From Iceland — Investigating The Icelander

Investigating The Icelander

Published July 29, 2008

Investigating The Icelander
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Dublin-based artist Fergal McCarthy is currently staying in Reykjavík for a one-month artist residency. Grapevine met him at his studio, drank coffee and learnt about his two projects that both involve identity, myths, national character and cultural stereotypes in Iceland.
Fergal starts by explaining that he’s interested in the old Icelandic Sagas, not in a touristy saga-circle-rout way but rather why the old tales still play a big part in the country’s culture. “In Ireland we also have a very strong mythology but the stories, they’re rather looked at as fairytales. No one really believes there’s any truth to them. They are considered Cinderella-type stories.” He points out that every country in the world has sold a part of their culture for tourist reasons and that in Iceland the Saga characters seem to be the common attraction. “What interests me is that after a thousand years these stories still persist. What does that say about a country? A country that has had colonial issues, like Ireland or Iceland, quite often turns back to its mythology as a way of expressing its nationalism. Every country in the world has done it. But why would you go back to something that’s so ancient, and say this is what symbolises us? That’s what I find interesting.”

In the Footsteps of Vikings
In order to embrace the stories, Fergal plans to re-enact three famous scenes from the ancient Sagas, dress up as notorious characters and have his photographer shoot pictures at the original settings. “It’s all about doing it at the actual location. The location is almost more important than the story as the places are very much central to the action. For the first shoot, I’m going to Snæfellsjökull where I will dress up as Bárður (Snæfellsás) and have a cup of tea on the mountain”. But as the story goes, Bárður was half human and half giant and disappeared into the glacier during the age of settlement. “There’s not much known about him unless he was this gray shadowy figure. According to the myth, he is still up there and people see him as the protector of the whole peninsula.”
    The next day Fergal plans to go to Drangey Island where Grettir the Strong lived as an outlaw for three years. He will redo a part of one famous scene where Grettir swam from the island to shore (which is about 7.5 kilometres) in the ice-cold water. “I’m though only going to swim for five minutes because it’s really cold and I’ll have a wetsuit on underneath the clothes.  The photographer will follow me in a boat.” The final location is Bergþórshvoll, where Njáll’s farmhouse in south Iceland was set on fire killing Njáll and his family. “The original house burnt down so I will go to the garden, place a small model of the house there, get little figures and dress them up and then burn it!”

Documenting the Icelandic Look
Another aspect of his project in Iceland deals with facial structure and characteristics. “I’m interested in characters, be it Icelanders, Irish or any other country.  I’m interested in what forms a country’s character. Why is a certain group of people different from another group of people? What are the expressions of characters? The genealogy of a country intertwines with the geography giving a country a particular look so you for example got a French look or an Icelandic look.”
On July 28 he plans to recruit about 40 people from age 20 to 40 who have Icelandic parents for a group photo. He also wants each participant to wear a lopapeysa jumper for the photoshoot. “Even though the jumpers are not really Icelandic, they have become almost a national garment. I don’t know that much about the patterns but it’s like a country being symbolised through a jumper. For the photograph I want the people to be packed tightly so you only see their faces. It’s an investigation into how similar they are” he says and continues: “A lot of countries have huge immigration issues, which I think is a good thing, but it also means that in a 200 years’ time what is uniquely Ethiopian or uniquely German will be less so because there will be more infiltration of gene pools. I think that in 200 years time it could be interesting to look back at photographs of Icelandic people and compare it with the future,” he concludes. 
    Fergal is now looking for people who want to participate in the shoot. Interested in being a model for a day? If so, contact him via email:

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