Sailing North – Part 2 – In search of Ice

So I was headed north.

In search of Polar Bears.

In search of Roald Amundsen.

In search of Ice.

In imagining my Arctic trip from the temperate comfort of my Oakland studio, I did my required due diligence and read as much as I could prior to setting out. There is no shortage of literature on the Ice and there is a considerable body of research exploring how our imagination frames our experience of the the Arctic (and Antarctic). On the trip north my constant companion was the wonderful treatise by Francis Spufford “I may be some time” which deals in detail with how Victorian and Edwardian literature influenced the expectations and experience of Polar explorers. I was also rereading Barry Lopez’s “Arctic Dreams”. Lopez dwells at length on the characteristics of Arctic ice, listing many of the innumerable forms it can take (the English language has an incredibly rich and diverse nomenclature for ice and snow). Lopez says, the pack ice  “holds a different sort of attraction because of its constant motion, varied topography, and the access it provides to certain animals. But to venture out there on foot is, to put it simply, to court death. Pack ice moves irregularly before the wind, and the change in orientation of an individual piece of ice is unpredictable…. To be at its mercy in a boat or small ship however, is to know an exhausting, nerve-wracking vulnerability.” He goes on to describe  the famous whaler William Scoresby’s experience of being entrapped in the pack off the east coast of Greenland in 1814. “Scoresby set out on foot to reconnoiter the final mile of maneuvering that he hoped would set him free. Like many men caught in such circumstances, Scoresby was terrified. But he was mesmerized as well by the ice, by its sheer power, its daunting scale, the inexorability of its movement. The sound of its constant adjustment before the wind was like “complicated machinery or distant thunder,” he wrote. Even as he sought a way out, he marveled at the way it distracted him. He lost the sense of plight that spurred him, the pleading whining that came from his ship’s pinched hull; he became a mere “careless spectator.” It was though he was walking on the back of some enormous and methodical beast.”

Lopez goes on to describe the destruction of ships in the pack ice, collapsing “like a grand piano caught in an industrial press” and “of a final image of devastation: the remnant of several whaling crews found in a frozen stupor behind a sea wall of dead bodies, stacked up to protect them from the worst of the heavy seas in which their small floe rolled and pitched.” Gruesome!

This imminent threat haunted all who voyaged north, even in imagination. It was so much a part of the Ice that contemporary painters couldn’t imagine the ice without it. Frederic Church’s largest painting of his career originally lacked a human element, but after a poor reception at its first showing he added the cross-like wreckage in the foreground in the hope that it would add to its human appeal when shown in Europe.

The Icebergs  Frederic Edwin Church, 1861

The Icebergs
Frederic Edwin Church, 1861

Ten years later that other master of Arctic light William Bradford added what appears to be the exact same element of foreboding and loss to his painting of Melville Bay.

An Arctic Summer: Boring Through the Pack in Melville Bay William Bradford, 1871

An Arctic Summer: Boring Through the Pack in Melville Bay
William Bradford, 1871

It came as no surprise then that when the Antigua sailed into the pack ice our captain was very wary. Antigua was only permitted to enter a ships length or two into the ice where we tied off to a large floe with ice anchors.

Antigua, moored to the pack ice.

Antigua, moored to the pack ice.

We were able to wander around on the floe (about the size my studio!)  and savor the “enormous methodical beast”, while the guides kept a sharp eye out for  polar bears who might surface nearby unexpectedly.

Feeling the floe

Feeling the floe

Thankfully we were all kept safe. The only creatures we saw were some local walrus who were also taking advantage of the relative calm and safety of the floes.

Sitting on a corn flake Waiting for the van to come

Sitting on a corn flake
Waiting for the van to come

We were able to lower the two zodiacs and meander out through the leads in the pack to listen to the sounds of the ice grinding and melting (like deep frying chips) and to the sounds of harp seals navigating the soundscape under the ice. You can see my hydrophone in the foreground of this image and listen to a section from one recording to give you an impression. Can you hear the descending siren-like whistles of the seals behind the popping of melting ice and the motion of the floes in the waves?

Deploying the hydrophone on a nearby floe

Deploying the hydrophone on a nearby floe

This marked the furthest north we reached on our voyage – 79º51 N 11º12 E.

Furthest North amongst the pack ice!

Furthest North, at the edge of the pack ice!

The bergs really look like that - intense aquamarines of compacted snow/ice against the muted grays and violets of the sky and water

The bergs really look like that! Intense aquamarines of compacted snow/ice against the muted grays and violets of the sky and water

The captain only allowed us a single day of adventuring in the pack ice and then he set sail for safer waters further south.

Here is a time-lapse recording of our 9 hour trip south to the safety of Trinityhamna in Magdalenafjord, accompanied by a recording from an accelerometer attached to the mainmast.


Sailing North – Part 1 – Life aboard Antigua

After having wandered the decks of Fram and envisioned the Arctic and Antarctic tribulations of Roald Amundsen, I was prepared to step aboard Antigua for three weeks of Arctic adventure. She first hove into view the day we were to board her, sailing up Adventfjorden to the docks of Longyearbyen on the island of Spitsbergen.

Antigua sails into view

Antigua sails into view

The figurehead - I never did learn her name.

The figurehead – I never did learn her name.

Nice rope work on deck!

Nice rope work on deck!

Our first day aboard was extremely civilized – in fact every day aboard was extremely civilized. I was expecting freezing weather, heavy seas and a good dose of “rum, sodomy and the lash”. There was considerable amounts of rum (or equivalent) and perhaps some sodomy (but at least behind closed doors) and the lash when administered was rather mild. The weather was hardly Arctic at all – a mild 35-39ºF most days, the very occasional sprinkle of rain or snow, beautiful sunshine most days and only a few days of strong wind and heavy seas – and those were the days we got to sail, so it made up for the rocky and disturbed night’s sleep. The first day we got oriented to safety protocols, the “daily routine” (tricky when there is no night and every day is a new adventure), how to wear life jackets, and cake!

Captain Jo laying down the law.

Captain Jo laying down the law.

That night we anchored in Trygghamna (Safe Harbor) and went to sleep in the beautiful late evening sunlight after a long afternoon of sea and sky gazing!

Our resident scientist Tom with his sun prepped binoculars watching sunspots and waiting for midnight.

Our resident scientist Tom with his sun prepped binoculars watching sunspots and waiting for midnight.

Midnight in Trygghamna - day 1

Midnight – day 1 on board

Sarah and Nemo - sleeping on deck at 1am

Sarah and Nemo – sleeping on deck at 1am

Not all of us slept on deck! Here’s a two way view of the cabin I shared with my roomy, David Heymann. (David being a poet/architect I think I’ll refer to him as my Rumi instead.)

Top bunk or bottom bunk?

Top bunk or bottom bunk?

View from the bunk.  Toilet/shower on the left

View from the bunk.
Toilet and shower on the left.

Top bunk has the porthole!!!!

Room with a view.

Room with a view.

Much of our time was spent in Antigua’s spacious saloon. Here we ate 3 meals a day (plus cake!), met and discussed the days agenda and our projects, hung out and socialized, and recharged both ourselves and our digital devices. The saloon is where we gave talks on our work or listened to the other artists and guides on the boat reveal new worlds to us! And like all good saloons, there was a bar, so that’s where people lingered and talked and conspired late into the sunlit early hours.

Antigua's luxurious saloon with room for 30  seated at a meal together.

Antigua’s luxurious saloon with room for 30 seated at a meal together.

Every morning after breakfast we would get a briefing on the days activities and then get ready to go ashore or to go out on a zodiac project or perhaps stay aboard and write or draw or even snooze!

Sarah explaining "the plan"!

Sarah explaining “the plan”!

Being on Antigua was a rich and delightful experience – a heady mix of work, rest and play. Inspiration and exhaustion wrapped up intricately together. But going ashore was fab!! From the first climb down onto the zodiac, to the feel of the water (and sometimes ice) under the cushioned hull, to the crunch of gravel and the stepping off into knee deep icy water, to the untouched shore. Well untouched very recently perhaps, but with plenty of evidence of human occupation and activity stretching back hundreds of years. And then again very quickly touched by us! We stomped on the snow, crushed delicate plants underfoot (gently) and hugged chunks of ice. We looked like a bunch of deranged LSD experimental subjects – wandering up and down making strange footsteps, using telepathy to communicate to distant places, crawling on our bellies and taking hundreds and hundreds of photographs (mostly of the ground, sometimes of the sky, often of each other).

Sylvie engaging long distance telepathy.

Sylvie engaging long distance telepathy.

Charley Young's ice rubbings and icy toes.

Charley Young’s icy rubbings and icy toes.

The architecture of Prof. Jess Perlitz.

The architecture of Prof. Jess Perlitz.

At all times we needed to be guarded! We were clearly focussed and engaged but perhaps not on those things that we should have been. For that we had our three guardian angels – Theres Anulf, Sarah “Blue” Gerats, and Sara “Red” Orstadius. Well trained, deeply experienced and armed! Keeping a vigilant eye out for Isbjørn!

Saint Theres caring for her flock.

Saint Theres caring for her flock.

Sarah Gerats, always stylish and well armed.

Sarah “Blue”, always stylish and well-armed.

Sarah and Nemo watching our rear.

Sarah and Nemo watching our rear.

Sara Ostadius, getting distracted by artist's shenanigans.

Sara “Red” distracted by artist’s shenanigans.

Ok! We are warm, comfortable, well fed, well-guarded, we know how  to buckle a life vest and have been ashore. Our boots stay dry and the cameras and sound gear seem to be working fine, and yes I will endeavor to not make a mess on deck when I make ‘art’ and to stay within rifle shot of one of the guardian angels at all times. LET’S GO!!!

Oslo – In search of Roald Amundsen – Part 1 – the Viking ships

Donald & Roald

Donald & Roald

I was on the hunt for Polar Bears while I was up North, I was also on the trail of Roald Amundsen.

As you might recall from high school geography or history classes, Amundsen was the first man to reach both poles. In fact, he was the first man to reach each of the Poles independently. The South Pole in 1911 with four companions on dog sled and skis, the North Pole in 1926 aboard the Italian airship “Norge” (created and captained by Umberto Nobile). On both trips he was accompanied by his fellow explorer Oscar Wistig so technically he shares the honor. Though Wistig is mostly considered  an historical footnote (along with the first African American polar explorer Matthew Henson who accompanied Robert Peary on 7 voyages over 23 years including Peary’s now disputed first arrival at the Geographic North Pole in 1909).

Amundsen is a great hero in Norway. Which is hardly surprising for this great seafaring nation. I spent a day enjoying four great nautical museums on the outskirts of Oslo. The Viking Ship Museum, the Kon-Tiki Museum, the Nautical Museum and, the icing on the cake, the Fram Museum. All of them provided important clues for my understanding of Amundsen.

The Viking ship Museum was the obvious starting point and a pilgrimage in its own right. I have wanted to view the Oseberg and Gokstad ships since I first saw images of them (in National Geographic perhaps?). What incredible works of functional craftsmanship. They still provide the most revealing evidence of what viking ships were actually like. Prior to their discovery in the late 19th century, the only clues came from the oral sagas, carvings on a few extant standing stones and the Bayeux Tapestry (AD 1077?).

Vikings invading the Bayeaux Tapestry

Vikings invading the Bayeaux Tapestry

Both ships are believed to have been functional (one a luxury yacht and the other a trade ship) prior to their use as funerary vessels. They had been looted and were shattered and degraded when they were discovered in the late 1800’s but thanks to an amazing restoration effort they now seem ready to sail again.

Sightseers at the Oseberg excavation 1904

Sightseers at the Oseberg excavation 1904

Oseberg ship

Oseberg ship restored

Oseberg lines - sweet!

Oseberg lines – sweet!

The carving work is beautifully restored and preserved and both ships have a wonderful patina that comes in part from their age but primarily from their preservation in tung oil and creosote – a finish that I might pursue myself!

Gokstad ship

Gokstad ship

Prow details

Prow details

Bed head details - the women found aboard were laid to rest in ornately carved beds.

Bed head details – the women found aboard were laid to rest in ornately carved beds.

I enjoyed savouring the long and culturally layered history of the seafaring vikings. I’m from viking stock myself, as are most folk who have Britain in their ancestry, and my family name was created for a Norman lord who was one of the invaders in the Norman conquest of England in 1066.

The Norman conquest was taught in my grade school books as an invasion from France but it was actually a mingling of related folk from across the English Channel. The “Normans” were named so  because of their northern (i.e. Viking) roots. And by the time of the “conquest” the vikings had been living  amongst the ‘native’ britons for almost two centuries.

I couldn’t help but imagine the fabled viking raider of Britain and France, Ragnar Lodbrok (“hairy breeches”) moodily perched on the prow looking out to sea for new conquests.

Ragnar Lodbrok as played by the hunk Travis Fimmel on the History channel's fab series Vikings

Ragnar Lodbrok as played by the hunk Travis Fimmel on the History channel’s delicious series “Vikings”.

My favorite vessel was one of the small tenders found with the Gokstad ship. I could imagine myself at the prow of this one!

A sweet and handy little vessel.

A sweet and handy little vessel.

Northward Bound

I haven’t posted in a while. Too busy and not much to share with the wider world.

All that is about to change.

I’m hectically packing (and repacking) my gear for my next field trip.

To the Arctic Circle with the Arctic Circle Residency.

Flying to New York tomorrow morning. On to Oslo late next week and then off to the Svalbard Archipelago. To pootle around the islands aboard a 125ft three-masted barquentine sailing vessel with 20 other artists and scientists. I’m crazily excited and nervous.

More posts to come!

Bound for Svalbard

Bound for Svalbard

Iceland – Skaftafell

I was surprised by how civilized and well serviced the Skaftafell campground was. It’s the Icelandic equivalent of Yosemite Valley – the perfect first campsite for all newbie campers in a great location with easily accessed walks. But unlike Yosemite there was hardly anyone about. Everyone was very respectful – playing card games in front of their tents! The showers were like hot volcanic fire hoses and the little cafe had draft beer, meat soup and other delicacies including skyr and great coffee (of course, its Iceland!).

After our second coffee we took of up the hill to view Svartifoss. Spectacular imbedded in its setting of black vertical hexagonal basalt columns.

Svartifoss from afar

Svartifoss from afar

The honeymoon shot

The honeymoon shot

Someone told the paparazzi that we were in town.

Someone told the paparazzi that we were in town.

Basalt detail

Basalt detail

Hiking up further you come out onto the long finger-like spur of Kristínartindar stretching southwest between the huge glacier Skaftafellsjökull (actually a spur of the Vatnajökull ice cap) and the once glaciated valley of Morsárdalur. As you climb you get increasingly open views of the glacial flats stretching out to the sea where huge floods of water and rubble (a jökulhlaup) spurt out every time a volcano erupts under the great Icelandic ice cap Vatnajökull.

alluvial plain stretching for miles....

Alluvial plain stretching for miles….

All the way out to the lonely cape of Ingolfsshofði.Which is where the first Nordic settler Ingólfur Arnarson over-wintered in 869 AD. Looks pretty godforsaken unless you like eating seagull eggs.

All the way out to the lonely cape of Ingolfsshofði.
Which is where the first Nordic settler Ingólfur Arnarson over-wintered in 869 AD. Looks pretty godforsaken unless you like eating seagull eggs.

The view as you climb the spur gets better and better. Especially looking down over the precipitous drop to the heavily fissured glacier below – frosted in ash and grime from the recent eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in 2010, as well as the usual melange of ash, algae and dust.

Climbing along the edge

Climbing along the edge

the sweeping ice floe - like a charcoal drawing

the sweeping ice floe – like a charcoal drawing




The 15 km walk continues to the neighboring Morsárdalur which is now ice free.

Morsa valley

Morsa valley

And winds on until the marker which is there to help us find our location.

You are here!

You are here!

It has lots of interesting cultural markings on it to help me place myself in the landscape. However, the landscape itself made better sense to me.


Iceland – Circumnavigation

I’ve just got back from a month of travel in New Zealand but I feel that I must  wind up my traveler’s tales from Iceland before continuing on to the latest expedition.

My last posts from Iceland were about the ‘Book of Baer’ that I was working on in my residency and the exhibition that we held at Baer on the last day. The next day Sandra arrived after a long flight from NY and a drive up from Reykjavik (tired, jet lagged and driving in a foreign country – brave lass!). We rested a day at Baer to give Sandra a chance to catch her breath and have a sniff around.

Then it was off on our circumnavigation of Iceland.  East across the Northern edge savoring the surprising and powerful waterfalls of Goðafoss (trans. – a good place to hurl carven images) and Dettifoss (trans – dental floss) en route.

Goðafoss where in 1000AD the Icelandic Loregiver Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði abnegated Nordic paganism in favor of the minority religion Christianity for his whole nation by hurling carved icons of his deposed gods over the falls.

Goðafoss where in 1000AD the Icelandic Loregiver Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði abnegated Nordic paganism in favor of the minority religion Christianity for his whole nation by hurling carved icons of his deposed gods over the falls.

Dettifoss, Europe's most powerful waterfall. Surrounded by a rocky wasteland with no good reason readily apparent for such a mighty flow.

Dettifoss, Europe’s most powerful waterfall. Surrounded by a rocky wasteland with no good reason readily apparent for such a mighty flow.

My friend and Icelandic cultural guide John Zurier, compared it to watching 50,000 gallons of cement being poured every minute.

We continued our way across the barren northern landscape savoring cracted laval fields and bubbling fumaroles (love saying that).

Cracked lava field

Cracked lava field

lava closeup

lava closeup

bubbling fumarole!

bubbling mud pits too!

Until Highway 1 dissolved into a mesh of dirt roads all feeding more or less East. After winding up and down creek lined and troll infested (presumably) hills we wound down on to a mist clouded South East Coast.

Lowering fog and drizzle

Lowering fog and drizzle.

Winding further south we finally saw the advancing tongues of glaciers flowing down from Iceland’s huge Southern Ice cap.

"sliding enexorably" or catastrophically evaporating? The latter it would seem.

“sliding enexorably” or catastrophically evaporating? The latter it would seem.

After several fleeting glimpses from afar, suddenly the highway crosses a lagoon of ice calved off from the nearby glacier.

Glaciers at the beach - only in Iceland!

Glaciers at the beach – only in Iceland!

Subtle and seductive color.

Subtle and seductive color.

Tourists taking a closer look!

Tourists taking a closer look! quick! quack!

Finally, after a huge lamb dinner, we arrived at our campsite at the foot of Skaftafell.

Baer – the ‘book’ – chapter 1

My final project here has a working title of ‘the book’. It has turned into quite a saga which might be a more apt title considering its Icelandic origin.

Its the Bær version of something I try to do in all of my residencies – put experience in a box. It’s always a challenge to try to distill some aspect of such a rich experience and then put it in a container that in itself speaks of the place in which it was made. My love of making is always played out here especially when I have the chance to work with local materials and processes. At Bær I’ve been limited to a basic set of tools and my own self imposed constraint of using only local materials – which includes rock, herbs, horse hair, fleece, driftwood, plastic and steel flotsam and, of course, sound and imagery. I mentioned that I was inspired by some finds at the National Museum of Iceland. This piece in particular has been playing on my mind and has acted as an inspiration for the piece I am making.

17th Century ivory compass

I’m intrigued by its combination of rudimentary craftsmanship and cutting edge technology. Scrimshandered from ivory and bound with thread or gut, its engravings show a certain opulence and appreciation for decoration, and on top of all that it is quite a sophisticated navigation tool. A piece of equipment which was useful, perhaps even crucial. My fellow resident Mark suggested that the Portuguese sailor who misplaced it is probably still looking for it –  the contemporary equivalent of losing an iPhone.

When I found this nice slab of driftwood, I thought of the ivory compass’ book-like form and decided to enclose my experience inside the slab.

Driftwood slab found on Bæjármöll – the stoney spit stretching out to Þórðarhöfði

Bær’s friendly building contractor deeped the slab on his SCM table saw for me cutting right through the rusty nails – I’m glad it was his saw and not mine!

Then I started to think what would go inside.

Collaging elements – found steel, compass roses, the orbital path of the sun, found plastic, bone, ….?

I wanted to include a sundial and a compass like the original inspiring piece, and a digital element including time lapses and a sound piece incorporating some  of the local soundscape I’ve been catching. I started by making some simple tools to engage with and map the environment.

My simple sundial has really helped me understand the movement of the sun here at high latitude. Augmented by the observable fact that the days have gotten shorter by over an hour during the few weeks I’ve been here. The sun now sets to the left of Þórðarhöfði rather than in the sea to its right (north) – almost 15 degrees further south on the compass dial. Two days ago the almost full moon rose far in the south, barely climbed into the sky and then promptly set slightly west of south  – following the winter path of the sun. I can now tangibly feel my place here on the top of the earth and see the diurnal cycle being played out around me in real time!


The second instrument I made I’ve dubbed the Bærnjo – made from driftwood, 80lb fishing line, horseshoe nails, found plastic flotsam and local hardware and tuned to standard G tuning for the 5-string banjo. It can be played by hand but it was designed to be played by the wind like an Aeolian harp.


“Playing” the Bærnjo

The Bærnjo provided the soundtrack to accompany a 24 hour timelapse that I made on a wet and windy day two weeks ago – 24hrs compressed into about 3 minutes, then looped. The elusiveness of the island of Drangey and the stone outcropping of Kerling as they fade in and out of the video reminds me of their  legendary origin. Kerling was once a troll woman who was taking her cow (Drangey) to market and was surprised by the rising of the sun and so turned to stone. Her troll husband Karl was following up the rear and suffered the same fate but he collapsed into the ocean in 1755.

I plan for this video to be included in the book too as a tiny video and sound component. I’ll go into some more detail about the construction of the book and its other components in a future entry – chapter 2!

Baer – Opið Hús

Tomorrow is my last day here at Baer before Sandra and I take off for a week of traveling around Iceland. Its very sad to be leaving what has come to feel like a second home. Our host Steinunn Jónsdóttir, her husband Finnur and the great team here (Eiðer, Bjarnveig, Sunna, Símon and Símon Jr.) have been so welcoming, accommodating and generous over these last four weeks. All of us feel like part of a large extended family.

Last night we enjoyed a big ‘Open House’ where hundreds of local folk came out to enjoy Baer hospitality and to see what we’ve been up to. Everyone was very interested, engaged, curious and complimentary. I had printed up a selection of the series of images I have been working on and displayed them in the ‘barn’. My studio had many of the images in process, as well as my ‘book’ project in process.

Seeing the images full size for the first time.

The pin-board in my studio

The final knolling of precious finds from the shoreline. And my ‘bærnjo’ to the left.

It was great to see everyone else’s studio. We’ve been aware of what each other has been up to but it was exciting to see how much work everyone had done and to think about the connections and different perspectives we’ve all had.

Tove’s spontaneous watercolor musings

Tove’s 10ft tall fabric, fish leather and pigment collages.

Linda’s 20ft long mutli-media drawing on crumpled printmaking paper


Diana’s intriguing nature table including her paper-wrapped rocks and flayed rock skins.

Rock skin – kozo paper laid over stones when wet and then worked with charcoal, and local natural iron pigments.

I enjoyed the resonance between Diana and Linda’s work and also with the series of rock surface investigations by Mark with his large format view camera.

The one person who’s work I can’t included is Mark. All of his work is on 4×5″ plates and 120 rolls awaiting processing – he’s had two special deliveries of more film from NY in the last two weeks to maintain his habit. I’m really looking forward to seeing the 4×5’s. The best way to get some idea of Mark Hartman’s work is to see some of his snappy images on instagram.

On my next post I’ll go into a bit more detail about my final project – the ‘book’.

Baer – Wayfinding

I love maps. I thought I’d just admit that publicly!

I think Icelanders love of maps too. At least you’d think so from the quality of the atlases and maps I’ve seen here. Maps are a means of not only knowing where you are and of delineating territory, they are a way of finding a place for yourself in the world.

Here is Iceland, a small island in the midst of the North Atlantic surrounded by deep, cold seas.

The view from the ‘edge of space’.

Though the island is relatively small in area and population, in many ways it’s also vast. The the landscape seems huge when you are in it – the horizon is far away, the mountains are ice capped, there are no trees to break up or soften the views. It’s very easy to imagine getting lost in the snow, turned around in the fog, lost in a storm at sea or simply confounded by the sheer scale of space here.

My first inclination on heading somewhere new is to find a topo map of the region. On my first day here, I was delighted to find a huge 3-D topo map as the central display in Reykjavik’s City Hall. The whole island reduced to the size of a small swimming pool.

Oðin’s eye view

Skagafjöður on the giant topo looking from the North. Baer is left of center. The red patch is the nearby town of Hofsós.

On a map it looks like this.

Detailed topo of the ‘hood’ – see Baer above Hofsós

Older maps give another view of the place and another view on ways to view the place!

Ortelius’ map of Islandia from 1590

Love the whales!

Fearsome Creatures!

Frontispiece from another early atlas.

When my residency finishes I’ll be heading off with Sandra to circumnavigate the island. Heading east to the coast and then down around the south where the glaciers spill out into the North Atlantic across giant lava sand flood plains that flow with water and rubble whenever the volcanoes beneath the glaciers vent their larva into the capping ice.

I’ve never seen such a strange topo map! The glaciers flowing between the escarpments, the huge flatlands stretching to the sea with a thousand small streams taking the runoff from the melting glaciers. I can’t wait to see the reality for which the map is a simulacrum.


Baer – Crepuscular landscape 4

The weather has shifted. The clouds rolled in from the north last night and I woke this morning to grey skies and light rain. The land needs the rain as it has been the driest summer on record up here. It’s interesting to see the change in light and the softening of tones that comes with the moist air. It’s also a treat to have a darker night. I slept soundly until an, appropriately termed, Discomfort of Ravens disturbed the morning quiet as they tangled with the local whimbrils and godwits.

Baer – Crepuscular landscape 3

Obscure calculating calendar in wood.

The world is spinning quickly. The days are getting shorter by 6 minutes every day up here. The night is over 30 minutes longer than when we arrived just a week ago. When we leave at the start ofAugust, the days will be 2 hours shorter than when we arrived a the beginning of the month.

Last night, with our first clear horizon for several days, I noticed for that the sun is setting much further to the west.

I can sense for the first time the planet’s drift towards winter when the sun will rise and set in the south only.

I’m thinking about ways to capture that in some work, but a strategy eludes me at the moment…..

I’m inspired along this path by some rough hewn analogs I saw in the National Museum of Iceland.

16th Century ivory compass and sundial, found at Langadalsstrond. Probably bought there by foreign sailors.

Obscure calculating calendar in wood.

Obscure calculating calendar in wood.

Its hard to beat the original caption.

This mechanism is very inspiring. It’s like a whittled Antikythera. Very cool!

As I’m considering the possibilities, I’ll coninue to savor the changing sunset behind Þórðarhöfðí .

Þórðarhöfðí. Sunset at 11pm!

Baer – Out and about 1

Every Sunday our fabulous host Steinnun organizes a day trip for us to drag our compulsive workaholic butts out of our studios and give us a look at the broader context of where we are. Yesterday we headed up and around the Tröllaskagi Peninsular to our east. Skirting the northernmost point, we could see the low island of Grimsey on the northern horizon which sits on the Arctic Circle – my first sighting of the circle from land. We stopped in the little town of Siglufjörðu for a lunch of delicious pickled herring, rye bread and stout and then a long wander through the great Herring Era Museum. The whole ambience was improved (at least for me) by burping up my herring lunch while wandering the displays.

In its time, Siglufjörðu was like a gold rush capital as tens of thousands of barrels of pickled, salted, and dried herring  and fish oil was processed along the miles of wharves and shipped around the world. The museum does a great job of conjuring that time. There are three separate buildings. ‘The Boathouse’ is a huge shed containing whole fishing boats and assorted wharfside shacks dimly lit as if at night which you can wander around at your leisure. You can climb up onto and into the holds of the boats as if you were sneaking around the wharves at night unnoticed.

Siglufjörðu today

Siglufjörðu in the day! (1907)

Inside the Boathouse

Herring shovel in the hold of a trawler

Useful gear on hooks everywhere

The atmosphere in the Boathouse was excellent. The air was pervaded with a sweet, faint residue of gasoline, oil, bundled hemp ropes, and ground fishmeal – yum!! It is like walking into a very ambitious project by Michael McMillen.

There are two more buildings in the museum. One dedicated to the processing of herring into fish meal and fish oil. Sounds dry I know, but its more like wandering around in an busy factory on a quiet sunday afternoon when its all closed down. It feels transgressive, as if you’ve found yourself behind the scenes and out of bounds in something that’s fascinating but hard to fathom.

The last building is the ‘salting station’ or brakki – an original building dating from 1907. It housed the office and dormitories for the workers.The museum’s website says “The old brakki has largely been left as it was when inhibited by dozens of girls working in the herring in the summer. When walking through their former lodgings on the third floor, one can easily sense the atmosphere of the old times.” Its true! The tiny bunk beds on the third floor have hand embroidered quilts, suitcases stuffed under them and early Life magazines strewn about, depicting the glamorous America life. You can almost hear the gossip and laughter as the girls come off their long, hard  shift salting herring.

Brakki from 1907

Outside of the museum is spectacular too!

There are still some nice traditional wooden boats in service

...and out of service.

… and out of service.

We drove back home up the luscious  Öxnadalur valley and under the brow of the spectacularly jagged Hraundrangi.


In the foreground is the birthplace of Jónas Hallgrímsson – poet, naturalist and one of the fathers of Icelandic nationalism and independence. You could see how all of those characteristics could have arisen in him from interacting with such an amazing environment.

We drove home along the eastern shore of Skagafjöður to Baer with the evening sun sneaking under low scudding clouds.

Skagafjöður at 9.30pm.