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 →

Midnight Sun and Labor Strikes

I talk so much about the weather here – a dull topic in any other place in the world I am aware – but with each week that passes here I feel more and more that it serves as a blanket metaphor for my experience here. The swift approach of the midnight sun parallels a number of things happening in my life – sudden appearances and absences of people I love, here and back home, and how their presences change my experience of the world. With the midnight sun, “night” becomes a concept – existent only through a certain system of measurements we impose on the passage of time to attempt to describe it. I am aware of things happening back home which devastate me – hard news from family which I won’t go into much detail here – but I am removed from the full experience by physical distance, and so grief comes in waves of realizations rather being imposed by what I can see in front of me. There is no true darkness at night here now – and I find that at once unsettling and strangely hopeful – that the concept of night isn’t always what we know it to be.

This new abundance of light, disappearance of snow from the majority of the island, prevalence slightly warmer temperatures and fewer storms mean seeing everything and everywhere in a new light, constantly. I was able to spend a few days with my dad a couple weeks ago and show him as much of Iceland as I could – and those places which I had been before felt completely new. The landscape slowly greens; more distant mountains are visible with a lack of cloud cover.

With my dad here I finally went on one of the most popular tours of Iceland – the Golden Circle. This route includes Gullfoss, one of the most dramatic waterfalls I have ever witnessed, a visit to the original Geysir from which all other geysirs derive their name, and spectacular views of Thingvellir – the site of Europe’s longest running parliament and where the American and European tectonic plates meet.

Back in Reykjavik, I am beginning to experiment more with digital media and video – planning artworks to be performed in the landscape rather than just finding thematic influence in geography. The annual Reykjavik Art Festival has also begun, meaning more gallery openings, chances to hear from Icelandic artists about their perspectives on creativity, and an ever increasing population of tourists in the city. I attended a narrative-based multimedia art performance at Harpa – which was entirely in Icelandic, forcing me to rely on the other visual elements of the work – and it felt like a summarizing experience for many of the concepts I have been exploring here. How does one interpret an experience into the senses without words? Even with verbal language at hand, are there other cultural tools at hand which could speak better? How to explore the relationship between language and place…

A prominent theme of this year’s festival is women in Iceland – the suffragette movement here and the general feeling of equality (perhaps occasionally not as clearly represented as it seems?) and where else there is still to go forward. At the same time, widespread labor strikes are emerging and escalating all around Iceland for countless workers demanding higher pay – affecting everything from nurses, public transportation, and the food service industry. At a certain point, if demands are not met, certain industries will shut down, there will be meat shortages all over the country, and not enough medical practitioners to perform surgeries in a timely manner.

The strikes, the festival – it’s all a reminder of not being immune from social and discrimination, even as these feel noticeably more resolved in Icelandic society. There is always progress to be made – the fact that these discussions still take place, even to praise the current state of things – draws attention to the places where there has been no resolution or progress. To think there is nothing to talk about is to settle. And where things are as good as they will get – look for models for the places where the situation is far from ideal.

In Iceland there is a public history of fighting for change – and getting it. The first settlers here migrated to the country to find freedom from corrupt political regimes. Gullfoss, the immaculate waterfall on Iceland’s Golden Circle, was preserved due to the efforts of one protestor who did all she could to prevent the site being sold to a foreign country wishing to turn it into a hydroelectric power plant – now one of Iceland’s most popular attractions. In 2008, the Icelandic government crashed – there were strikes, corrupt bankers thrown out of office, and a public intent to rebuild a better society for all of Iceland.

Iceland can offer the illusion of a closed system at times – it’s unique brand of experimental creative culture, internationally acclaimed but small enough to run into the same people all the time; how common it is to find prominent politicians who split their time between running the government and writing books or playing in alt rock bands; the strange sort of time warp I feel like I am in here what with a schedule with only one set word on it (create) in a place where I rarely feel tired when I am supposed to because the sun is still setting at 1 am… but it isn’t. This is an island, but one far from completely isolated. There are still culturally imbedded stereotypes to unlearn and corrupt pockets of society to address, hidden as they may seem at certain angles, in certain light – but the light is always shifting.


1 AM, from SIM


Green is coming...


Kerid Crater, on the Golden Circle


Gullfoss, the unparalleled.




A return gift from Seljandsfoss


Guerrilla Girls @ Reykjavik Art Fest

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