Polar bear encounters in Iceland tend to take a predictable form: a bear, often weak and emaciated, is spotted by a local. Panic ensues; the police are called, the media incites a brief hysteria. The bear is shot.
This chaotic cycle, doomed to repeat itself every few years, is partially the subject of ‘Visitations’, an exhibition by Icelandic/British artistic partnership Snæbjörnsdóttir/Wilson—a show that earned them the prestigious Icelandic Visual Arts Award.
“I’ve been told by lots of people not to say it was a surprise,” confides Mark Wilson. “I did actually think we might be shortlisted, but Bryndís didn’t at all.”
“I wasn’t even thinking about it,” confirms his partner, Bryndís Snæbjörnsdóttir. “I don’t make art to get accolades. But at the same time, I don’t deny how wonderful it was to receive it.”
“I didn’t think the art scene in Iceland had quite arrived at this point,” she continues. “I felt so pleased that they could award the Art Prize to something that goes beyond this idea of the Romantic artist.”
“Conflict and paradox”
Mark and Bryndís’s work is about as far removed from traditional notions of visual art as could be imagined. Shown at the Art Museum in Akureyri from September 2021 to January 2022, Visitations was the culmination of a 3-year multidisciplinary research project, funded by Rannís, the Icelandic Research Fund. Presented using a broad variety of media—with video, photographs, collage, drawings and zoological remains making up just some of the different exhibits—the project exemplifies the artistic practice of Snæbjörnsdóttir/Wilson, which they have been developing over the past 20 years.
“Sometimes people think we make work about animals, but we don’t—we make work about weird human behaviour,” explains Mark. “We use a particular animal and the interface that humans have with that animal to explore different interests, and often to reveal a lack of consensus; conflict and paradox.”
A personal connection
Mark and Bryndís have been creating work together since 1999, and polar bears—or rather, the weird human behaviours associated with them—have frequently been the focus of their artistic exploration.
“It started from a very personal perspective,” says Bryndís. “It had to do with my name—Snæbjörnsdóttir [‘snow bear’s daughter’, in English]. I lived in Scotland for many years, and I was quite persistent that people would be able to say my surname. I don’t know why, but it became hugely important for me.”
A transformational moment came when Bryndís visited a museum store room in Scotland, and was confronted by the sight of hundreds of stuffed animals of every kind. The experience, she says, “activated this deep feeling of some kind of loss. You know—what have we done? What are we doing?”
The unsettling incident provided unexpected momentum and helped to crystallise the approach Bryndís wanted to take with her practice. The couple soon completed their first project, ‘nanoq: flat out and bluesome’: an artists’ survey of taxidermy polar bears in Scotland.
This first collaborative work confirmed not only the pair’s enduring interest in polar bear experiences, but also their desire to involve partners from outside the artistic sphere, an element of their practice that has remained a consistent thread throughout their various projects. From historians, folklorists and zoologists, to farmers, pet owners and hunters, Snæbjörnsdóttir/Wilson see collaboration as an essential part of their work.
“This thing about ‘the artist, the genius’… I always felt like this was total nonsense—and I still do, basically,” Bryndís says, waving her hands dismissively. “Art is about bringing people together.”
“It’s about making unlikely connections on every level,” agrees Mark. “We work a lot with other disciplines, and we talk a lot about the importance of that.”
For Visitations, the artists focussed their work around two polar bear arrivals to Iceland in 2008. The two ‘vagrants’—as non-native visitors are known—both came ashore on the North coast of Iceland, within weeks of each other. Both were shot and killed, although there was serious discussion of trying to tranquillise the second one.
In a macabre twist of fate, Bryndís had the strange experience of encountering this particular bear twice: once living, and again after its death. She was able to accompany the press to see it, running hungry and scared, across the wild expanses of Skagafjördur. The second encounter came when she and Mark were conducting research at The Icelandic Institute of Natural History. It was here that they discovered that many of the skeletons of bears killed in Iceland are kept for scientific purposes.
“On one of our first visits there, they just lent us the bones of that particular bear.” Bryndís says, almost incredulously, as if she still can’t quite believe such a thing took place.
“Again, you have these kind of moments,” she continues. “You’re driving your car and in the back of the car are the bones of the bear that you saw living. It’s difficult to let it go; it haunts you.”
The idea of the stranger
This complex idea of a haunting, of a relationship with a species that is mediated by a heady combination of folklore and fear, forms the basis of Visitations. The bones that Bryndís and Mark drove home that day were also an exhibit in the show; not wired together and displayed as in museums, as if they still inhabited the ghostly form of an absent animal, but in a stacked heap in a box. An indisputable container of evidence of what happened when a bear met a man.
“More abstractly, we’re looking at the idea of the stranger, and the idea of hospitality” says Mark. “How do you deal with a stranger, when the stranger constitutes a threat? Because obviously, historically, there’s only been one answer to that question.”
‘Visitations: Polar Bears out of Place’ took place at Akureyri Art Museum from 25.09.2021 – 09.01.2022, and was curated by Æsa Sigurjónsdóttir. Learn more at visitations.lhi.is
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