Very occasionally, arriving in a new place can feel like stepping into another world. It might be a spot within nature like Dyrholæy beach, where the violent waves lift thousands of black pebbles before dashing them into the surf in an overwhelming, cacophonous clatter. Or it could equally be Shibuya in Tokyo, where the neon signs, the sea of faces, the intermingling food smells, and the barrage of conflicting street sounds combine into an intoxicating, all-consuming experience.
The Weather Diaries, by Austrian-American artist duo Cooper & Gorfer, plucks the viewer out of reality in a similar way. The dimly lit, grey-walled exhibition, showing in the basement of Reykjavík’s Nordic House, is a self-contained world created via a series of large-scale photographs, wall-mounted quotes, documentary film and installations. It uses the work of North Atlantic fashion designers as the jumping-off point to create an immersive take on the windblown, mountainous lands of Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands, linking their interconnected histories, landscapes and environments to the creative practises of today.
Somewhat fittingly, Sarah Cooper (above, right) and Nina Gorfer’s (above, left) artistic partnership was born in Iceland, eleven years ago. “Our very first project dealt with an experience of travel in Iceland,” says Sarah, “so it’s part of us, you could say. It’s what catapulted us into this in the first place, and it set the stage for our process and the way we work together today.”
That initial work led to the development of Cooper & Gorfer’s distinctive, heavily choreographed photographic style, which caught the eye of the Nordic Fashion Biennale. But the offer to participate came as something of a curveball for the duo, who’ve operated mainly in a contemporary art context. “In the beginning it seemed a strange commission, as we’re not experienced at curating fashion in the traditional sense,” says Sarah. “But that’s why they chose us—to look at it from a different angle. They asked us to take it more into an art context, and to treat it more as a study of cultural heritage, crossing fashion with our medium of photographic art.”
Cooper & Gorfer’s switched-on approach started with an investigation into people working at the cutting edge of fashion design in Greenland, Iceland, and The Faroe Islands. Working alongside The Nordic House, they drew up a list of participants, then met with them to ask questions, look into their practices, philosophies and problems, and perhaps discover some commonalities along the way.
Working with a wide range of people was a new approach for the tightly knit partnership. “We usually work as a duo,” explains Nina, “and we’ve collaborated for eleven years in that way. We make huge photographic works based on cultural heritage, collective histories and place. So as a collaborative and curatorial project, this was very new to us—this kind of blended exhibition where the photographs are with installations and work by other people. That was really interesting to us—the curation, the collaboration, looking at the brief from different angles.”
Wildness, fearlessness, connection
Some of the photographs in the show are completely free of figures, instead capturing the vastness of the North Atlantic landscapes and the violent unpredictability of the weather. These images are more textural than picturesque, capturing the experience of being on these subarctic isles.
“When you are in these places, the influence of the surroundings in so strong,” says Sarah. “We felt the power of the nature there. It leaves an imprint on you even if you’re just there as a tourist, so of course it must affect you to live or grow up in these places. Also, there’s the question of how weather and nature impact you in your creative process. The creativity that comes out of these three places has a wildness and a fearlessness to it. In that way, the weather and the nature was important to incorporate into the images. They are beautiful, stunning places, but we wanted to portray them outside the picture-postcard way—to get under your skin more.”
Some of the designers in the exhibition were more naturally connected to their heritage than others, but all of them engaged fully with the ideas. “Nina and I have a kind of radar for that connection when we’re working,” says Sarah. “All of us have some of that connection in our work, but some have a greater insight into it than others. For example, Bibi Chemnitz was very interested in youth culture in Greenland when we started to work with her. Some of those designers’ entire identity comes from that background, whereas for others it’s more like a silent comfort that they have.”
“There was some quite beautiful feedback from some of the designers,” continues Nina. “They started to think: ‘Did I ever consciously connect to this part of myself?’ Through the questions we put to them in the interview process, they did have to reflect on that. Some of them are very connected to their heritage, whereas others we triggered a little bit. It was exciting that there was something for them to discover about themselves in this process.”
In addition to elements such as traditional knitting, lópa wool and Greenlandic beading, Cooper & Gorfer used elements of regional folklore to further join the dots between modern creative practise and the history and culture that underlies it.
“The myths and stories are things we discovered on the way,” says Sarah. “For example, the Greenlandic ‘Mother of the Sea’ story was told to us by Jessie Kleemann. We never did a photograph with her, but we had a storytelling session in an apartment in Copenhagen that became the basis and inspiration for some of the works with Bibi. Then when we started to work with Mundi, he was also inspired by the otherworldly nature of the sea, and what exists down there.”
“It’s really interesting when you look at this imagery, and our first project in iceland—there’s that element of darkness,” continues Nina. “There’s such a muted colour range in the landscape. I mean, it’s not that it’s all dark there, but it’s a feeling that’s present, and carries through into the work. It’s a rough place.” Sarah finishes: “And, an emotional one.”
This wild nature, brutal weather, relative isolation, unrestrained creativity and dark mythology all contribute to the recent swell in attention to the Nordic and polar region. In fact, the Icelandic opening of The Weather Diaries follows shows in Tórshavn, Copenhagen and Frankfurt, a duplicate Weather Diaries exhibition has also opened in Beijing, and it opens in Seattle this summer.
“We noticed in Beijing that the Nordic identity, and cultural flavour, is so intensely strong—there’s a real power in it, and people are fascinated by it,” says Sarah. “We focussed on the North Atlantic, and in Beijing that’s considered incredibly exotic. But just in general, the Nordic region shouldn’t be underestimated right now. We noticed a pulse from that in China. It’s an interesting identity to have, and to use.”
Cooper & Gorfer finished creating this exhibition in 2012, and have since moved on to new work. But The Weather Diaries still looms large, both as an ongoing entity in its own right, and as formative experience for the two.
“It still feels very present, but also departed,” says Nina, “like it’s taken on a life of its own. It’s been so insightful—it showed what we’re capable of. It’s a very special mix, this project. It’s an incredibly collaborative project, with so many people involved. I’m not sure we’ll encounter quite this mix ever again.”
The Weather Diaries is showing at The Nordic House until July 5. Get more info at nordichouse.is.
The participating artists and designers are: Barbara I Gongini (FO), Bibi Chemnitz (GL), Cooper & Gorfer (US, AT), Guðrun & Guðrun (FO), Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir a.k.a. Shoplifter (IS), Jessie Klemmann (GL), JÖR by Guðmundur Jörundsson (IS), Kría (IS), Mundi (IS), Najannguaq Lennert (GL), Nikolaj Kristensen (GL), and STEiNUNN (IS), who made the installation in the main article image.