11 February 2017

I’ve recently been working on bringing to print an article for Livingmaps Review, written by Tim Ingold. In it Tim discusses David Lemm’s exhibition Debris and Phenomena and his participatory mapwork project Landmarks. One of the things that both anthropologist and artist share is how we evaluate, navigate and represent the environments we live in. But, it seems to me what they also share is a fascination with inversions of one kind or another. That is to say, what do sea charts tell us about the perception of a space that most people have only a glancing familiarity with; and What if the city were an ocean, and its buildings ships? (this is the title of the article to be published soon).

After reading Tim’s article and investigating more thoroughly David’s art, an unforced memory carried me back to 2007, a series of surveying projects across several of the Breiðafjörður islands in West Iceland. This was also a time, for me, when there was an ever present mobility and carrying of clutter when excavating across many sites over a short period, which meant that the noise of the summer’s digging experiences was never far behind. This felt like a kind of jet-lag, as the essence of ones’ body-mind tries to catch-up with you after a long haul flight between time zones. And somewhat like that feeling was another of discombobulation on the way to Breiðafjörður. My friend Uggi Ævarsson and I arrived at the harbour of Stykkishólmur, after listening, on repeat, to Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex PistolsWe drove very fast from Skálhólt where we had been just been excavating, and where the infamous barrel-pit song was still ringing in my ears.

After disembarking from the boat that took us to our first island Öxney, the smell and image of the toothless ship’s mate – the epitome of a man who was himself the very essence of sea –  continued to hold firm, as if some this was a kind of premonition of what was to come. Carefully we hauled everything for our survey off the boat, and set-up camp in the old farm building. Once settled, the silence and stillness of the island made its claim on us. But of course, that was just an effect of months of a peripatetic life style, and the slow fade of barrels and the Sex Pistols. Of course, the stillness and calm was just an illusion. The islands were in fact more dynamic and challenging to us than those living here in the past. Added to our unfamiliarity was a world around us that was constantly in flux; whether from the shifting murmur of birds, the weather and wind, or the sea itself. We became, if all too brief, a part of that cycle. We felt what it could be like.


The surveyed archaeology on Öxney, and place-name reconstruction based on the memory of one of the island’s last occupants; Jónas Jóhansson.

A week or so after the survey I reflected on what still haunted me. I remember thinking about the way Öxney, and other islands in Breiðafjörður, were small farm units, while appearing to be hard to get to and peripheral to other landward settlements, were in fact highly connected and formed the basis for a series of farm and marine communities. These ‘islands’ in the sea were less island-like that the farms on the mainland in this part of West Iceland – the water made them more connected, not less. Mainland farms were surrounded by old lava fields with sharp rocks, and bogs, with outfield areas with difficult terrain to cross. I also remember thinking how disorientating it was living on the island. The tidal range between the islands was huge and all swell and currents. Twice a day a land bridge joined the island with another, so that where there had been 10m of water, there was now a path across – what if the sea was a trackway? The horizons kept shifting too, rocks just below the surface of the sea and skerries appeared and then disappeared. All contributing to my attention to flux as if it was not the sea that was moving but the underlying strata. Inversions.


Me at the Shouting-rock – Graðungatangi – on Öxney.

Perhaps the strongest resonance of that experience that I still retain as I sit here in Edinburgh, was standing on the northern-most part of the island on an outcrop called Graðungatangi. I shouted into the wind across Geysandasund toward the next island which was only 100m away. According to oral histories, with a southerly wind, as opposed to a northerly one, the neighbouring island could hear your every word spoken on the island. I made promises there and then to myself and others that I still keep.


Sunrise: 9.44am
Moon: 22nd day (Full Moon)
Tide (for Stykkishólmur):
Low tide – 1.00am (0.20m)
High tide – 7.14am (4.40m)
Low tide – 13.30pm (0.12m)
High tide – 19.34pm (4.08m)
Midheaven in Aquarius


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