Fifty Plants for Peace


A photograph of a pink flower. The frame is narrow and the background is generic : Blue sky, a few clouds – we are not familiar with the place. This could be anywhere. Anytime.


In the final days of May 2011, the Iceland-Japan Society gifted the city of Reykjavík fifty cherry blossom trees that were planted in Hljómskálagarður Park.

The gift represented an everlasting friendship and peace between Japan and Iceland.

Gifting a cherry blossom tree as a token of peace is a longstanding tradition in Japan, often often planted where war has raged, where men had lost their lives. The trees represent both birth and death, beauty and violence. In Japan, they also serve as an emblem for the short, yet colorful life of a Samurai warrior. Furthermore, the pink flowers adorned kamikaze airplanes in the Second World War.

But what about the cherry blossom trees at Hljómskálagarður Park? Must battles be raised to plant peace?


The photograph captures a moment in time that will not be

repeated. The moment becomes eternal yet elusive, at the

same time. The memory centers itself around this particular 

angle and has the possibility of transformation.


Cherry blossom trees bloom annually, for a very short period

each time. They bloom in spring, usually for a week or two.

Should you miss a cherry blossom in bloom you’ll then have to

wait through fifty bloom-less consecutive weeks to see these

fragile pink flowers appear again.


For a moment, these trees alter themselves from being

”very ordinary trees” into otherworldly and dreamy

vegetation, most reminiscent of candyfloss or a snow-covered summer. Passers-by look up and linger for a moment. We are

reminded of impermanence.

Life is short, colorful, and precious. Life is unexpected and  


is a result 

of other people’s decisions. 



What is taken out of context looks for a new context. Similar to an atom that is released from a molecule and searches for new connections. Like people search for connection. We yearn for context, we desire to belong.

Plants attach their roots to a particular place. We also tend to use the same word for ourselves – where our roots are – often referring to a particular place. It’s quite clear that plants can be uprooted and moved to the other side of the globe – but can people be uprooted and moved?

Out of place : Not in the proper situation, not belonging; inappropriate for the circumstances or location.

Where are you born? (In Ísafjörður or Kyoto?)

To be born and move

To grow up and stay

To fit in

Every year, pink flowers wake up in a public park in Reykjavík, far from their native place.

Bananas grow in a greenhouse in Hveragerði.



The frame is tight, and the plants seem gigantic, almost terrifying. A sharp eye detects tiny bananas in between enormous leaves.

The color of an object, the way we perceive it, is really the only color that the object does not absorb, but instead, reflects. If you stare at an object for long enough, then look at a white wall and blink a few times, you’ll see the image inversed. Dark becomes light, light becomes dark, green turns to purple, yellow to blue, and so forth. How we look at the world can reveal who we are, often in a more truthful way than how we present ourselves out in the world.

How does it affect the landscape when plants are moved from one corner of the world to another? How about the plants themselves? To grow bananas, certain circumstances need to be created. The ideal habitat for bananas is far away, in Africa, Asia, and South America. Icelandic bananas do not see the sun until after harvest.


At the edge of growth, where apple-trees are like crippled bonsais in an over-ambitious garden- at the sore marge of the covering verdure, at the beginning of the desert, the open wound addresses us.

Violet, pink, yellow, and green war-herbs challenge the desolation. Assertive plants that act as an army towards the enemies of our bodies. They’ll wreak havoc if they’re not challenged themselves and allowed to go on. Or what?

The herbs can maybe heal the situation. Bearberry is a stubborn one, but not so radical that it threatens the biological diversity of our flora, nevertheless keeping the earth in place. The crushed berries were said to keep ghosts away and strengthen our renal systems. But the black lymph was also known to aggravate the black bile. Out of bearberry, they used to make ink to write away melancholy. This antidote-way of thinking is an undercurrent in our history. What an interesting link between herbs, urinary tracts, and literature!

Les fleurs du mal. The Flowers of Evil. The forceful flowers. How difficult it would be to map all the flowers of evil. As well as our relationships to those flowers, and their extermination. The map would constantly change, due to hard-working city-workers plucking the evil out of every garden. And goodness, all the poison that we pour on those poor herbs that are historically known as alternative medicine.

It’s surely tempting for kids to wander outside of the garden fence, let themselves disappear into the forest. Look for clearing and stay there in calm and play. But there are beautiful, yet dangerous wildflowers, pink, yellow, green, and white. How lovely to ornate oneself with them in a ceremony of marriage, dancing on a red mushroom with white dots. That moment of joy will remain in the body. Alongside a scolding moment: How dare you disappear? How dangerous!

Memories of ambivalent feelings. Purple memories of intimacy. Then black and colorful and white. We’ll remake those moments with our scissors, photo-paper, ink, glue, and colors. We near ourselves to the core of the experience, when we in joyful play forgot ourselves. We try remembering by radiographing the vegetation, light it up, get inside it. Leaving the shame. There was no evil in us, and no evil belonged to the flowers. Little by little, we’ll thus illuminate our memories.

Surrounding ourselves with plants that remind us of that place where we found ourselves in rare relation to our surroundings. Experimenting with our own pseudo-landscape that can shelter us while our wounds heal. It’s an attempt to attest limitations.
We’ll find refuge in a distant banana-leaf-house. Create shelter from the erosion, under the ambiance of banana-leaf sounds. Colors that don’t exist in our vegetation become a part of our landscape anyway. But oh, the monkey in our glass-house gets sick when the only local banana-tree breaks in an earthquake. How vulnerable our plans!

At the speed of light, we receive new information from our open wounds. The reception rather slow, even though we tune up our wi-fi. Try biomimicry, try photosynthesizing? Are we getting it right about the importance of the wet-lands? And the urgency of dandelions? The upheaval of crazy flowers? What? Stop organizing our landscapes? Only to enter chaos?

And a message from the Tibetan Chögyam Trungpa: The essence of crazy wisdom is that you have no strategized programs or ideals at all. You are just open… This turns out to be a scientific approach in the sense that openness is in constant contact with nature’s elements.

(Crazy Wisdom, Seminar 1).

Ok, thank you, sir, if we allow the elements to play, the verdure to lead us, would there be drawn up new growth-maps based on something other than encroachment? Based on the destruction of verdure in one place and the flourishing of another, transplanting, fringing. If similarly ambitious roadmaps of our feelings towards different plants in the world existed. Emotions based on our collective ancestry and subconscious, as well as our personal experiences and trauma.

Let us start by drawing a picture of our wounds and verdure? Of our intimate relations to growth and the herbal ambivalence?

Oddný Eir Ævarsdóttir

A songbird, caged

Cuba is a country cloaked in an intriguing mystery, a place of cultural richness and political restriction. Its history is complex, and the isolation entwined in that history is equally compelling. When contemplating the confinement surrounding Cuba, the image of a caged songbird is brought to mind, relating both to Cuba’s tourists and its residents. We can all connect to this isolation in a universal sense today, our current global predicament causing so many of us to feel trapped and caged, no matter the country. While Cuba once felt unique in its restrictions, today it is a haunting new normal across the globe. 

In Cuba, one will most likely be quick to encounter a lonely caged songbird – a tradition of owning songbirds is longstanding in Cuba and a part of their cultural heritage. As Katrín Elvarsdóttir experienced in her travels to Cuba some years ago, most homes she encountered had one, if not many, adorned in intricate cages within sparse and barren homes. Perhaps the Cubans feel a certain affinity with the songbird, their own movements restricted and controlled. An isolated human seeking an isolated companion in their own cage. In a place where economic poverty is the rule rather than the exception, perhaps ownership of a songbird presents a certain facade of luxury, implying an indulgence of lifestyle so as to mask the appearance of lacking and wanting. 

In her work, Katrín captures an essential loneliness and solitude. And yet, within the images a yearning for richness calls out, both emotional and material. Her photographs are grainy and imperfect, inverted colors and negative images revealing odd tones that bring life to a mysterious country. This vibrancy of colors contrasts the subject matter – abandoned buildings, empty homes, vacant storefronts. The grandness of the Cuban architecture is deceiving, portraying a level of luxury and European sophistication while on the inside the buildings are largely void. A Colonial history shines strongly through the country’s architectural elements, and works in some ways to mask its true barrenness. Katrín captures a certain decrepitude in her photographs, though the viewer can feel a desperate attempt to fill in the gaps – to present an image of wealth, of having, and of abundance. 

And the songbird itself, photographed in the seeming dark (as the homes lack sufficient electricity and lighting). This creates a spotlight pinned onto the birds and their cages, bringing them out from the dark. It feels as though she is capturing a secret, revealing something that was meant to stay hidden. They peek out at us from their cages, asking for freedom, or at least for something more. The songbird seeks to connect and interact, and they  feel quite human to us in that sense – companionship is our most basic human need. 

An isolated country begins to feel familiar to us. A decrepit building, an empty room, a locked cage, and the lonely love song, echoing out on barren walls.

Daria Sol Andrews

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

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
Sigrún Alba Sigurðardóttir

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

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,

2 For example Revenants Proximal-Dimension (2004) or Longing (2005). Accessed at:

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,

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,

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,

10 Johannes Binotto, “Für ein unreines Kino. Film und Surrealismus,” in: Filmbulletin – Kino in Augenhöhe, 3.2010 (April 2010), 33–39, accessed at:

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

Lucas Gehrmann