Keynote Speech, Graduation,
Iceland Academy of the Arts, Reykjavík, May 24, 2006
Good afternoon —
I’m honored to speak today. Being an artist — speeches are not my profession. So what I say now may be news to all of us. Including me. I’d like to share a few thoughts about my time in this country, about how it’s influenced my work.
I might approach this talk by suggesting ways for us to imagine a future. Talk about the dire need in our time to be critical, to question, and above all not to be passive. Things that I believe are essential to us anyway — more so now than ever. We have witnessed the obsolescence or is it extinction? — of islands in our time. Iceland is no longer an island: economically, chemically, climatically, and even psychologically speaking. This is a consequence of Iceland’s expanding relationship with the world at large, both voluntarily in the form of economic interests and communication and involuntarily in the form of pollution and inappropriate political pressure. And this fact necessitates a new approach to maintaining the integrity of Iceland’s land, water, and culture.
Al Gore’s down at the Cannes film festival talking about global warming. And it looks like the Americans are cooking up the next big wave in entertainment — global climate catastrophe. I know it’s been in development for some time. It seems the only way for us to acknowledge climate change is to make it part of a capitalist venture. In the last 10 years the value of art has gone up astronomically. As the economic value of culture increases it can albeit inadvertently become a more effective tool thru which to realize political and moral responsibility. This is especially true in mass media forms like film, music and literature. However an unfortunate side effect at least in the fine arts is the degradation of meaning in art. This is the consequence of the very recent phenomenon of extreme commodification. Today as some of you may already know people buy and sell art in ways not unlike stocks and financial instruments — based exclusively in investment potential.
Speaking of the fine arts in particular the vast majority of what is being produced today only exists because it can be sold. Very little of what is created is motivated out of the necessity of the individual artist. When an artist plays to their audience it always results in compromised work. And artists above all must exercise critical judgment with regard to the demand for their work.
But I promised myself that I would try to keep it light, to honor this occasion that addresses the complex future facing all of us. If my mother were still alive, she would urge humor and if I could just mix that with a little weather or even water I think we’ll be off to a good start.
So I thought I’d begin by suggesting a new word for the Icelandic language. That word is:
I’m not sure what it means–but it sounds like a word that can’t be translated.
But speaking of the weather — this is or certainly was one reason to become a permanent tourist here. My status as permanent tourist, something I invented over the years of coming to Iceland — allows me the distance I need to be near it. For me, it seems my nearness to Iceland is something I can only have by keeping this distance. There was a point early on in my visits that I was so taken with this landscape I wanted to experience everything here. Every road, river, mountain, and rock. When I was 22 I fantasized about retiring and doing a complete inventory of all the rocks. But short of that, I just went out. It started with a tent, walking and hitching. Then after I graduated from college I was given a travel grant. I bought a motorcycle and shipped it to Iceland. And for someone who had no money it was a great way to get around. Of course it was the coldest wettest summer on record at that point. So amidst all the sublime moments there was a certain misery to it all that I thoroughly enjoyed.
I developed an exquisite sensitivity to the landscape. Indoors I became anxious when I turned my back to a window for fear I might miss something. Especially on a clear cold night when there was a chance the aurora might perform. When I was a kid my first experience of the northern lights became my touchstone. It happened in a suburb north of New York City. From my parents driveway I saw the lights — and it seemed to be something opposite to all I had known. Ephemeral, intangible, beyond simple understanding. It was a kind of epiphany — a moment of enlightenment for a young girl living in a highly material world with all the illusions of permanence. I understood in the presence of that fugitive display the potential that existed out there that would always and thankfully be beyond my grasp. But the northern lights from a suburb of New York City is one thing, from a mostly uninhabited landscape, another.
Now the weather is an important thing in our life. It’s no longer simply an occasion for small talk. It is constant in its indifference to us and unpredictable in every other way. It keeps circumstance complex and beyond our final control. I think it is essential to have something that tells us who we are. And weather has a way of doing this.
I have always taken the weather personally. To paraphrase Freud– to talk about the weather is to talk about oneself. And I am as attracted to weather as much for what it is as for what people have to say about it. The beauty of weather is that we all share it equally. At this point in history it may be the only thing each of us holds in common.
One of the projects I have going here is a kind of collective self-portrait of Iceland — I’m more or less ghost writing/producing it —
I’m collecting thru interviews the story each us has about their weather. My own starts something like this:
My weather began back in grade school. In class the teacher announced a hurricane was on its way. With that she dismissed us and emphatically instructed: “Run home!”
I guess it gave me such a thrill I’ve been running to Iceland ever since.
But here in Iceland dramatic weather is not necessarily the most memorable. My time here has brought me an awareness of the less perceptible things. And being here has exerted a great influence on my work. It was in the matter of learning to see — in the sense of experience that Iceland became essential to me. Sounds like a simple achievement, but it’s an act of will that took me years to grasp. I learned to be present in the here and now, I learned the unchangeable nature of each moment as it passes and locks into other moments forever. I learned the importance of being in the place I am, of paying attention. That was my discovery of the Highlands.
In 1990 I wrote about my time in the Highlands:
You use the desert as measure, as lucid reflection. It gives nothing. What you take from the desert is who you are more precisely.
Anatomy and Geography, 1990
And also about that time I wrote —
Big enough to get lost on. Small enough to find myself. That’s how to use this island. I come here to place myself in the world. Iceland is a verb and its action is to center.
Island and Labyrinth, 1991
And of course it’s no coincidence — as Jules Verne discovered already in the 19th Century — that the entrance to the center of the earth is actually located in Iceland. He may have been inventing a fiction at the time. But I have, in my travels here, discovered its reality.
Well now that the weather has improved so to speak here in Iceland I often have the sense I could be in Florida. One thing I loved about the so-called bad weather was that the rainy, misty days would only reveal a small portion of the view at a time. I spent many, many days in fogs that allowed only enough visibility to inspire mystery. So I kept coming back to get the rest of it. And that was years of coming back to see the same thing that was also completely different.
But of course there are yet passages of Iceland I have not traveled to. And even now I feel the magnetic pull of these places. I imagine I will never go to them — just to keep this energy alive in me.
THE WIZARD OF OZ brought me Kansas, if only briefly when I was young. And to this day Kansas is still one of the places I’ve never been. But since I watched Judy Garland journey to Oz, Kansas has inhabited my imagination, and Toto too. And in this way we come to dwell in places we’ve never been. It’s a form of dreaming — these unseen places, only known through rumor, word-of-mouth, flights of fancy and a map — or no map — just a story told. And we need the idea of them, the idea — that from early childhood has become a part of our being.
The existence . . . of these unseen but accessible places is of consequence to each of us. They dominate the geography of our imagination and dreams. To recognize that some of them are real is essential to the life of our dreams. They offer us extension and breadth, hope and faith. We need these places that we’ve never traveled to, that we may never go to. We need them, not for escape, but for measure: of all the places we have been to, and even — of ourselves as well. We need them as a way of balancing what is, with what might be; And as a way of understanding the scope of things, of admitting that the things beyond us are also the things that define us. These are places that are at once both actual and acts of imagination. They function to keep the world large, hopeful, and unknown.
These rarely experienced places — are no less valuable than those we occupy daily, no less inhabited by us than our most familiar and intimate ones. In acknowledging them we understand that we are something more than the body we inhabit and the things we consume; and that we dwell in places beyond our immediate perception or reach — so that we may see beyond our sight.
It is common to believe that because we will never travel to them, their lose will have no effect on us. Or that losing a place that is not occupied by humanity is a lose of no importance. That going from unseen to non-existent will make no difference. But the difference runs deep. We are losing the prime infrastructure of our imagination. To undervalue them, to allow them to be destroyed, is to live in a smaller and meaner world.
Unpublished text for Lesbok, 2003
I wrote this text prior to the building of Kárahnúkar dam. But now I see that it applies to many things: the future of ice and the future of whiteness, and in a sense the future of north as well.
“When I went to the North, I had no intention of writing about it. And yet, almost despite myself, I began to draw all sorts of metaphorical allusions based on what was really a very limited knowledge of the country and a very casual exposure to it. I found myself writing . . . critiques, in which, for instance, the north — the idea of the north — began to serve as a foil for other ideas and values that seemed to me depressingly urban-oriented and spiritually limited . . ..”
This is Glenn Gould writing for a radio program he produced called — The Idea of North, 1967.
I go north. It’s in my nature. But it turns out that the vast majority of people go south. To the sun and the heat and perhaps the more social nature of life in southern climes. The desire to go north is an attraction to solitude, open space, subtle expressions of light and time. Vast expressions of scale and horizon. Sometimes going north is about whiteness. Sometimes it’s about darkness. I’m attracted to the darkness, it relieves me of the incessant call to visual attention — it opens interior spaces that offer untold possibilities of discovery. This darkness is really another form of light. It nurtures the wilderness inside me. That wilderness and what it takes to sustain it may be different for each of us. The fact of this wilderness, the necessity of it is basic to individual well-being. And each of us must find a way to keep this space whole in themselves. As an artist so much of what one does is based in faith — in a belief that exceeds or ignores society’s interest. Pursuing creative instincts demands faith, endurance, and intelligence. It demands independence and simple strength as well.
I have spent many key moments of my life here in Iceland. I have used this place as an open-air studio of unlimited scale and newness. In retrospect I see that I have chosen Iceland the way another artist might choose marble as the substance of ones work. Iceland taught me to taste experience. Because that’s possible here — possible because of the intensely physical nature of experience on this island. This palpable quality has been one lesson. Sensual experience balances the intellect and here the best of both worlds exist in provocative union —. This added dimension that presence gives to experience — is partly how the landscape here mastered me. Presence is the thing sensed, never known. And this has become an essential ingredient in my work.
Part of my desire is to equate the meaning of my work with the experience it offers. This Iceland taught me too.
In 1982 I stayed in a lighthouse for two months. I had been living in urban areas all my life, New York, Providence, New Haven and I had this idea that I’d go to this lighthouse in southern Iceland — I had known of it since my first trip — and I’d just “let the sea lie before me.” That was my ambition, to see if I could — just let the sea lie before me. I was haunted by this desire — of seeing a landscape as it is when I am not there. I know this sounds absurd, and the effort was full of absurdity — but for me it was a completely new experience, a true adventure. Just being here. Not wanting to change here. This remains an elusive desire. In some sense too simple to achieve. I come to Iceland to discover this possibility still.
So this talk is equal parts love, faith, and fear. Love for the uniqueness of your island, your culture and you. Faith that you will invent a future that does not forsake the essence and uniqueness of this island. But then being a realist I also have fear. Fear for a future in which Iceland fails to take responsibility for its uniqueness.
I wish all of you luck
But as Emily Dickinson said: “Luck — is not chance”