In the new world

The chance discovery of North America, or Vinland as the Vikings called it, is the fundamental inspiration for my artistic investigation. Yet I’ve been holding off on discussing the event in detail, taking the time to study the Viking world in Scandinavia before trying to understand the significance of Norse travels to a new world. But recent news in the archeological world prompts the urgency to respond to the recent discoveries. This past week, CBC television aired a documentary on the The Nature of Things hosted by the famous Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki. The documentary titled ‘The Norse: An Arctic Mystery’ presents the research of Canadian archeologist Patricia Sutherland at a site called ‘Nanook’ on the south coast of Baffin Island. There, Sutherland has unearthed several artifacts that point to Norse origins, which leads her to believe that Baffin Island was a trading post between the Norse of Greenland and Scandinavia and the Dorset people of the Canadian Arctic, and potentially the first point of contact between the people of Europe and the Americas.

The suggestion that Norse explorers set foot on Baffin Island comes as no surprise. In the two sagas that describe the discovery of Vinland, The Saga of the Greenlanders and Eirik the Red’s Saga, references are made to places that the Viking voyagers explored. In one version of the events, a ship traveling across the North Atlantic to Greenland is blown off course and sights new land. Then subsequent expeditions to explore these lands are made by Leif Eriksson, son of the Greenland colonizer Erik the Red. As Leif travels from north to south along these uncharted coastlines, he gives names to these new lands; the northernmost he calls Helluland (stone-slab land), which is today commonly accepted as Baffin Island. The lands further south he calls Markland (forested land), probably Labrador, and finally Vinland – its location and extent are still disputed.

The Vinland map, which was believed to be from the 15th Century but now considered a forgery, shows “North America” at the top left. Perhaps the three peninsulas that make up the New World constitute Helluland, Markland or Vinland. We may never be able to come to understand the knowledge of the map-maker which is part of the beauty of this mystery. Image borrowed from the Internet.

In the CBC documentary, Suzuki opens up by stating, “The history books say that first contact between Europeans and native North Americans happened with Christopher Columbus in 1492, but what if they are wrong?” But David, let us not forget that in 1960, archeologists confirmed the grassy mounds at L’Anse aux Meadows to be the remains of a Norse settlement. Although Sutherland’s discoveries on Baffin Island may prove that first contact happened earlier than Columbus, we already know that Vikings were the first Europeans to discover North America around the year 1000. They most likely made contact with the native inhabitants but the encounters described in the sagas have not been confirmed by archeology.

Despite the science of archeology, I have always maintained that a certain amount of interpretation and imagination make up part of the practice. Could it be possible then, that Sutherland, with all of her enthusiasm, can actually will her theories to become true? As an artist, I personally find that fascinating.

But back to the story: in a scandalous turn of events, Sutherland was recently dismissed from her curatorial position at the Canadian Museum of Civilization. The reason for her dismissal is not being disclosed but reader comments on the CBC website point to politics on Arctic sovereignty. This connection would be senseless and sad indeed, at a time when we should be celebrating the cultural links between nations of the north rather than taking nationalist and corporate points of view from further south. Yet keep in mind, like all the other mysteries, my perspective is only based on speculation.

In September of last year, as the winner of a short-story writing contest, I joined an Adventure Canada expedition that sailed from the west coast of Greenland across the Davis Straight and down the coast of Labrador. In this photo you can barely make out land on the horizon. This is Baffin Island but it was most likely the place the sagas described as Helluland. Scan from a 6x7cm negative. Photo by Jessica Auer.

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On photographing saga sites

The idea of site can be powerful. It implies more than a place, which can simply exist without context. A site is more specific. It relates to something external that has acted on that location therefore adding to the meaning of a place.

Making meaning visible is part of what photographers seek to do. In 1996, photographer Joel Sternfeld released a collection of landscape photographs, which he made at various locations in the US where crimes had been committed. On This Site: Landscape in Memoriam explores the banality of the settings where these illicit events occurred, but it also shows how landscape imagery has the power to engage the viewer in an act of contemplation. In this case, the audience is given the opportunity to imagine what may have happened there. Sternfeld includes text with this project, offering details of such events and providing a certain amount of context for the photographs, yet it doesn’t compromise the artistic approach of his work. His series reminds me of what I am trying to point to and what other photographers have already done in regards to saga sites: storytelling through landscape.

On this blog, I have posted photos of Drangey Island, where outlaw Grettir the Strong made his last stand, and Thingvellir, Iceland’s national assembly site, where several court dramas transpire throughout the sagas. But personally, my favorite saga site so far is Berserkjahraun (Berserker’s lava field). In the Eyrbyggja Saga, two Swedish Berserkers, insanely violent characters that could psyche themselves up for battle, are set to an impossible task by a farmer: to clear a passage through a lava field in exchange for the farmer’s daughter’s hand. Once the Berserkers succeed, the farmer who never intended to give up his daughter, murders the Berserkers by trapping them in a scorching sauna and slays them as they try to escape.

Though I have no idea where the sauna scene actually took place, I can still imagine two crazed men, blazing a trail through this lava field. Scan from a 4″x5″ negative. Photo by Jessica Auer.

For the photographer, artist or researcher, the idea may not be just about recording images of these sites and re-telling stories, but the experience of visiting them personally. In the summer 1897, British artist W.G. Collingwood traveled throughout Iceland on horseback, making drawings, paintings and photographs, which he later published as an illustrated account of his expedition. Between 2007 and 2009, at the same time I was photographing at L’anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Icelandic photographer Einar Falur Ingólfsson produced his series Saga-Sites, for which he followed in Collingwood’s footsteps, documenting saga sites with a view camera. And in 2011, the same year I first visited saga sites in Iceland, a 33-year old PhD student named Emily Lethbridge set out on her own pilgrimage to read each saga on location.

Photograph by Einar Falur Ingolfsson. Saga-Steads In the Footsteps of W.G. Collingwood, a photographic project (2007 – 2010).

So why bother to explore a subject that has been covered by others who have done it so well? Because each of us presents different perspectives on the notions of ‘being there’. In a short documentary on Einar Falur Ingólfsson’s saga project, he claims that he is trying to capture reality in an objective way, saying that a photographer should be there to observe and not force himself into the plot. In the meantime, I will continue to question how my presence at these places adds to the history of the site.