Paris-based artist Sabine Mirlesse, in this selection of photographs from her book As if it Should Have Been a Quarry captures the almost mystical quality of the Icelandic landscape and the close relationship between the people and their environment. Awed by the overwhelming power of the elements, Mirlesse became fascinated not only by the geological and environmental forces at play, but also by how deeply interwoven nature and individual seem to be. In the following interview she shares some of her experiences in Iceland, together with her personal reflections on what it all might mean.
What led you to Iceland and doing this project?
I went to Iceland for a three-month artist residency run by SÍM, The Association of Icelandic Visual Artists. I had always been drawn to Iceland, but went without having a specific project planned out. On the flight there, while reading a tourist brochure, I became quite intrigued by an ad for Vestmannaeyjar or the Westmann Islands in English, which were described as “The Pompeii of the North.” I immediately wanted to find more information about the story, and that ended up inspiring the rest of the project.
For obvious reasons, Icelanders generally don’t build villages at the base of volcanoes, however in 1973 on the island of Heimaey a volcano previously dormant erupted without any warning, burying the place in lava and ash (luckily everyone was evacuated before lives were lost). Such a calamity would have been more than enough to deter most people from returning to their homes, however 2000 residents did just that. Armed with shovels and determination, they dug their homes out of the ash and returned to their previous way of life. In light of the many natural disasters that are occurring around the world these days, I found those people’s spirit and resilience quite inspiring. Icelanders live in an environment that is so much bigger than they are. The weather is harsh in its extremes, the earth can erupt to devastating effect, and yet the people take pride in their ability to live under such conditions.
While visiting Heimaey (literally translated as “home-island”) I met an elderly couple whose house had been destroyed, through a translator I asked the woman if she could have saved one thing in her house what it would have been and she simply said, “photographs.” She also alluded to how many residents whose homes were merely covered in ash were able to dig their lives up, but that the lava had buried her home too deeply, melting much of the contents into the earth.
I was fascinated by this idea of one’s history being buried in the physical landscape and how this notion might exist in a place like Iceland. Often we speak of a piece of land holding history or stories, and that these are “written” in the landscape in an archaeological way. However, in Iceland there appeared to be very little way to leave an enduring imprint in the sense that most civilizations do. The earth there is so much more powerful than its inhabitants are. There are very few old buildings compared to what one sees in Europe and Asia, in part because they can’t survive the island’s elements; they must constantly rebuild, the earth shifts, the winter is harsh.
One of the typical things that people notice when they visit Iceland is that the earth appears to be a living being and the landscape mirrors a personality—the earth moves and breathes, it explodes, and then it’s calm again. Roni Horn published a book entitled Weather Reports You based on the principal that when people described weather that they remember they are somehow describing themselves. Many artists and visitors have noticed the special relationship between people and nature there.
Eventually I began to play with the idea of creating an attempt at a reverse gesture—instead of digging up one’s identity from the ground, I wanted to create portraits out of/or with the ground. I had never done anything so experimental before. I borrowed a car and drove around to various locations where the earth was steaming and bubbling, and collected clay in small buckets from these boiling pools found in higher seismic activity zones. I asked Icelandic people of all different ages to make facial imprints on a large piece of canvas using clay that I had collected from around the country. After each person had made their imprint I would then take their portrait, originally more as a type of documentation of the event than anything else. To my surprise everyone was quite willing to cover themselves with the clay, from a toddler up to a very elderly woman. After I had a handful of imprints made I couldn’t help but notice how the color of the majority of the participants eyes matched that of the clay, depending on what shade it dried on their skin. It was a bit magic.
I really had no idea what kind of an imprint the earth would leave on the canvas, but I felt the gesture itself reflected how we are shaped by the landscape. I still have the final piece which, considering the unpredictable durability of the dried volcanic clay on canvas, remarkably survived being rolled up and carried on a few airplane flights. In this series of photographs you only see details from the single large canvas that was created, so ideally I would like to exhibit the canvas itself together with the photographs.
What did you discover as the canvas became covered with these facial imprints over that three month period?
The imprints themselves surprised me—how unique each one was, how different from the next each individual had managed to form theirs, and so on. I found myself reflecting upon the relationships between how we leave imprints in the land, how the land leaves its imprints on us and even how photography itself is an imprint of light. One Icelandic person who saw the canvas towards the end of my time there told me that the imprints looked like topographical maps of glaciers.
Looking at this series and hearing your impressions of Iceland one gets a sense of humankind’s natural place within the world, and the symbiotic relationship between man and nature.
When taking photos in Iceland, the landscape and environmental conditions are so overwhelming that it is quite inevitable that they will become a dominant theme in one’s work. At least they were for mine. In school, my understanding is, many Icelandic people are required to take a course in basic geology. They become not only familiar with the land but knowledgeable about it as well. As a visitor, my impression was that Icelanders are justifiably proud to have succeeded in creating a culture against the odds and elements that come with building a country on a small island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
Oh, and one last question: where did you come up with the title as if it should have been a quarry?
The title is taken from a line in Robert Frost’s poem “Directive”. I went to high school in New England, a region that Frost wrote much about—it’s seasons and landscape. That particular poem has stayed with me. The line seemed to fit.