After a visit to Iceland in 2014, American artist Justin Levesque was surprised one day to see that Iceland had followed him home, when stacks of blue Eimskip containers started appearing on the dock in his hometown of Portland, Maine. A door opened up in his mind, and he immediately started to put together an ambitious project—a self-created artist residency that would entail a nine day voyage, spent living aboard an Eimskip vessel, using various media to document the journey, the experience, the crew, the sense of place, and the commercial significance of this new connection between Iceland and the United States.
What resulted is an intriguing and lyrical glimpse into the environment of the ship, and the everyday life of its crew. We caught up with Justin to find out how it was to be an outsider documenting this tight-knit seagoing community, and to find out where the project is headed now.
How did you first get interested in Iceland? Was it a pre-existing interest, and then Eimskip came to your doorstep? Or did the arrival of those blue containers pique your curiosity?
It’s admittedly a cliché, but I’ve had a long-running infatuation with Icelandic music and, from a very young age. You could say I was, “All about that Björk.” But over time, there was a natural evolution to include pretty much all things Iceland.
It was only after visiting for the first time in May 2014 and then again in November 2014 (for Airwaves) that I realized a further connection existed between where I live in Portland, Maine and Iceland. The same blue Eimskip shipping containers found in Reykjavík were also stacked on the working waterfront of Portland. It was as if Iceland had followed me home.
What interested you initially about the idea of travelling the Eimskip route on board the ship?
Eimskip moved their North American headquarters to Portland, Maine in 2013. As an artist, those royal blue shipping containers signified both the growing exchange of goods and services, and a hidden cultural and human entanglement that needed to be observed, recorded and shared. I think of Eimskip’s Green Line as the invisible thread that connects our two cities, countries, cultures and economies.
How did the crew receive you? Did you feel welcome, or like an interloper, or both?
The officers and crew of Selfoss could not have welcomed me warmer aboard the ship. Of the three ships that traverse the Green Line, Selfoss is the only comprised of a homogenous nationality crew; all Icelanders. In many ways, that made basic communication pretty easy. In addition, Captain Karl Guðmundsson, who insisted I simply call him Kalli, went out of his way to create an environment that was humorous, considerate and, most of all, safe.
In hindsight, the balance between feeling welcome / interloper was mostly self-imposed. I found myself simultaneously looking to participate while trying not to interfere with the ship’s natural social homeostasis (a la Star Trek’s Prime Directive). That approach felt both respectful and allowed me to make work about the ship without removing the agency of the “characters” in the story. In the end, I departed the vessel in Reykjavík having made some of the most impactful friendships I’ve ever had.
What was the living situation like, on board? Did you get to know your neighbours, and the crew’s characters more generally? Did you all eat together?
My living quarters were quaintly named “Hotel Selfoss” and located on Deck F, the highest deck, just below the Bridge. It was totally bigger than I was expecting with a TV, private bathroom / shower, work desk and bed. Practical but cozy.
Including myself, there were 12 of us confined to the relatively small space of the ship for those 9 days. You quickly become close. It was apparent to me how the officers and crew function very much like a temporary family for their typically five-week long rotations. Despite this level of interpersonal comfort, a certain amount of hierarchical decorum demanded to be observed and was most immediately evident during meals. Everyone was expected to sit at the table associated with their rank. While we all ate together, I was expected to sit at the Captain’s table.
Could you describe the experience of your time aboard the ship in broad terms? Were there any surprises that came up in terms of how it went, or any special moments that’ll stay with you?
Well, in thinking about hierarchies on the ship, one of the most interesting physical components of my time on the ship was reorienting the way I thought about navigating space. For example, the accommodations tower is broken into the vertically separated decks A-F. Instead of going from Point A to Point B in a line, you’re always thinking how many flights of stairs up or down you would have to travel to get where you want to go.
Certainly one of the biggest surprises was how good the food was. We had an amazing cook named Simbi. I called him the Singing Chef because he, well, sang to cheesy Danish pop music, a lot. Of course, he was always in the galley, which made him easy to find. So he became a kind of daily touchstone while I figured out my next move. That voyage in September was his last with Selfoss before permanently moving to a different ship. I felt pretty lucky to be there for that.
Any favourite anecdotes from the crew?
Honestly, I don’t even know where to begin. Everyone on that ship had his or her moment. But, in the beginning, I was very conscious that the world of shipping was predominantly a male-dominated vocation. When I first learned Jóna, an AB or “able seaman,” was one of the eleven crew and the only woman aboard Selfoss, I couldn’t wait to hear her story.
Jóna is a natural storyteller and, after a small ritual, she can read your fortune from a coffee stained mug. Her granddaughter calls her Grandma Dragon so she got a tattoo on her back of a dragon with “Amma Dreki” in an old-English font above it. And in a somewhat harrowing tale, Jóna lost her left middle finger after a codfish bit her while working on a fishing trawler. The resulting infection was so bad she almost lost her whole arm. In many ways though, the plethora of middle finger jokes now available to her paired with that constant reminder of the dangerous sea, is a perfect metaphor for the duality of both life and work found on a container ship.
Did you feel like pressure was on to collect material during the journey?
The pressure was definitely on! It took me a few days to rest up in a Reykjavík apartment before I was ready to even look at the work produced during those nine days. I tried to photograph every part of the ship while each day I would also record, produce and release an episode for the Green Line podcast. This wasn’t a luxury cruise for me by any means. I was working hard everyday and I think the crew respected that. Everyone on the ship had their job to do, including me.
Other than documenting this seagoing community, did you want to plug into the macro view, about import/export and global business? How did you do that, if so?
Every morning on the ship I would wake up, have a coffee and lean against the bulwark (the metal guard around the ship’s open deck) to watch the passing sea. Staring straight down, it was inevitable to imagine, what if? Perhaps even a faint impulse to surrender to this aqueous force so much larger than oneself. Of course, a ship’s simplest purpose is to defy that nature and keep floating on. And so will I. With a new respect and reverence for the sea.
That newly found sentiment fuels how I try to talk about the work and ultimately influences the work I’m making now. I’m taking a deeper look into shipping. For example, the differences between homogenous nationality crews, like on Selfoss, versus globally chartered crews, like pretty much everywhere else.
Author, Rose George, aptly calls the condition of forgetting the sea as “Seablindness” in her book “Ninety Percent of Everything.” I hope the work I’ve done and continue to do helps to alleviate its symptoms.
What was the range of work you created from the material gathered?
Photography, videos and a podcast. The images I made are broken down into a few visual themes like the material culture of the ship, views from the bridge and looking overboard at the ocean below. But my favorite images by far are the eleven formal portraits I made of each of the officers and crew. I photographed them using a medium-format film camera (Mamiya RZ-67) on the final two days of the voyage. Photographing in that way is a much slower process and perhaps, a more intimate process than digital because of the patience it requires from the subject. So in many ways, through the first seven days I was essentially proving my true intentions and earning a level of trust necessary for that exchange.
How will you present it in the gallery and online, and when? Any plans to bring the show to Iceland?
I’m happy to report that this past January I received a Kindling Fund from Space Gallery as part of the Regional Regranting Program from The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. This is going to allow ICELANDx207 to be presented as cumulative exhibition in a shipping container retrofitted as an art gallery and will be on display in conjunction with the Arctic Council’s “Senior Arctic Officials” meeting hosted by the Maine North Atlantic Development Office in Portland, Maine from Oct. 4-6, 2016.
I would love to exhibit the work in Iceland. I’ve had some great conversations with galleries in Reykjavík but most places are rightfully focused on showing Icelandic artists. So, if anyone from an exhibition space is reading this and wants to learn more, please just give me a shout!