf okkar skreppur saman. Skyldi það vera svona á dauðastundinni? Skyldu óljós minningabrot, sem við komum ekki fullkomlega fyrir okkur, en hafa okkur algjörlega á valdi sínu, brjótast fram? það er einhver drungi í ljósmyndum Katrínar. Einhver háski sem Þrátt fyrir fegurðina er við það að skella á. Hin fullkomna kyrrð felur í sér einhverja óljósa hreyfingu. Frásögn sem við getum ekki rifjað upp. Er þetta augnablik fegurðarinnar, augnablikið sem festist í minni okkar, rétt áður en áfallið dynur yfir, rétt áður en allt breytist, veruleikinn gerir vart við sig og ekkert verður eins og áður?

Góður ljósmyndari opnar leið fyrir veruleikann inn í hinn tilbúna efnislega heim sem við sífellt byggjum í kringum líf okkar. Í ljósmyndum Katrínar minnir veruleikinn á tilvist sína. Háskinn er handan við hornið, óendanleiki hafsins verður áþreifanlegur og tíminn leysist upp. Er ég barn sem leitar skjóls á skandinavískum skógarbotni? Er ég unglingur í tilboðspakkanum flug og bíll í Evrópu? Eða er ég fullorðin kona í íslenskri sveit? Ef til vill er ég þetta allt á einu og sama augnablikinu. Ef ég horfi nógu lengi á ljósmyndina, leyfi hverju smáatriði að búa um sig í mér og hrifsa mig á brott á vit löngu liðins tíma, já, þá er sem veruleikinn sjálfur geri vart við sig. Og það rifjast smám saman upp fyrir mér hver það er sem er þessi ég.

Mórar-nærvídd / Revenants-Proximal Dimension

Reykjavík 2004  

Directions

The two of them walk on the potholed road, away from here, towards the bottom of the image that appears to us. It has been raining and the rain has left us a different image of this area than the one we had before; we are located in the present. We don’t see where the two of them are coming from, we can only see what lays in front of us. They become smaller with each step, and when they disappear behind the hill that spreads out at the top of the frame the next picture takes over – but we can’t see that picture; at the moment our eyes are occupied by the past.

Here is a mountain and the mountain is sheltering a house. But no one lives in this house and therefore we don’t know what the inside looks like. It gazes upon the lawn outside through its hollow sockets; it gazes its own space, but nothing that it sees changes by being seen – everything continues to stay the same as always. At first I feel like time has erased all life that once was to be found here, but after a short contemplation I realize that it happened the other way around.

By looking around, the following questions emerge. What is the color of the grass reaching down towards the edge of the lake – and what is the color of the water? Is it possible to say that the mountain – when one looks in the other direction – displays a specific color, or that the dead eyes of an abandoned house are the same color as death? Is the rock lying on the ground somehow differently colored then the next rock? And what is the color of the sun? Does its color change when it disappears below the horizon? I don’t know the answers to these questions – first I need to see the grass, the water, the mountain, the abandoned house, the rock lying on the ground and the rock next to it, and the sun on the other side of the horizon.

The only purpose of the road is to point us in the direction that it is leading. The road doesn’t have any other purpose. And I’m not on the way that it suggests; I’m on my way here. For I recognize this place – here everything is as if it had been created from my own ideas: the mountain, the house, the water and the expanse, all of it small enough to easily fit in the eyes.

Massachusetts, Dec. 2001

Revenants

The phantoms suggested by the title of Katrín Elvarsdóttir’s series, Revenants, are of a different variety than the spectres that might float through a keyhole. The ghosts glimpsed in her photographs have more to do with things left behind to memory — earthly things, perhaps, but just as haunting. The items or places are inert, yet it is as if they radiate with some last vestige of emotion — a last gasp of imparted spirit.

The landscapes, originated on archaic equipment barely more advanced than a pinhole camera, hark back to the earliest era of photography. The territory is of a rural Iceland whose inhabitants have died out or moved on to better prospects, a condition not uncommon to many parts of the world, the cause being anything from industrialization, to climate change. The result is that the environments depicted could be of any high latitude, whether the post-Soviet Union, Labrador, or Patagonia. But because it is Iceland, the ghosts implied within the title are specific to their own culture. The Icelanders themselves may be re-established in Reykjavík or on extended trips around the world. But the folklore remains among the ruins, as if the previous generations left behind a sediment of emotion that has been absorbed into the soil, rendering each outcrop a sentient being. And if the Icelandic interpretation of their mythology is more literal than in other parts of Northern Europe, this would seem a logical enough proposition. Mythology has always fermented in the opaque regions just beyond sight of the campfire, or in the modern era, the zone beyond certifiable evidence. In the effort to maintain an authentic identity within the larger western industrial civilization, a link to superstition has carried over, allowing for a good amount of leeway in retaining a sense of the elves.

The land is nameless, the titles of the images not so much documenting specific locations in Iceland as denoting realms no more accessible than the ether of memory. It is in this way that the parallels exist between Katrín Elvarsdóttir’s own origins and her work, as she was born in Ísafjördur in 1964, but her family relocated to Reykjavík. After a period spent abroad during her teens in Sweden, she attended the University of Iceland studying French literature, followed by an extended stay in the U.S., where her inclination shifted to photography. Out of such an environment with so many disparate instincts, Katrín’s own personal sensibility resonates with an unflappable integrity. An individual artist with a distinctive body of work, she has functioned and survived within a larger, prevailing global culture, as evident in her shows during the late 1990s in Reykjavík, Florida, Denmark, and New England. Whether in photographs or collage assemblies, her imagery strikes a balance between narrative and a strong graphic instinct.

In Revenants, her attention shifts back towards the territory of her origins. She has pared down her technology to the most rudimentary of 120 format cameras, reducing her choices to the essential exposure, the rudimentary optics dictating a unity within the images, with concentric degrees of illumination emphasizing innate distances as palpable and yet indescribable as any glimpse of Elysium or Beulah Land. The result is not unlike an alchemist’s camera obscura capturing evidence of a place that is at once just beyond the lens but as inaccessible as the netherworld.

It is indeed an ethereal heritage that Katrín has returned home to. Yet for all the prevailing themes that unify the series, there are as many elements that distinguish each individual photograph.

In photograph “Suðurland II” (2001) the exposure evokes not so much Iceland, but a Soviet Union of secret numbered cities or forgotten gulags. As if in a surreptitious snap taken by an exile, or by remote sensing, the northern sun illuminates what could be either launching gantries or oil wells, the technology reduced by the environment to its most primitive form. And for all the light shining downward, the cold is all encompassing, even while the chimera of the spires would suggest radiation passing through them, rendering everything within the frame lifeless, the dark swath at the bottom of the image not so much earth as inert sediment.

“Norðurland III” (2001) is, of course, more blatant in suggesting a Soviet/post-Soviet venue, as the Cyrillic lettering on the ship’s superstructure leaves little doubt as to its origin. The connection between the two worlds would seem logical enough, the shore being on the edge of the abyss, the Arctic beginning just beyond view. Whatever comes from over the horizon, whether Russian freighters, Siberian driftwood, Maersk containers, crates of oranges, or Algerian corsairs, their influences are deposited with the currents, forgotten a month later, but remembered for generations.

“Snæfellsnes” (2001) with its emptied house and connected outbuildings sitting at the foot of a glaciated mountain, the disposition of the sky and the line of the mountain carries a homely trace. As if harking back to the idyll of a silent film epic, the site resembles an archaic redoubt, however the substance, structure, and size of the ruin would indicate a fairly recent past. With its asymmetrical lines and lopsided cavities, the decrepitude is all pervasive — the former occupants having either perished or moved on to a more sustainable existence, as if the region as been formally deincorporated and declared an empty quarter, abandoned to the hinterlands.

In “Strandir II” (2000) the wreckage of the grounded ship, devoid of any masts or deck structure, righted only by an external framework, has merged with the land and the harbor, forming an inadvertent promontory. The hull, although still solid, would appear to have been picked clean by salvagers, its crew having disembarked more or less in safety to the shore. It is a sight reminiscent of the Falklands Islands and other high-latitude outposts, with generations of working ships beached and written off rather than venture further into treacherous seas. Any sense of memorializing seems happenstance, no plaques being necessary, the long, sculptural lines of the hulk itself serving as enough of a monument.

“Norðurland II” (2001) with its surplus Quonset Hut and mid-sixties Oldsmobile carries over to what now seems as much a mythic era in that it could be called “Middle Cold War.” The iconography of both the hut and car scream of a shabby American nostalgia, and unlike the previous images, it is not an abandoned site. The light above the car is on, glowing faintly, and there are no uneven traces of debris in the foreground, just a sparse functionality of the environs. But at most, there would seem to be only a skeleton shift in a workshop, the machinery idling during a summer dusk, the American influences counting as a decorative layer already settling back into the earth.

In “Strandir I” (2000) it is not clear if the factory overlooking the span of water, like the previous image, is a derelict or is functioning on some basic level, as a faint wisp of vapor emanating from the chimney appears to mimic the low-hanging cloud in the harbor. But it is the barest sign of life, as the right angles of the building settle into a foreground that is as opaque as volcanic ash – a parked car rendered a faint, half-submerged shape, lost among the murk. With its smudged cement surfaces, worn by time and the elements, it is hard to image the factory ever having supported itself so far on the periphery of any larger economy. Its only apparent link is the water and the narrow causeway and winding road on the right, and yet it might be purely illusionary, as if faces could be glimpsed in the detail as well. All that remains amidst the composition and the interplay of light is that the structure remains, the smokestack still reaching upward, almost a monument, a rust-belt obelisk.

“Að Norðan” (2000) sits under a shroud of overcast, the solitary stucco cottage reflected in a mudpuddle. It could be Ireland or straight out of the remembered potato fields of Günter Grass’s Kashubia, and somehow, as if by virtue of its placement within the frame, the cottage evokes a grandmotherly presence, left behind to a hardscrabble existence. It is a sentimental premise, or at least a projected sentiment, as the gulf between the comfortable, reflective present and the earlier generations who tried to make a viable living off such a landscape and often failed continues to haunt as much as any specter.

That “Suðurland I” (2001) should follow “Að Norðan” makes perfect sense, for beyond the link in the weather and the rain-filled puddles, the road winding towards the horizon is no doubt escaping the isolated world of the previous image. There is no sense of arrival, only departure, as if setting off and severing ties is an inevitable fact, but the loss is undeniable. For as much as the landscape is comprehended, having been measured, divided, and worked to exhaustion, it is only upon return that the final aesthetic transformation is apparent.

If arrival is to be had, it is in “Suðurnes” (1999) the overcast of the earlier images having broken, the road having deposited the perspective — in what may belie the title — to the edge of true North, Ultima Thule, the rough-hewn shrine serving as a marker. As much as it would seem morning, the lateness of the hour – or indeed the epoch – has been reached. It is the fact of the high latitude, the very sense of impossibility that buffets the place with a roar, and that there is indeed a palpable glory cast upon this knoll. It is a glory not dependent on the cross pushed up against the sky; the cross is simply another mythic application, another level of iconography, another visitor’s interpretation. The glory is that the patch of windblown high grass and distant mountain frame a rarefied pocket where the transcendent is to be glimpsed, a point where geography and the sublime converge.

Reykjavík 2004  

Directions

The two of them walk on the potholed road, away from here, towards the bottom of the image that appears to us. It has been raining and the rain has left us a different image of this area than the one we had before; we are located in the present. We don’t see where the two of them are coming from, we can only see what lays in front of us. They become smaller with each step, and when they disappear behind the hill that spreads out at the top of the frame the next picture takes over – but we can’t see that picture; at the moment our eyes are occupied by the past.

Here is a mountain and the mountain is sheltering a house. But no one lives in this house and therefore we don’t know what the inside looks like. It gazes upon the lawn outside through its hollow sockets; it gazes its own space, but nothing that it sees changes by being seen – everything continues to stay the same as always. At first I feel like time has erased all life that once was to be found here, but after a short contemplation I realize that it happened the other way around.

By looking around, the following questions emerge. What is the color of the grass reaching down towards the edge of the lake – and what is the color of the water? Is it possible to say that the mountain – when one looks in the other direction – displays a specific color, or that the dead eyes of an abandoned house are the same color as death? Is the rock lying on the ground somehow differently colored then the next rock? And what is the color of the sun? Does its color change when it disappears below the horizon? I don’t know the answers to these questions – first I need to see the grass, the water, the mountain, the abandoned house, the rock lying on the ground and the rock next to it, and the sun on the other side of the horizon.

The only purpose of the road is to point us in the direction that it is leading. The road doesn’t have any other purpose. And I’m not on the way that it suggests; I’m on my way here. For I recognize this place – here everything is as if it had been created from my own ideas: the mountain, the house, the water and the expanse, all of it small enough to easily fit in the eyes.

Massachusetts, Dec. 2001

Revenants

The phantoms suggested by the title of Katrín Elvarsdóttir’s series, Revenants, are of a different variety than the spectres that might float through a keyhole. The ghosts glimpsed in her photographs have more to do with things left behind to memory — earthly things, perhaps, but just as haunting. The items or places are inert, yet it is as if they radiate with some last vestige of emotion — a last gasp of imparted spirit.

The landscapes, originated on archaic equipment barely more advanced than a pinhole camera, hark back to the earliest era of photography. The territory is of a rural Iceland whose inhabitants have died out or moved on to better prospects, a condition not uncommon to many parts of the world, the cause being anything from industrialization, to climate change. The result is that the environments depicted could be of any high latitude, whether the post-Soviet Union, Labrador, or Patagonia. But because it is Iceland, the ghosts implied within the title are specific to their own culture. The Icelanders themselves may be re-established in Reykjavík or on extended trips around the world. But the folklore remains among the ruins, as if the previous generations left behind a sediment of emotion that has been absorbed into the soil, rendering each outcrop a sentient being. And if the Icelandic interpretation of their mythology is more literal than in other parts of Northern Europe, this would seem a logical enough proposition. Mythology has always fermented in the opaque regions just beyond sight of the campfire, or in the modern era, the zone beyond certifiable evidence. In the effort to maintain an authentic identity within the larger western industrial civilization, a link to superstition has carried over, allowing for a good amount of leeway in retaining a sense of the elves.

The land is nameless, the titles of the images not so much documenting specific locations in Iceland as denoting realms no more accessible than the ether of memory. It is in this way that the parallels exist between Katrín Elvarsdóttir’s own origins and her work, as she was born in Ísafjördur in 1964, but her family relocated to Reykjavík. After a period spent abroad during her teens in Sweden, she attended the University of Iceland studying French literature, followed by an extended stay in the U.S., where her inclination shifted to photography. Out of such an environment with so many disparate instincts, Katrín’s own personal sensibility resonates with an unflappable integrity. An individual artist with a distinctive body of work, she has functioned and survived within a larger, prevailing global culture, as evident in her shows during the late 1990s in Reykjavík, Florida, Denmark, and New England. Whether in photographs or collage assemblies, her imagery strikes a balance between narrative and a strong graphic instinct.

In Revenants, her attention shifts back towards the territory of her origins. She has pared down her technology to the most rudimentary of 120 format cameras, reducing her choices to the essential exposure, the rudimentary optics dictating a unity within the images, with concentric degrees of illumination emphasizing innate distances as palpable and yet indescribable as any glimpse of Elysium or Beulah Land. The result is not unlike an alchemist’s camera obscura capturing evidence of a place that is at once just beyond the lens but as inaccessible as the netherworld.

It is indeed an ethereal heritage that Katrín has returned home to. Yet for all the prevailing themes that unify the series, there are as many elements that distinguish each individual photograph.

In photograph “Suðurland II” (2001) the exposure evokes not so much Iceland, but a Soviet Union of secret numbered cities or forgotten gulags. As if in a surreptitious snap taken by an exile, or by remote sensing, the northern sun illuminates what could be either launching gantries or oil wells, the technology reduced by the environment to its most primitive form. And for all the light shining downward, the cold is all encompassing, even while the chimera of the spires would suggest radiation passing through them, rendering everything within the frame lifeless, the dark swath at the bottom of the image not so much earth as inert sediment.

“Norðurland III” (2001) is, of course, more blatant in suggesting a Soviet/post-Soviet venue, as the Cyrillic lettering on the ship’s superstructure leaves little doubt as to its origin. The connection between the two worlds would seem logical enough, the shore being on the edge of the abyss, the Arctic beginning just beyond view. Whatever comes from over the horizon, whether Russian freighters, Siberian driftwood, Maersk containers, crates of oranges, or Algerian corsairs, their influences are deposited with the currents, forgotten a month later, but remembered for generations.

“Snæfellsnes” (2001) with its emptied house and connected outbuildings sitting at the foot of a glaciated mountain, the disposition of the sky and the line of the mountain carries a homely trace. As if harking back to the idyll of a silent film epic, the site resembles an archaic redoubt, however the substance, structure, and size of the ruin would indicate a fairly recent past. With its asymmetrical lines and lopsided cavities, the decrepitude is all pervasive — the former occupants having either perished or moved on to a more sustainable existence, as if the region as been formally deincorporated and declared an empty quarter, abandoned to the hinterlands.

In “Strandir II” (2000) the wreckage of the grounded ship, devoid of any masts or deck structure, righted only by an external framework, has merged with the land and the harbor, forming an inadvertent promontory. The hull, although still solid, would appear to have been picked clean by salvagers, its crew having disembarked more or less in safety to the shore. It is a sight reminiscent of the Falklands Islands and other high-latitude outposts, with generations of working ships beached and written off rather than venture further into treacherous seas. Any sense of memorializing seems happenstance, no plaques being necessary, the long, sculptural lines of the hulk itself serving as enough of a monument.

“Norðurland II” (2001) with its surplus Quonset Hut and mid-sixties Oldsmobile carries over to what now seems as much a mythic era in that it could be called “Middle Cold War.” The iconography of both the hut and car scream of a shabby American nostalgia, and unlike the previous images, it is not an abandoned site. The light above the car is on, glowing faintly, and there are no uneven traces of debris in the foreground, just a sparse functionality of the environs. But at most, there would seem to be only a skeleton shift in a workshop, the machinery idling during a summer dusk, the American influences counting as a decorative layer already settling back into the earth.

In “Strandir I” (2000) it is not clear if the factory overlooking the span of water, like the previous image, is a derelict or is functioning on some basic level, as a faint wisp of vapor emanating from the chimney appears to mimic the low-hanging cloud in the harbor. But it is the barest sign of life, as the right angles of the building settle into a foreground that is as opaque as volcanic ash – a parked car rendered a faint, half-submerged shape, lost among the murk. With its smudged cement surfaces, worn by time and the elements, it is hard to image the factory ever having supported itself so far on the periphery of any larger economy. Its only apparent link is the water and the narrow causeway and winding road on the right, and yet it might be purely illusionary, as if faces could be glimpsed in the detail as well. All that remains amidst the composition and the interplay of light is that the structure remains, the smokestack still reaching upward, almost a monument, a rust-belt obelisk.

“Að Norðan” (2000) sits under a shroud of overcast, the solitary stucco cottage reflected in a mudpuddle. It could be Ireland or straight out of the remembered potato fields of Günter Grass’s Kashubia, and somehow, as if by virtue of its placement within the frame, the cottage evokes a grandmotherly presence, left behind to a hardscrabble existence. It is a sentimental premise, or at least a projected sentiment, as the gulf between the comfortable, reflective present and the earlier generations who tried to make a viable living off such a landscape and often failed continues to haunt as much as any specter.

That “Suðurland I” (2001) should follow “Að Norðan” makes perfect sense, for beyond the link in the weather and the rain-filled puddles, the road winding towards the horizon is no doubt escaping the isolated world of the previous image. There is no sense of arrival, only departure, as if setting off and severing ties is an inevitable fact, but the loss is undeniable. For as much as the landscape is comprehended, having been measured, divided, and worked to exhaustion, it is only upon return that the final aesthetic transformation is apparent.

If arrival is to be had, it is in “Suðurnes” (1999) the overcast of the earlier images having broken, the road having deposited the perspective — in what may belie the title — to the edge of true North, Ultima Thule, the rough-hewn shrine serving as a marker. As much as it would seem morning, the lateness of the hour – or indeed the epoch – has been reached. It is the fact of the high latitude, the very sense of impossibility that buffets the place with a roar, and that there is indeed a palpable glory cast upon this knoll. It is a glory not dependent on the cross pushed up against the sky; the cross is simply another mythic application, another level of iconography, another visitor’s interpretation. The glory is that the patch of windblown high grass and distant mountain frame a rarefied pocket where the transcendent is to be glimpsed, a point where geography and the sublime converge.

Reykjavík 2004  

Directions

The two of them walk on the potholed road, away from here, towards the bottom of the image that appears to us. It has been raining and the rain has left us a different image of this area than the one we had before; we are located in the present. We don’t see where the two of them are coming from, we can only see what lays in front of us. They become smaller with each step, and when they disappear behind the hill that spreads out at the top of the frame the next picture takes over – but we can’t see that picture; at the moment our eyes are occupied by the past.

Here is a mountain and the mountain is sheltering a house. But no one lives in this house and therefore we don’t know what the inside looks like. It gazes upon the lawn outside through its hollow sockets; it gazes its own space, but nothing that it sees changes by being seen – everything continues to stay the same as always. At first I feel like time has erased all life that once was to be found here, but after a short contemplation I realize that it happened the other way around.

By looking around, the following questions emerge. What is the color of the grass reaching down towards the edge of the lake – and what is the color of the water? Is it possible to say that the mountain – when one looks in the other direction – displays a specific color, or that the dead eyes of an abandoned house are the same color as death? Is the rock lying on the ground somehow differently colored then the next rock? And what is the color of the sun? Does its color change when it disappears below the horizon? I don’t know the answers to these questions – first I need to see the grass, the water, the mountain, the abandoned house, the rock lying on the ground and the rock next to it, and the sun on the other side of the horizon.

The only purpose of the road is to point us in the direction that it is leading. The road doesn’t have any other purpose. And I’m not on the way that it suggests; I’m on my way here. For I recognize this place – here everything is as if it had been created from my own ideas: the mountain, the house, the water and the expanse, all of it small enough to easily fit in the eyes.

Massachusetts, Dec. 2001

Revenants

The phantoms suggested by the title of Katrín Elvarsdóttir’s series, Revenants, are of a different variety than the spectres that might float through a keyhole. The ghosts glimpsed in her photographs have more to do with things left behind to memory — earthly things, perhaps, but just as haunting. The items or places are inert, yet it is as if they radiate with some last vestige of emotion — a last gasp of imparted spirit.

The landscapes, originated on archaic equipment barely more advanced than a pinhole camera, hark back to the earliest era of photography. The territory is of a rural Iceland whose inhabitants have died out or moved on to better prospects, a condition not uncommon to many parts of the world, the cause being anything from industrialization, to climate change. The result is that the environments depicted could be of any high latitude, whether the post-Soviet Union, Labrador, or Patagonia. But because it is Iceland, the ghosts implied within the title are specific to their own culture. The Icelanders themselves may be re-established in Reykjavík or on extended trips around the world. But the folklore remains among the ruins, as if the previous generations left behind a sediment of emotion that has been absorbed into the soil, rendering each outcrop a sentient being. And if the Icelandic interpretation of their mythology is more literal than in other parts of Northern Europe, this would seem a logical enough proposition. Mythology has always fermented in the opaque regions just beyond sight of the campfire, or in the modern era, the zone beyond certifiable evidence. In the effort to maintain an authentic identity within the larger western industrial civilization, a link to superstition has carried over, allowing for a good amount of leeway in retaining a sense of the elves.

The land is nameless, the titles of the images not so much documenting specific locations in Iceland as denoting realms no more accessible than the ether of memory. It is in this way that the parallels exist between Katrín Elvarsdóttir’s own origins and her work, as she was born in Ísafjördur in 1964, but her family relocated to Reykjavík. After a period spent abroad during her teens in Sweden, she attended the University of Iceland studying French literature, followed by an extended stay in the U.S., where her inclination shifted to photography. Out of such an environment with so many disparate instincts, Katrín’s own personal sensibility resonates with an unflappable integrity. An individual artist with a distinctive body of work, she has functioned and survived within a larger, prevailing global culture, as evident in her shows during the late 1990s in Reykjavík, Florida, Denmark, and New England. Whether in photographs or collage assemblies, her imagery strikes a balance between narrative and a strong graphic instinct.

In Revenants, her attention shifts back towards the territory of her origins. She has pared down her technology to the most rudimentary of 120 format cameras, reducing her choices to the essential exposure, the rudimentary optics dictating a unity within the images, with concentric degrees of illumination emphasizing innate distances as palpable and yet indescribable as any glimpse of Elysium or Beulah Land. The result is not unlike an alchemist’s camera obscura capturing evidence of a place that is at once just beyond the lens but as inaccessible as the netherworld.

It is indeed an ethereal heritage that Katrín has returned home to. Yet for all the prevailing themes that unify the series, there are as many elements that distinguish each individual photograph.

In photograph “Suðurland II” (2001) the exposure evokes not so much Iceland, but a Soviet Union of secret numbered cities or forgotten gulags. As if in a surreptitious snap taken by an exile, or by remote sensing, the northern sun illuminates what could be either launching gantries or oil wells, the technology reduced by the environment to its most primitive form. And for all the light shining downward, the cold is all encompassing, even while the chimera of the spires would suggest radiation passing through them, rendering everything within the frame lifeless, the dark swath at the bottom of the image not so much earth as inert sediment.

“Norðurland III” (2001) is, of course, more blatant in suggesting a Soviet/post-Soviet venue, as the Cyrillic lettering on the ship’s superstructure leaves little doubt as to its origin. The connection between the two worlds would seem logical enough, the shore being on the edge of the abyss, the Arctic beginning just beyond view. Whatever comes from over the horizon, whether Russian freighters, Siberian driftwood, Maersk containers, crates of oranges, or Algerian corsairs, their influences are deposited with the currents, forgotten a month later, but remembered for generations.

“Snæfellsnes” (2001) with its emptied house and connected outbuildings sitting at the foot of a glaciated mountain, the disposition of the sky and the line of the mountain carries a homely trace. As if harking back to the idyll of a silent film epic, the site resembles an archaic redoubt, however the substance, structure, and size of the ruin would indicate a fairly recent past. With its asymmetrical lines and lopsided cavities, the decrepitude is all pervasive — the former occupants having either perished or moved on to a more sustainable existence, as if the region as been formally deincorporated and declared an empty quarter, abandoned to the hinterlands.

In “Strandir II” (2000) the wreckage of the grounded ship, devoid of any masts or deck structure, righted only by an external framework, has merged with the land and the harbor, forming an inadvertent promontory. The hull, although still solid, would appear to have been picked clean by salvagers, its crew having disembarked more or less in safety to the shore. It is a sight reminiscent of the Falklands Islands and other high-latitude outposts, with generations of working ships beached and written off rather than venture further into treacherous seas. Any sense of memorializing seems happenstance, no plaques being necessary, the long, sculptural lines of the hulk itself serving as enough of a monument.

“Norðurland II” (2001) with its surplus Quonset Hut and mid-sixties Oldsmobile carries over to what now seems as much a mythic era in that it could be called “Middle Cold War.” The iconography of both the hut and car scream of a shabby American nostalgia, and unlike the previous images, it is not an abandoned site. The light above the car is on, glowing faintly, and there are no uneven traces of debris in the foreground, just a sparse functionality of the environs. But at most, there would seem to be only a skeleton shift in a workshop, the machinery idling during a summer dusk, the American influences counting as a decorative layer already settling back into the earth.

In “Strandir I” (2000) it is not clear if the factory overlooking the span of water, like the previous image, is a derelict or is functioning on some basic level, as a faint wisp of vapor emanating from the chimney appears to mimic the low-hanging cloud in the harbor. But it is the barest sign of life, as the right angles of the building settle into a foreground that is as opaque as volcanic ash – a parked car rendered a faint, half-submerged shape, lost among the murk. With its smudged cement surfaces, worn by time and the elements, it is hard to image the factory ever having supported itself so far on the periphery of any larger economy. Its only apparent link is the water and the narrow causeway and winding road on the right, and yet it might be purely illusionary, as if faces could be glimpsed in the detail as well. All that remains amidst the composition and the interplay of light is that the structure remains, the smokestack still reaching upward, almost a monument, a rust-belt obelisk.

“Að Norðan” (2000) sits under a shroud of overcast, the solitary stucco cottage reflected in a mudpuddle. It could be Ireland or straight out of the remembered potato fields of Günter Grass’s Kashubia, and somehow, as if by virtue of its placement within the frame, the cottage evokes a grandmotherly presence, left behind to a hardscrabble existence. It is a sentimental premise, or at least a projected sentiment, as the gulf between the comfortable, reflective present and the earlier generations who tried to make a viable living off such a landscape and often failed continues to haunt as much as any specter.

That “Suðurland I” (2001) should follow “Að Norðan” makes perfect sense, for beyond the link in the weather and the rain-filled puddles, the road winding towards the horizon is no doubt escaping the isolated world of the previous image. There is no sense of arrival, only departure, as if setting off and severing ties is an inevitable fact, but the loss is undeniable. For as much as the landscape is comprehended, having been measured, divided, and worked to exhaustion, it is only upon return that the final aesthetic transformation is apparent.

If arrival is to be had, it is in “Suðurnes” (1999) the overcast of the earlier images having broken, the road having deposited the perspective — in what may belie the title — to the edge of true North, Ultima Thule, the rough-hewn shrine serving as a marker. As much as it would seem morning, the lateness of the hour – or indeed the epoch – has been reached. It is the fact of the high latitude, the very sense of impossibility that buffets the place with a roar, and that there is indeed a palpable glory cast upon this knoll. It is a glory not dependent on the cross pushed up against the sky; the cross is simply another mythic application, another level of iconography, another visitor’s interpretation. The glory is that the patch of windblown high grass and distant mountain frame a rarefied pocket where the transcendent is to be glimpsed, a point where geography and the sublime converge.