Mary Elizabeth Vance
Mary Elizabeth Vance
Reykjavik, Iceland 2015
I am spending three months in Reykjavik, Iceland, living and working at an artist residency with other artists from around the globe. At SIM, the Association of Icelandic Visual Artists, and Gullkistan in rural Iceland, I will develop a body of interactive artwork that responds to the culture and landscape of Iceland and promotes intercultural dialogue. Read More About Mary Elizabeth →

Holidays, Tourists, and Institutions

Tourism here has surged in recent years not only because more people are finding out about how beautiful this country is – but intentionally out of economic need. But the image tourists find of Iceland is not always the actuality of this place and these people. Sure, Iceland is statistically one of the happiest countries in the world (however one measures such a thing) but its past is not perfect, and its people are not wholly carefree but conscious and serious about their passions. Few people actually believe in elves, eat fermented shark, or maintain cultural stereotypes depicted by some board of tourism. This is as nuanced a culture and history as any.

As I have said before it is amazing to see how art plays a role in the social sphere here – I can’t think of a holiday I’ve witnessed here (and Iceland has many holidays) that has not been accompanied by some presentation of sculpture, music, or performance by working Icelandic artists. The art market here is not particularly wealthy, yet it is fueled by people very passionate about making things and enriching culture – because they love it, and because they understand its societal benefit – regardless of the financial aspect. And they take it seriously. Even my hairstylist here had to study 5 years to work in a salon, and she considers it her art.

One of my favorite museums here is a place called the Culture House where the rooms are not curated chronologically, but thematically. One finds famous photographs by Olafur Elliasson next to illuminated manuscripts and post cards – each put in context to comment on some aspect of human nature and overarching themes in Icelandic history. As I see the visual expressions of history in the various holidays here, and also in my own projects (which are focusing more and more on addressing Iceland’s tumultuous history hidden in landscape) I am learning much about art as a means for teaching history; understanding facts in new ways, understanding the trajectory of history as not just dates and events and leaders, but waves of traditions and ways of living building society together. Creating in the context of a foreign culture is an invaluable way of learning about societal trends and how they are expressed by the people who are most affected by them. I think about my own modern experience of visual anthropology – the images I have come to associate with my time here, which have become embedded in my daily life, which will change when I leave in the next few weeks.

I’ve been working on a series of videos about merging traditions, finding myself inside the history here and the statements Iceland might make to the world – trying to use myself as a vehicle for communication, shedding light, beyond Iceland’s tourism identity to the truths beneath. Attempting to speak to the history embedded in the landscape that is not so well known – or even suspected in such a seemingly innocent place. But that’s just it – just the way the landscape shifts dramatically over time, so the culture, so the people, and the different in people now seems such a polar opposite reality to Iceland’s more violent Viking origins, and the brutal laws enforced during the Middle Ages.

Iceland is living proof of the dramatic ways a culture can change – even into one of the most socially progressive countries from a notably dark past. One feels the imprint of tradition here, but few of its rough edges. Perhaps an understanding of the possibilities of creating real change stems from the Icelandic respect for the landscape and its constantly changing surfaces, perhaps it is the dark months that give the people here opportunities to spend hours inside studying and contemplating the world and their places in it.

A few days ago was the Icelandic National Day celebration, honoring the nations separation from Denmark in 1944 – and the day coincided a number of protests arranged to address the recent strikes (notably the nurses strike which has been driving =Iceland’s healthcare professionals to other countries to find better wages – a topic that has found its way into global news). Iceland has overthrown their government before, and could very likely do so again very soon – has driven out other regimes, changed their society countless times from the Viking age on.

And to think its first settlers are believed to be Celtic monks seeking solace in the landscape – a landscape at once so peaceful and so volatile, a landscape that seems to envelope, supersede, and somehow then redeem the violence of both man and nature – volcanoes turned to majestic peaks, ancient sites of executions during the Middle Ages now preserved in beautiful national parks.


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