From Iceland — Where To, Folks?

Where To, Folks?

Published February 4, 2011

Where To, Folks?
Photo by
Þorgerður Ólafsdóttir

Our desire to travel and the nature of our relationship with the places that we go to see is the topic of an international art exhibition, conference and publication entitled ‘Without Destination’ at Reykjavík Art Museum’s Hafnarhús. The project proposes an insight into man’s need to position himself within the world, into how he relates to his environment and how this relationship has developed towards what we today know as tourism.

Coming from an art background as curator, I collaborate with the geographer, Gunnóra Ólafsdóttir, on the project as a whole. Having both worked as tour guides in Iceland, we find it interesting to observe the local changes in the field of tourism over the last fifteen years. I had not been on the road for a while so I decided last summer to do a ten day tour with a group of people from all parts of the world, partly as preparation for the project ‘Without Destination’.

Talking to travellers about their expectations and experience is very interesting, reflecting the extent to which people attempt to match a certain image that they have in their minds with what they encounter. It is very different how much room people leave beyond the preconceived idea when taking in the environment. It also matters a great deal how people are introduced to the places they go to, what sort of history and infrastructure you find between a traveller and a place.

A walk in Stórur in the East Fjords, where we stopped the coach in a mountain pass and followed a trail to a valley of extraordinary beauty, left everyone with a different personal experience. However, a walk through the valley of Dimmuborgir near Lake Mvatn, which offers no less a magnificent landscape, seemed to make no special impression on people.

The fact that in Stórur we met only one other group, whereas in Dimmuborgir there were around thirty, might have had something to do with it. Or was it the fact that someone recently decided that Dimmuborgir should be the home of “The Icelandic Yule Lads”? Now, you can follow the trail down in the valley guided by signs displaying the rascals goofing around. A shop selling Yule Lad kitsch has risen on top of a cliff overlooking the valley, making sure that it does not escape your sight wherever you may find yourself in this magical landscape.

In Iceland today a tour guide can still take groups to both kinds of sites, where on the one hand people will leave with a personal impression of a place in their mind, and where on the other hand they will take with them an identical image of a destination on their cameras. The change I have noticed in the last fifteen years within the field of local tourism is that it is increasingly leaning towards the latter notion.

The elements at stake in a personal engagement with the environment are subject to many contemporary artists and the aim with the exhibition is to bring together works that elaborate on this engagement. In many different case studies offered by artists they refer to our capability to find ourselves in two places at the same time–one physically in the here and now, while in our minds we can be in another place and another time entirely. Some projects aim at uniting both senses in the same moment within the museum experience, while others play with this double feature relating to a faraway place in the present work.

Another repeated element in the works is the notion of the creative relationship of an individual with his or her surroundings within a constant state of flux. The interplay of identity, place and time are made to provide unlimited possibilities for unique experiences where- and whenever. As the ventriloquist Willie Tyler was quoted saying: “The reason lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place is that the same place isn’t there the second time.”

This is how Fiete Stolte, a young German artist, displays a series of Polaroid photographs taken from the same lighthouse tower in the West Fjords. Eight similar sequences show the same surroundings depending on time of day and weather conditions. The same place, yet always different.

Húbert Nói Jóhannesson creates paintings that refer both to specific places within the museum–literally one-to-one paintings of architectural details of the building–and also to faraway places, specified with accurate GPS markers.

The origin of tourism as we know it today is the topic of the Swedish artist Johan Furåker and local artist Unnar Örn who both study historical archives in their work. When the European middle class started having leisure time and could save some money, travelling soon became an important factor of its identity. Certain places became landmarks through which a person could establish their status in society.

This trend also came to Iceland, if somewhat later than it began in Europe, and people would create their own leisure destinations on the island. The notion of travel and the relationship people have with places remains quite similar today as it did in the heyday of tourism over a century and a half ago. These similarities are underlined in works that bring the viewer back and forth in the history of wanderlust.

‘Without Destination’ is a project that raises questions about where Iceland is heading today as a tourist destination. With the steady increase of local and international travellers wanting to visit the island, some places are already facing overexposure and reaching their limits of sustainability. Still, it becomes more and more apparent that tourism is not as much defined by the number of tourists as it is by the mindfulness of the toured. How is Iceland living up to the challenge of being a popular destination?

While the element of individual enterprise may be charming it is another thing when a nature reserve of rare beauty like Dimmuborgir becomes someone’s playground for the marketing of the Icelandic Yule Lads. In an era of expanding experience economy it seems somewhat anachronistic to steer tourism down the road of product-centred economy. The valley, in this case, has changed from being a place of limitless experience, to which visitors may relate on their own terms and turned into a fixed destination ready for consumption.

It is in the hope that such development does not happen by mere oversight, that  the project ‘Without Destination’ is introduced. In her book ‘On the Beaten Track’, American writer and curator Lucy R. Lippard debates whether the term sustainable tourism may be an oxymoron, given the inevitable change the industry brings about wherever it is introduced. Here in Iceland we still have the chance to at least try and rope the two notions together.

The exhibition ‘Without Destination’ at Hafnarhús is divided into four parts: ‘Wanderlust’ focuses on tourists and travel while ‘Place’ examines the relationship between the traveller and the environment. Both themes are represented through new and recent international works on display in the galleries.

‘Travelogue’ presents diverse individual experiences in narrative form with a programme of film, video and sound art running all day long in a specially designed black box. The schedule is presented online.

Finally, ‘Trail’ guides the viewer from place to place within the museum through a poster exhibition created by the Institut für Raumexperimente [The Institute for Spatial Experiment], which is an educational research facility at the Berlin University of the Arts, directed by artist Ólafur Elíasson.

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