Mineral Faces – A Thing Called Rock by Frank Feltens
Íslendingabók and Landnámabók – An interview with Eiríkur Sturla Olafsson
Harbour: the synecdoche of a system by Rui Ferreira

Mineral Faces – A Thing Called Rock
Text by Frank Feltens

 

Rocks, their grainy surfaces and mysterious interiors, whose existence spans far beyond the imaginable for us perishable, quickly decomposing things, have posed an inspiration for many artists. Caspar David Friedrich has made rocks the quintessence of his northern German landscapes. He has made them a rock in the sea or a towering cliff. In his paintings, the rocks are shelter and alien objects at the same time. They are always paired with human presence. People sit or stand on them, amidst phantasmal dreamscapes – deceiving places that never existed physically, that make no pretenses as to their artificiality. Rocks carry the figures, while their gaze moves into the distant depths of space ahead, seeking realms of fantasy.

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Sometimes smooth, sometimes coarse, Friedrich’s stony bastions of yearning are drenched with melancholy tears for they represent a lookout onto something unattainable. For Friedrich, rocks are places of dreams, plateaus from which to contemplate spheres of the mind. In his paintings, the rocks seem removed from the space around them. Their presence reminds us of the physicality of his landscapes, while the far distances and places surrounding these rocky surfaces don’t. The rocks are harbors of reality amidst oceans of fantasy. Like in a daze, the figures, in physical union with the rocks, contemplate the inside of their minds, the distant shores and remote skies surrounding them in Friedrich’s paintings. The rocks are solid strongholds of imagination. They are stages for a miraculous spectacle unfolding before them.

 

Eadweard Muybridge, however, clads his rocks in hazy mist, dissolving their solidity into the clouds above them. This early photographer, like Friedrich, bestowed his rocks with an aura of sentiments and life. Muybridge makes their bizarre formations, their otherworldly physique and eternal age part of the human gaze, of sensation. For him, the camera becomes a means for subjectively altering the rock’s existence. Muybridge ignores the distinction of sea and sky, unifying what was formerly separate. The same is true for the rocks in his photographs. Their solid forms seem to move into the distance. An immoveable thing of immeasurable weight floats in the air. What is beyond these rocks? It seems as if the world’s edge lies behind them, as if they are part of infinity. The rocks’ interaction with the mechanical device of the camera and their juxtaposition with figures reminds us that rocks, representatives of the natural world, are part of artistic experience. When Derrida spoke of the ‘stoniness of the stone’ he alluded to the inert qualities of a rock and our experience with it. He verbalises the quest for meaning within these inanimate mineral entities through brush and lens. But what is the answer to this question, what is this stoniness and how do we visualise it?

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A rock is a patient thing. It is satisfied with any locale, feels no need for motion. A rock’s life cycle counts in eons, years are irrelevant. We look at rocks and they seem removed from the linearity of our time. We feel as if for rocks there is no yesterday, no today, and no tomorrow. In an existence that is exaggeratedly gradual, concepts of a linear progression lack significance. Decay is not immediate, as with us who age by day. Rocks exist where nothing else survives. Rocks inhabit deserts, the deep seas, the moon, and far away planets. Dark and light cease to matter, cold and heat mean no difference. It seems only our touch makes the rock remember its surroundings.

 

Its existence only garners immediacy through our interaction with it. How do we, as animate subjects, relate to inanimate objects like rocks? Can we overcome our suspicion towards a thing that is the opposite of us, that inhabits realms to which we have no access, that is solid while we are soft? Rocks remind us that experience is mediated by prior experience.

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Merleau-Ponty writes that each experience is a singular phenomenon which is defined by and restricted to the very moment it is made. This immediacy negates any capability to preserve experience objectively. The sensation of our experience, however, is subjectively defined by our own prior knowledge, capabilities, and memories. Each interaction with any object is therefore mediated by subjective individuality.

A rock is a patient thing. It is satisfied with any locale, feels no need for motion. A rock’s life cycle counts in eons, years are irrelevant. We look at rocks and they seem removed from the linearity of our time. We feel as if for rocks there is no yesterday, no today, and no tomorrow. In an existence that is exaggeratedly gradual, concepts of a linear progression lack significance. Decay is not immediate, as with us who age by day. Rocks exist where nothing else survives. Rocks inhabit deserts, the deep seas, the moon, and far away planets. Dark and light cease to matter, cold and heat mean no difference. It seems only our touch makes the rock remember its surroundings. Its existence only garners immediacy through our interaction with it. How do we, as animate subjects, relate to inanimate objects like rocks? Can we overcome our suspicion towards a thing that is the opposite of us, that inhabits realms to which we have no access, that is solid while we are soft? Rocks remind us that experience is mediated by prior experience. Merleau-Ponty writes that each experience is a singular phenomenon which is defined by and restricted to the very moment it is made. This immediacy negates any capability to preserve experience objectively. The sensation of our experience, however, is subjectively defined by our own prior knowledge, capabilities, and memories. Each interaction with any object is therefore mediated by subjective individuality.

For rocks, we can only interact with them on the most basic sensuous level. Through touch we feel their surface. In this touch, if they are hot or cold, we feel their surroundings. Rocks reveal their outer shell to our sight, sometimes also their interior. We only experience them superficially so they never linger in our memory as individual things. We associate them with a place, or a person, but never merely with themselves.

 

The scattered rocks in the photographs in this volume are tied to a story, they are silent embodiments of a narrative. This narrative relates to them while stimulating an independent story that focusses on the rocks. A story of withdrawal and restraint, where rocks provide surfaces for inconstant temporalities, at times expanding, at times contracting – an archeology of feelings. Mercurial rocks, bastardised as disembodied voices of memory. We hear of two persons and their fading love. We learn of their mutual memory, which is bound to dissolve, like so many things of the past. The two are dispensed in an mineral abeyance, the basis of their memories as steady and unchanging as the rock’s core, while details and nuances gradually fade away.

 

The rocks here are a token of pictorial memory. Their presence in the photograph reminds us of their role as synecdoches of the story. The rocks reiterate a past experience. By means of this, they enter a paradox – their physical presence is in the now while their significance as allusive objects positions them in the past. Their bearing of memory renders these scattered rocks as ambivalent entities. Their stoniness becomes part of memory itself, a projection space for past occurrences. Roland Barthes alerted us that a photographic picture is always memory, a ghostly apparition of things that are physically lost. For rocks, physical loss is hard to achieve. Their resistant bodies defy the deterioration that befalls us every day. Thus, the memory of a rock functions in other ways. It is an object that experiences time slower, almost imperceptibly, that exists in a continuous present, lacking a clear past and future. In this way, it resembles an unfading photograph. Just like the rock surface seeks to defy the elements and erosion, those chemical substances atop of the photographic paper strive to counter age and decay.

Hiroshi Sugimoto speaks of a rock as a time recording device, similar in nature to a camera. A photograph, he says, is an archaeological enterprise, both an inquiry into the past and a means for transporting the past into the present. This intriguing concept of the photographer as an archaeologist is doubled in the present photographs. A camera is a device for close scrutiny, for inquiry into the presence of a thing – a scientific apparatus. Just as an archaeologist examines every inch of a rock, seeking to explore traces of the past embedded in its stony structure, the camera explores its past and present. The rock, however, enables touch, a superficial yet powerful sensuous experience that helps the subject relate to the object. A photograph equally invites contemplation but lacks this haptic stimuli. The photograph feels remote as a physical object, although we may relate to its content. This certain remoteness of a photograph, on the other hand, nurtures its scientific aspects as a device for discovery.

 

The camera’s lens becomes an explorer that ventures into the depths of time on a quest for memory. An inert feature of both, the photographer and the archaeologist create a distance to their object. This is a necessary trope in order to achieve the close scrutiny that their profession requires. Only then may they visualise glimpses of its thingness. Reflection on the object requires distance. Proximity – psychological and physical – reduces one’s skill of reflection. While the archaeologist excavates things of a bygone age, time capsules in themselves, the photographer encapsulates and preserves the immediate present. Both seek to make sense of time. The archaeologist achieves this by looking backward, the photographer, however, is highly aware of the present and anticipates the future. As a result, the photographer naturally faces a dilemma that Barthes has made us aware of. The instant he encapsulates in his photograph creates a present only in the very moment the photographer hits the shutter. Following that instant, this micro-present immediately turns into a thing of the past, an archaeological artifact. Thus, we can say a photograph’s existence is a continuous preterite. At the same time, this inert existence in a realm of the past paradoxically blurs boundaries of time within a photograph.

 

As a tool of memory, it may render the past as the present – in deceit of the vulnerable viewer. The viewer’s desire for an aid to memory enables the photograph to alter the past. The selectivity of this single moment that, in the photograph, nurtures new memories which viewers may falsely recognise as true memories. Remembrance of the past is ambiguous in a photograph as it presents us with an alternate reality that we are readily inclined to accept. Photographs share this feature with the rocks. The evolution of these mineral things progresses so incredibly slowly that our limited mind perceives them as eternally unchanging, just like the moment captured in a photograph. A rock deceives our perception of time. While we see its stoniness as a never-ending, uniform thing, the rock’s continuous being is not eternal. Slow and steady erosion cause the rock to alter its shape, just as the physical features of a photograph change over time. The mineral consistency of a rock determines the speed of this, sometimes enhancing, sometimes slowing the process. The chemical features decide the preservation state of a photographic picture. With the fading of the image, its memory fades. As the tool for remembrance changes its features, our awareness of time increases. We observe the same phenomenon when contemplating the withered surface of a rock in the state of continuous erosion. Taking it in our hands, we feel its skin that is broken with the cavities of time, the traces of this fascinatingly different kind of existence.

Íslendingabók and Landnámabók
An interview with Eiríkur Sturla Olafsson

 

What is reported in the books Íslendingabók and Landnámabók?

 

– Íslendingabók is shorter and only 29 pages. Landnámabók is about 330 pages long. They were written between 1122 and 1133 by Ari, the Wise. He was a member of the clergy and, by then, established in Iceland. The books are about the first settlers in Iceland, who supposedly came to the country in the years between 870 and 874. This means the books were written, nearly, 300 years after the first settlements actually took place. Íslendingabók describes the first contacts of the Nordic people with the country, as being told via tales and other oral stories, but not in any written form.

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The fact that these reports have been documented only after the Church has been established in Iceland, may also be seen as a political strategy to document which person, who allegedly took on Christianity, has now settled. By doing so, the Church expects to keep its rights towards various parts of the country. A more romantic interpretation of the book sees it as the first opportunity that Icelandic clergymen had, to establish a national identity. The first settlers, coming mostly from Norway and the British Isles, were of foreign descent. Three centuries later, the language had been preserved in Iceland although it was developing in other parts of Northern Europe. That may be seen as the first attempt to authenticate a cultural identity through literature, because it hadn’t been much written about it, by then.

 

What kind of discourse is there in the books?

 

– Íslendingabók and Landnámabók are strictly reports. What distinguishes them from other sources is that they try to make the most out of specific sources. They try to evaluate these sources and question if they should be taken for granted or not. Íslendingabók tells about the first people, who came to Iceland but didn’t settle. It contains the only text in the books, written as a tale, and therefore not supported by any facts, about Irish monks.

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Íslendingabók is a story that tells about the Icelandic settlement, being the reasons for it mostly originated by the conflict with the Norwegian king, at the time, Harald I. It tries to describe what triggered people overseas, heading to Iceland, indeed, a very paranoid journey. Landnámabók is longer and written in more detail. It describes each settlement with a genealogical documentation, in a rather dry way, not caring about the reasons why people decided to move to Iceland, which dealt mostly with political discontentment towards the new king of Norway. At the time, Norway just became a kingdom. Before it was organised in a feudal structure of fjords. This is, in a way, how the myth of independent Icelandic people was born. Icelanders still look back to this moment in history to justify their independence, which is also one of the reasons why Iceland doesn’t want to join the European Union.

 

Religion does not play a significant role in the settlement, which seems to be rather a political investment.

 

– Not until later. At the beginning of the settlement, Christianity hasn’t started to establish in Iceland. Only with the first christian kings in Norway, religion became a remarkable compromise between the kingdom and the people in Iceland. The settlers were, by then, allowed to believe in the hidden gods but should not manifest it in public. Christianity doesn’t become a major device of ruling until the Middle Ages, when most of Icelanders take on the Lutheran Church. At the time, the first disputes between Catholicism and Protestantism started. The first Icelandic Bishop was founded in 1056, which means 56 years after Christianity has officially started in Iceland. The second Bishop was established in 1106 and lead ultimately to tribe wars. One can discuss, whether it was religion as such, that triggered the disputes or if people would use religion as a power device to state their will.

In what other ways did the settlement influence Icelandic culture besides the production of ideological values, such as independence?

 

– Independence always shines through everything. Although, poetry is a big part of Icelandic nationality, as well. Icelanders define themselves, more than other nations, through language. Portuguese, for instances, is spoken in other countries like Brazil or Mozambique. It has, therefore, an international value, while Icelandic is spoken strictly in Iceland and a few villages in Canada, where a specific dialect developed, in response to the migration to the West, in the 19th Century. Icelanders are very much focused on their language and yet again through the language, they are proud of their alleged independence, which takes the form of poetry, not in the Landnámabók but, for example, in the Icelandic Sagas and Eddas. These forms of literature, along with the settlement, offer archetypes for the Icelandic independence.

 

In the book by Haldór Laxness “Independent People”, we get a very precise view of Bjartur’s life style. How much of a settler is Bjartur?

 

– The book is brilliant in two ways: firstly, for those who share an independent, nationalist thinking, they will find in the book an exact representation of these thoughts; secondly, the skeptics of these same national values, maintained by an old-school tradition, and those who look abroad, will see in Bjartur a caricature of this same Icelandic independent thinking. I, personally, think he is a sad man, confused, who has been polluted by values that he doesn’t understand. He incorporates the free man of Iceland, who would rather go down, than be anybody’s servant. On the other hand, the reason, why he goes down in his life, is because he refuses to take the world as it is and seek corporation, in order to achieve his goals. He is, actually, both a hero because he is the independent man and an anti-hero because he overdoes it. In this sense, this book can be read in, at least, two different ways.

Harbour: the synecdoche of a system
Text by Rui Ferreira

 

– Strolling: the gaze holds sway over myself.

 

While strolling, little physical investment is needed. The body is nearly devoid of thrust. Instead, my gaze holds sway. While strolling, images arise successively and are imprinted in both the film and in myself. To curtail the origin of an image to a moment within a lengthy walk would, however, be insufficient. I walk and advance. I see and decide for or against this very image. The image is not instantaneous but it is being assembled as I come near. It existed before me and will continue to exist after I pass by. In strolling, there is no intention but it is also not devoid of intention. Strolling matters for what it is. It enables an openness that leads to thought on systems and natures. At the time of strolling, a serene dispassion comes upon me, and I become susceptible to inscription. As I walk through these spaces, I passively take upon me what they emanate. I surrender myself to them and let the continuous change of the surroundings have its effect on me. At times, it will turn into an image.

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– Archaeology of space: wasteland and marooned objects.

 

There is something about strolling in constructed spaces devoid of people which fascinates me. Spaces which were architected by people but where they are only to be witnessed. Where, at once, unravelled reminiscences do matter because their surfaces determine the shades in the images. An archaeology of space begins to take place. Anterior geometries become apparent, now as wasteland. They have evolved into a wrecked reality, filled by marooned objects. Despite their current inhabited state, these spaces‘ temporary void amply suggests me their past.

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The absence of others propels me toward something not seen, opening up narratives which are not told. Narratives bound to surfaces, exuded from spatial arrays and confined by the exercise of framing. These are spaces that embed all hidden stories, scenarios where obsolete narratives are plausible. But what narratives are these? Who are the missing ones? Under which economical systems have these spaces been built? What does nature say about itself? What then remains unseen? And what do these images tell of, if not of that which they do not tell?

 

– Images of voided spaces: representation becomes narrative.

 

These are images of voided spaces. They result from seeing and not from knowing, they do not count or report. They merely show what I see as I am the one walking through these spaces. Spaces that are real but which bring about the imaginable. Spaces that are the shape of that which is not there, and therefore question the documental quality of the image. What do these images document, if the absent ones remain unportrayed?

 

The likeness between image and space is the result of a transformative process through which an overwhelming, expanded surface becomes a contained, tangible surface. I may, now, grab the image and isolate it from a row of images in the film-roll. At this point, the sensorial has just become factual, space and image intrinsic and representation becomes itself narrative.

Strolling may be represented through a successive depiction of single spaces, for example as a filmic sequence or a photographic slideshow. The artwork will embody the physical act of strolling while turning thoughts into images. It generates a place which allows me to comprehend new, perhaps, even unknown, forms of economy.– Harbour: the synecdoche of a system.

 

The choice of a territory along the coastline is not by chance. The harbour is a place where languages meet: the one, of those arriving and the one, of those inhabiting. Which one prevails is a matter to be answered by history – most likely, that of the colonist will repress native languages and dialects. It is a space which is not stagnant, where warehouses contain economies and nautical mechanics expose its grandeur.

 

The question of which harbour is perhaps not relevant. The idea of a scene of domestic and international economies and the synecdoche of an economic system concerns me much more. I must not see the absent ones in order for economics to become visible: it has already manifested itself in the imported and local materials. However, I need to dedicate myself to history in order to experience what remains unseen in the pictures.

 

The territory becomes a commodity itself: resources, such as rocks, nested in its geology, are later turned to gravel and used for the construction of airports and military airfields.