On Gotland and cultural identity

I visited Gotland for the first time last year, when I ended my Scandinavian tour with an artist talk hosted by the Brucebo Foundation, the residency that sponsored my travel research. It was kind of them to welcome me again this year for another week of shooting throughout the island. My particular focus on Gotland may be strange considering my intention to follow the westward Viking routes. Sweden and more particularly, Gotland, are countries that face east and therefore have stronger links with Russia and even the Arabic world. But my story must begin somewhere, and Gotland has the highest concentration of pre-historic and Viking-age ruins throughout Scandinavia. Not to mention the world-renowned Gotlandic light, which has attracted artists to the island for centuries.

The Canadian cottage on the Brucebo estate in Gotland, Sweden (bathing in late-evening Gotlandic light). Photo by Jessica Auer.

Another aspect of Gotland that I find very attractive is its cultural identity and history of independence. Although Gotland is part of Sweden, the island was not subject to Sweden throughout the Viking age and earlier. Like Iceland, Gotland was not ruled by kings, but by the people themselves, whereby law and order was managed through Thing assemblies. This philosophy is still strong today. During a dinner meeting in Visby with a Norwegian writer, I asked him what it was like to be a Norwegian living in Sweden. He responded that Gotland is not really Sweden and that when Gotlanders travel to the mainland, they claim that they are going to Sweden.

Själsö fishing village on the west coast of Gotland. Gotland is located in the Baltic sea, just east of the rest of Sweden. Photo by Jessica Auer.

All the friends and contacts that I have made in Gotland are not native to the island. My archeologist friend Dan Carlsson has been living in Gotland for 30 years and has an extensive and intimate knowledge of the geography and history of the place yet acknowledges he is not a true Gotlander. This reminds me of Lucy Lippard’s book “The Lure of the Local”, where her focus on maritime New England proposes that some cultures are extremely protective of their identity. As an outsider ‘fitting in’ may seem impossible, yet I enjoy the exceptional parallel between the preservation of historical sites and of the island’s cultural identity.

A burial cairn found in the forest near Fjäle in Gotland. Photo by Jessica Auer.

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One comment on “On Gotland and cultural identity

  1. Rempel, Gisela (IEM) says:

    Wonderful – was getting withdrawal as I was wondering what happened to my favourite Viking Explorer, and my stories. So Russia and the Arabic world are next? Hope all is well. Be safe and keep writing!

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