Of islands and open sea

The open sea confronts us. It is ultimately the one place that we cannot dominate. We are as much at its mercy today, as we may have been during the time of the Vikings. But when we look out towards the sea, our imagination sparks fantastic questions. How far away is that horizon, is there anything past it and how can we go there?

The open sea taken from the high coastline of the Faroe Islands. Scan from a 6×7 cm negative. Photo by Jessica Auer

Islands are an oasis. They conserve nature and culture.  We can intimately explore them, but we must be prudent as they are fragile ecosystems. An island in the open sea is a sanctuary, but don’t be fooled by its protection. Trust me, I’ve been to the Faroe Islands, host to some of the worst weather in the world.

I waited five days for the rain and fog to clear before I could make my first successful photograph. On Mikanes. Photo by Andreas Rutkauskas.

The Faroes were used during Viking times as a staging point between Norway and Iceland. Located approximately 650 kms from the coast of Norway and 700 kms from Iceland, these islands are still used today as a stopover on the Smyril ferry line from Denmark to Iceland.

Many Vikings did settle here. The lush green coasts and sublime beauty will give you a hint as to why. The smallest capital city in the world, Tórshavn is still home to a parliament that was established during the Viking Age. On the rocks of Tinganes (Parliament Jetty) I found a Viking Age carving in a rock – a compass rose.

A rainy day find. A sundial or compass rose carved into the rock and dated 1569. Photo by Andreas Rutkauskas.

The hostile weather was barely of consequence to the Vikings, who knew how to navigate in these waters with their karves and knarrs, different types of ships built for travelling locally among islands and fjords or overseas.

The fjord on the left of this image is essentially a Viking highway. Taken from Streymoy in the Faroe Islands. Scan from a 4″x5″ negative. Photo by Jessica Auer.

Viking-age burial sites and pre-historic art

There is something magical about pre-historic sites. Perhaps it is the mystery behind these enigmatic locales, the collapsing of time one feels while visiting, or the atmospheric settings themselves. But something exciting and indefinable happens when you step into these time capsules, especially when you are all alone.

Lilla Bjärs cemetery in Gotland, Sweden. Scan from a 4″x5″ negative. Photo by Jessica Auer

There is no need to visit Stonehenge among a hoard of other tourists, or view the Nasca lines from a roaring aircraft. Just go to a Viking-age burial ground.

A favorite among my subjects, these sites are great for shooting with a large format camera. It is as though the grass and stones are simply waiting there for me.  They are one of the most patient subjects on earth.

Trullhausar cemetery in Gotland, Sweden. Scan from a 4″x5″ negative. Photo by Jessica Auer.

However I cannot help but consider my photographs as merely documentation of already existing artwork. Though these sites had a practical function, there was an art to sending off the dead. The Vikings practiced a variety of burial customs: burial mounds, ship burials, rock mounds, cremation rings, and standing or rune stones to commemorate those lost at sea.

A cremation ring at Lindholm Høje cemetery near Aalborg in Denmark. Scan from a 4″x5″ negative. Photo by Jessica Auer.

It is no wonder that prehistoric art has inspired many contemporary sculptors and land artists. Nevertheless, what does it mean to resurrect these monuments within a contemporary framework? I hope to delve into this question while reading Lucy Lippard’s book Overlay: Contemporary art and the Art of Prehistory. More on this at a later time.

The Spiral Jetty in the Great Salt Lake in Utah. An Earthwork created by artist Robert Smithson in 1970. I traveled there to make this photograph in 2004. Scan from a 4″x5″ negative. Photo by Jessica Auer.

From the homeland to new(found)land

The subject of westward exploration and colonization has interested me for as long as I have been working with landscape. In America, photography and the settlement of the West of have been long connected, as the medium was born during a time when documenting the landscape was of utmost significance.

One of my goals with this project is to retrace the steps of Norse explorers from their homeland to the New World, passing through Greenland and into Newfoundland and Labrador. The Viking homeland consists of the Scandinavian countries we know today as Sweden, Denmark and Norway. Typically, Viking explorers and merchants based in Sweden would travel east into Russia and down to Constantinople. As Norway faces west toward the open sea, these Vikings tended to travel west, towards England, Ireland, the Hebrides and Iceland. It is these lands to the north and west that Norse explorers are said to have colonized, settled, or even discovered (from a European perspective).

Map showing the westward voyages of Viking-age explorers. Islands such as the Shetlands, Orkneys, Faroes, Iceland and Greenland formed stepping-stones from which seafarers could travel. Map borrowed from an on-line source.

As a Canadian, I feel connected to their Westward travel routes as the Norse can be credited for being the first Europeans to discover and attempt settlement in the New World circa the year 1000, unlike previously documented history, which attributes that claim to Columbus in 1492. It is hard to believe that it was only in 1960, when a Viking-age cloak pin was unearthed at L’Anse aux Meadows that history was re-written.

More than a few circumstances made the discovery of the New World by the Norse a possibility. Combine the craftsmanship of Viking longships with political unrest in Norway, and a cultural resilience to the northern climate with a huge dose of chance, and voilà! Long story short, a Viking ship on-route to Greenland is blown off course and discovers new land.

The Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, Norway.  For more on Viking ships, see the Vikingeskibsmuseet in Roskilde, Denmark. Photo by Andreas Rutkauskas.

Of course, I can’t take my journey along these routes too literally. First of all, I am travelling mostly by plane and car. When I did travel by boat from Greenland and down the coat of Labrador, I was overcome with seasickness, making the seafarer’s reality that much more vivid. I am also visiting areas of the Nordic landscape in parcels, and not necessarily from East to West. In fact, my story began in Newfoundland, when I produced the series titled Unmarked Sites.

“Most Easterly Point” from the series Unmarked Sites by Jessica Auer.

The Sagas: part documentary and part fiction

Written accounts of life during the Viking era are presented in a collection of literary works known as Sagas. The Icelandic or Family Sagas are the chronicles that recount the settlement of Iceland and the voyages that eventually lead to the chance discovery of North America by Europeans. These sagas, which were written in the 13th Century, were first conveyed orally and then transcribed approximately two hundred years after they took place.

The Icelandic word ‘saga’ means both ‘history’ and ‘story’ – hinting at the documentary nature of the people and events from these narratives. But they are also works of fiction that include the author’s own style, exaggerations and interpretations.

Regardless, the sagas do convey a remembered history. They have been crucial to understanding the social and political structure of Viking life, and have provided archeologists with the essential clues (and inspiration!) to begin their excavations, including the excavation of the site at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada (by Anne Stein and Helge Ingstad.) Moreover, the sagas helped to establish Iceland’s identity as a nation, one that is inextricably linked with landscape.

Norse site at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. Photo by Andreas Rutkauskas.

Here are a few observations on the style of these stories in question. They are presented in an explicitly defined historical setting and sometimes provide an accurate geographical reference. The sagas are formulaic in language and structure. Written in a style that is stark, factual and vivid in detail, they present a coherent narrative. However, they are perplexing with their presentation of a timeline and often include descriptions of supernatural processes. Therefore the sagas present historians with the difficulty of accepting them as historical documents.

After all one must consider the subjectivity of their authorship.

Replica of a late Viking-age chapel. Experimental archeology uses replica construction as a form of educated guesswork, which demands a certain level of interpretation. Scan from a 6×7 cm negative. Photo by Jessica Auer.

Since it’s inception, photography has been considered documentary evidence. Photographs situate people in certain places and at specific events. By examining the evolution of the medium, we are able to date photographs, understanding changes to topography and architecture and tracing trends in fashion, economy and social life. Stylistically, documentary photography clearly identifies its subject, is usually quite detailed, and often accompanied by a title or caption that provides additional information. Up until the digital age, photography has been accepted as one of the most accurate mediums to represent the world. Yet even before the digital revolution, one had to question the subjectivity of the photographer. If the sagas contain everything from misinterpretation to outright fiction, so do photographs. It’s a matter of subjective authorship.

It is the ambiguity between actual history and the way it is told that interests me most and with this in mind, I hope to create a project that blends the fascinating aspects of documentary photography with the poetic nature of personal work.

A stone carving that I stumbled upon in the Highlands of Iceland. Viking-age art perhaps? Scan from a 6×7 cm negative. Photo by Jessica Auer.

Hello there!

I’m creating this blog from my studio at The Banff Centre, Alberta where I am currently an artist in residence until late August. I have come here to put my research, ideas, photographs and writing together, which will evolve into a project inspired by pre-historic landscape, Viking-age exploration and Saga literature.

A year ago, in 2011, I travelled to Scandinavia on the W.B. Bruce European Fine Art Scholarship to study and photograph archeological sites and saga sites. I am interested in the Viking era because it was a time when history was loosely recorded, leaving enough clues to interpret the past, yet ambiguous enough to spark the imagination.

A picture stone in Gotland, Sweden. The image has worn away with the weather and time. Photo by Sara A. Tremblay.

On this blog, I will be posting photographs from my work in progress, thematic observations, short book reviews and excerpts from my travelogue.