“The photographers gave their work for the exhibition because they [believe it’s] an important exhibition about the dangers to the environment in Iceland,” says Ólafur Sveinsson of his first exhibition, ‘You don’t know what you have until it’s gone.’ “One tends to only see the landscape and not the animals that are living in Iceland. We are trying to bring it together to see it as one being.”
The exhibition is co-presented by curator Ólafur Sveinsson, Landvernd, the Nordic House, and Framtíðarlandið (Future Iceland) to mark the 50th anniversary of Landvernd. As an NGO, Landvernd has been instrumental in land protection strategies that have impacted policy-making, education, and land-use decisions for the duration of its existence.
The exhibition features 73 photographs of Icelandic wildlife and landscapes, an interactive information screen, and three films—two of which were created by Ólafur. The films have English subtitles, so that, “foreigners can enjoy this exhibition just as much as Icelanders,” he says. “It’s an interesting view on Icelandic nature that even Icelanders don’t see everyday. It makes a difference in a positive way.”
Caring for Kárahnjúkar
The landscape photos included in the exhibition, Ólafur explains, “are either from places that have been destroyed or places that a new power plant could destroy.” Each photograph is accompanied by a description indicating if it has disappeared or if it is currently under threat.
One such photograph is of Hálslón, the reservoir from the Kárahnjúkar power plant erected in the east highlands over a decade ago. “There was a big fight about the Kárahnjúkar power plant from 2002 until it [began operating] in 2007,” Ólafur recalls. “It’s a strange thing. When I came to the highlands by Kárahnjúkar in 2006 to make a documentary about the area, I saw a hell of a lot of vegetation, different than we see elsewhere in the country. I had been working as a tour guide for 13 summers but I had never been there. What surprised me the most was that almost no one knew that there was so much life there. It was not only desert and quietness. It was also teeming with life. One month later they started collecting water in Hálslón and destroyed the area. It was one of the biggest natural treasures we had in Iceland. People just didn’t realize because almost no one knew it.”
The decision to focus the exhibition on at-risk landscapes and wildlife offers visitors an opportunity to witness nature that is otherwise difficult to access in person. “You really don’t realise what has been lost if you haven’t been there—like Hálslón before it was flooded,” Ólafur shares. “It was such an amazing place. In the three short films from the exhibition, you can see how it looked before it was destroyed. I am trying to do what I can as a way to get people to think about what has been lost.”
“People think that now Landsvirkjun are not building power plants anywhere because of this fight,” says Ólafur. One of the exhibition’s co-presenters, Framtíðarlandið (Future Iceland) has created an interactive information screen to dispel this myth. The screen features a map for proposed, under development, and complete power plant projects throughout the country. It also plots areas that have received protection from power plant development.
One such example is the proposed Hvalá power plant in the Westfjords. In 2017, the National Planning Agency assessed that the environmental impact from the proposed plant would have significant negative impact on lakes, waterfalls, and wilderness protected by the Nature Conservation Act. Despite this, development pressed ahead in 2019, though it stalled over the summer due to multiple legal complaints.
“Looking at all the places that might be destroyed by different power plants—mostly hydropower but also geothermal—I was shocked,” Ólafur relates. “People are shocked when they find out what is still going on, planning to build power plants in some beautiful and remote places. I have been working as a tour guide and have also travelled a lot myself, but a lot of those places I just didn’t know.”
Of a feather
In addition to the emphasis on land protection, several photos in the exhibition champion wildlife protection. Some of the most striking photos are of endemic and migratory birds, a few of which are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s list as at-risk species.
“What you have here in Iceland, you don’t have in many countries,” Ólafur explains. “For example, the bird cliffs. There are fewer and fewer seabirds—endangered—because there is one small fish that is really important for these birds. But they are lacking in the ocean around Iceland, probably because of global warming, so there are problems feeding the chicks.”
Ólafur encourages consideration of how previous generations depended on wildlife. “In the history of Iceland, people travelled in late January and February over the highlands to fish in the southern and western parts of the country where cod and other fish spawn. People knew how to use the rhythms of nature to survive. With the hydro power plants now, especially in the south, it’s pretty dangerous.”
The exhibition hinges on this theme of environmental disruption. Ólafur urges, “Hydro power plants can have very bad influences on spawning grounds because the different fish species use flooding from the meltwater to spawn. But now the water is collected in reservoirs to use for producing electricity. The rhythm of nature is destroyed. Everything is connected. You just can’t take one part out and think that everything is okay.”
“This exhibition is only a small start of a big project I have been working on for years and years and years now,” Ólafur confides. “I am making four or five feature length films, a lot of short films, three or four big exhibitions, and writing books. What I will bring out soon is a documentary that I made about Kárahnjúkar. I went there shortly before it was flooded. In a way, it is the only chance to show people what we have lost.”
The exhibition ‘You don’t know what you have until it’s gone’ will run until November 17th at the Nordic House.
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