Massachusetts, Dec. 2001
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.