Fragile Viking

(2015) performance, paper, photographs

 

This project marked a breakthrough for me; it made me realise that my practise is as much about performance as it is about installation. My thanks to Iceland for this illumination!

 

This piece is from my residency in Fljotstunga, Iceland. It comprises paper boats, floating in rural Iceland, particularly in an ice and lava cave. It’s about lots of things – human fragility in the harsh landscape, the sheer absurdity of placing paper in this extreme environment, journeys – literal and emotional, displacement, etc. It is also a very personal and emotional project about me, and the absurdity of being in this world at all with my particular disabilities. In the end, the piece almost morphed into a performative piece, because the conditions were so difficult, that placing and photographing the boats became an exercise in bloody-mindedness and battle against the extreme wind and cold. My batteries froze, my flash froze, I could no longer feel my fingers to place the boats, they wouldn’t stay still in the wind, and it was hard to stand up; so placing paper boats and photographing them was a tall order. I had the epiphany that, in fact, a great deal of my work is as much about the performance (and absurdity) of repetitive making, and the recording afterwards, as it is about the ephemeral installations I tend to produce.

 

(There is a longer report, written as part of my residency contract, at the bottom of the page below the gallery.)


 

I applied for the Fljotstunga residency because I am always drawn to Northerliness and wilderness. Out of all the residencies, it called to me. I was overjoyed when I was accepted. But from the get-go I also experienced stress. It challenged me on so many fronts – even from the beginning. My process is usually to work with found-paper at a particular time and location to build site-specific installations. I realised early on that a) there would be no source of found-paper, as it wasn’t a populated area, and b) shared studio-space meant no building an installation. I am not a laid-back person, so the idea of winging-it is not for me. But the nature of the place insisted that I was unable to prepare a concept or process; Fljotstunga demanded that I respond to the place even more spontaneously than I ever had before. This made me unsettled from the start, but stretched me and was so good for me.
After I arrived I realised almost immediately that this sense of dislocation from my process and my general cognitive discomfort was also connected deeply to the extreme nature of the place itself, and was what I needed to create work about. I had to do something I’d never done before, which was to use new paper, bought for my purposes. This made me feel strangely guilty and added to my sense of unsettledness. I set about making many origami boats. The repetitive nature of this task was a welcome return to my process, as well as serving to soothe me. My plan was to place the boats ‘sailing’ in absurd places, like the lava field, and in a tree, and in the lava cave. The project landed up being complex and about many things – from me existing in the world with my disabilities, to more general ideas about displacement, exploration, and the indomitability of the human spirit.
The idea of absurdity was integral to the project from the start – the boats being in places they ’shouldn’t’ logically be. However, this became a much more prominent aspect of the piece than even I had expected at the outset. In fact, the conditions made it almost impossible to install my boats anywhere, or take pictures of them. To have my gloves off in the cold meant I couldn’t feel my fingers – I was clumsy and without the dexterity I needed to hold and place the boats. Not to mention in extreme discomfort. The wind also made it impossible to place light, unmoored, paper anywhere and expect it to stay. Each attempted installation became more ridiculous and seemingly impossible. And even when I did manage it, the cold froze my flash and batteries, so recording it became equally difficult.
This meant the piece took a totally unexpected turn – it crossed over from being pure installation to being quite performative. It became very much about the almost futile act of attempting to place and record the boats. It became this battle against the elements and landscape – could I win out in a seemingly impossible situation from sheer bloody-mindedness. Each photograph marks a small victory.
As well as my project and process, experiencing the other artists’ processes and watching their projects develop over the course of the residency was also profoundly valuable. I don’t really have a network in the art world, so I feel heavily influenced by the wonderful artists who were around me – that was such a privilege. Coming to Fljotstunga has been such a valuable experience for me. It stretched me, pushed my idea of my process to new places, and forced me to come to terms with my own discomfort. What’s more I was privileged to experience all this with the most stimulating and exciting set of artistic cohorts, and wonderful hosts, one could imagine. My profuse thanks to Lilian, Halldor, and all the other artists – I have changed and grown from my experiences with you.