Moving across boundaries: Þorgerður Ólafsdóttir’s Séstey/Hverfey

Þorgerður Ólafsdóttir showcases new work – land-based materials, found objects of drift matter and what might be considered the remains of our contemporary, plastic lives from the island of Surtsey – with the exhibition Séstey/Hverfey at the Surtseyjarstofa (Surtsey Visitor Centre).

Photo: Þorgerður Ólafsdóttir.

Formed in a seafloor volcanic eruption in 1963-7, Surtsey island is imagined as an utterly natural terrain and was as such added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 2008. Closed to unlegislated visitors, Surtsey’s significance is seen as grounded in its pristine natural landscapes. However, alongside bacterial growth, birds nesting, and plants rooting, the island’s cultural legacy has also flourished: intentionally, through naming, studying and listing, and unintentionally through human, airborne and seaborne effluence, which Þorgerður brings to the surface.

In her photographic series Storytellers (Sögumenn) (2021), objects exotic to Surtsey’s natural environ – like migrating rocks (xenoliths) and drift matter – are displayed. The rocks are believed to have travelled from Greenland with icebergs, sinking to the seabed before being brought back up to the surface during the initial eruption. They are journeyed and storied like their counterparts, Settlers (Landnemar) (2021), sea-driven plastic and other drift material that also washes ashore there regularly. In our human discovery of land, finding-, making-, sensing-, and naming place is of great importance to knowing new territory, and to how it becomes what it is to us. The work Footprint (Fótspor) (2021), seen in this exhibition, drives the idea that human and land are one and connected: Human footprints imprint the newly surfaced palagonite on the slopes of Austurbunki. As one foot follows the other, a moment in land formation is preserved in geologic time.

Photo: Þorgerður Ólafsdóttir.
Photo: Þorgerður Ólafsdóttir.

The objects are a network telling of a process of transformation. Þorgerður displays how Surtsey, despite being designated a pristine and untouched natural environment, confronts us with an unavoidable, if modest, ecology of naturecultures. Her deep consideration of layered temporalities and the human interaction with the material environment instructs her careful and critical perspective on the way that land is founded, represented and understood in a cultural sense. This includes the complications of intervention, extraction, weather, locality, migration and cultural histories.

Through her work Þorgerður Ólafsdóttir has made substantive efforts to reconsider and present landscape in ways that honour these complex and connected interrelationships. Her enduring research-based practice is committed to merging art with the fields of natural science and contemporary archaeology. Her notice of human systems for the world and cultural forms—from field research, to archive information, to exhibition practices—suggests an interrelationship between discovery, environmental care and sensing. In her work, she uses mapping and exploration as a method for making. With an analytical eye, Þorgerður’s aesthetic borrows from scientific approaches to illustrate processes of change that are ignited by human contact and sentiments, directly linked to the experience of the world as it takes place around us.

Photo: Þorgerður Ólafsdóttir.

Séstey/Hverfey is part of a larger project titled Island Fiction that Þorgerður has worked on during the past year in relation to Surtsey and which will conclude with the publication of a bookwork in 2023. For her project, she was granted research permission to Surtsey and travelled with the geology expedition to the island during summer 2021. Some of the works in the exhibition are inspired by Þorgerður’s time and stay on the island.

Séstey/Hverfey opened on 14.11.2021 and will be on display until 23.12.2023. Þorgerður is in collaboration with The Environmental Agency of Iceland to work further with drift matter and seaborn debris that will be cleared from the island in the next few years.

Words by Becky Forsythe.

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