The Life in the Land explores icebergs as phenomenon and textual fragment within a radically changing climate.

I produced these paintings upon visiting Iceland and through my residency at the Hafnarborg Centre of Arts and Culture as part of an artist exchange in 2013. The unusually rainy and cold July changed my plans from watercolor painting outdoors to photography and drawing, and from perceptually based image making to material and conceptual concerns.

Iceland is geology. At Jokulsarlon, the popular glacial lagoon, I thawed a chunk of the lagoon’s ice to paint a watercolor study. Granules of black sand and/or volcanic ash covered and interrupted all I painted, released from the thawing ice that contained them. Glaciers carved the dark basalt mountains surrounding the lagoon and carried records of volcanic eruptions. I realized what a rich mark-making device a glacier is and decided to paint with the sand using water as its vehicle.

I painted Ghost, Portraits, and Grinding Memory to be ephemeral using sand with an unstable binder, letting the iceberg image shed its sandy particles onto anticipating trays set below. My paintings performed, less as an image than a situation. 

Photographic diptychs pair Egyptian hieroglyphic fragments against icy fragments calved from glaciers, speculating on their status as texts in transition. Both texts index civilization, one lapsing towards oblivion and the other built towards preservation. 

"A Day at the Glacial Lagoon – Notes on Artworks" 
Erling Sjovold
Gallery Talk, Spring 2015

I spent a full day at Jökulsárlón, the popular glacial lagoon on Iceland’s southeastern shore, on July 9, 2013. I stayed from roughly 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., to watch, paint, photograph, and listen to the icebergs floating throughout the day. At Jökulsárlón, one can see the icebergs’ path from mountainous glacial source to vast ocean exit from a single viewpoint. Like most glaciers, this one is receding, and the lake is expanding, due to climatic change.

The lagoon’s activity surprised me. Iceberg images typically reinforce a sense of static forms, as if even the imagination is frozen. Icebergs drift, collide, melt, drip, split, crack, squeak, crash, splash, flip, spin, shrink, and disappear. I promised myself to paint to the varied, stunning sounds of these icebergs as much as to their image. The lagoon reveals its pace and drama with a full day’s visit.

I started this body of artwork during my residency in Iceland at the Hafnarfjördur Centre of Culture and Find Art in Hafnarfjördur, a small town south of Reykjavík. A University of Richmond Weinstein Travel Grant made this visit and residency possible.

Through gesture and color in Bloom and Your Unfinished Water I approach icebergs as dynamic subjects, chaotic and uncontained by a single, definitive profile. Each work explores fluctuating contours negotiated by differing colors, textures and densities of paints in which their wet into wet reactions create multiple edges and outlines similar to an iceberg’s changing shape over time. These fluid interactions reveal their own natural phenomena much like the geologic and hydrologic processes of their glacial subjects. These archival works are done in acrylic, watercolor and black sand on polypropylene paper.

Ghost, Untitled (Portraits), and the large triptych Grinding Memory focus on drawing to interpret the iceberg’s shape and fluidity through line. I drew them with brushes using watercolor, gum arabic, and black sand from the beach at Vik. The presence of fine black sand and coarse volcanic ash on and within the ice contradicts the feeling of slick clear ice one may anticipate from glaciers and icebergs. Encountering such prevalence of glacial, icy textures shifted my attention from one of appearances to one of processes.

Ghost, Untitled (Portraits), and Grinding Memory are not archival, and intentionally ephemeral in form. I used gum arabic, the traditional binder for watercolor, to carry and secure the sand. However, the amount of gum arabic needed to suspend the sand far exceeds recommended proportions for an archival watercolor to the degree that this binder becomes brittle and prone to cracking, flaking and general failure. The various trays placed below the paintings anticipate their ephemerality and residue, like hands below that collect the sand and gestural marks as they yield. I imagine the works eventually as trays of sand below eroded and faint images above, reminders to myself to be present, engaged, and to remember.  These borrow from geologic processes of entropy and glaciers’ identity as valley carvers and earth grinders, agents of fertile soil and hospitable place. These also allude to the vanitas and memento mori traditions as reflections on ephemerality and mortality. I realized later that these likely were meditations on my mother’s memory loss.

The lighting on Grinding Memory progresses from brighter to darker, echoing the light-to-dark value progression described between each of the three panels. The transitions recall my day spent at the lagoon, the arc from morning to night, while suggesting degrees of exposure, literal and metaphoric. The three also sequence the accumulation of sand, the density of which calling attention to the thin paper, curling and hanging freely, oddly light and provisional against the artwork’s large scale commonly employed for epic, enduring gestures.

I had the trays for Ghost cast in aluminum in reference to the new and profound presence of aluminum smelting in Iceland due to its abundant, clean, and cheap hydroelectric energy for an energy intensive industry. International aluminum interests drove Iceland’s creation of the massive Karahnjukar Hydropower Plant, primarily for the Fjardaal aluminum smelter. The hydro plant required the damming of the Jokulsa a Dal and Jokulsa I Fljotsdal Rivers with a total of five dams between the two rivers. Beyond the iconic waterfalls that were lost was the generally high environmental price paid by this otherwise pristine wilderness. Iceland’s economic and environmental needs continue to play out their now familiar tensions. Between the aluminum tray and tenuous iceberg, Ghost meditates on cheap energy, the drive for it and consequences of it.

The photo series Glyphs and Glaciers explores glaciers as texts to be read and decoded similar to those of ancient hieroglyphs. “Glyph” derives from the Greek “to carve” or “carving”. Multiple couplets of photographed glacial and archeological fragments “float” on the wall, while the photographs themselves are also fragments to consider. Glacial ice core samples reveal frozen layers of atmosphere compiled over thousands of years. Within those layers are tiny air bubbles encapsulating the climatic code of its time that inform scientists of our atmospheric history, not unlike the Rosetta Stone that allowed for the decoding of Egyptian hieroglyphs and its cultural history. The Egyptian hieroglyphs reference our efforts to reconstruct fragments into a coherent record of early civilization while the icebergs become the fragments of an intact historical record that is rapidly eroding, potentially into oblivion.  

I contemplate this pairing as two archival projects headed in opposite directions, passing each other. One project restores and constructs a fragmentary past towards a more coherent whole, obsessively cared for to locate our beginnings. The other project neglects a relatively coherent whole to fragmentation, ignoring an ancient record holding clues to locating/anticipating our future. It is spellbinding, perhaps sublime, to watch the icebergs float out from the lagoon into the Atlantic, far out of view, knowing that they melt and join the waters that eventually rise upon every ocean shore.