Impossible Possession

An essay
Jonatan Habib Engqvist

You could buy it at Keflavik, the stopover airport on the mid-Atlantic island: an empty can labelled Fresh Icelandic Mountain Air. A container of North Atlantic air. The air of wild open landscapes and pure water as possession. Tax-free, conveniently packaged in aluminium on the shelf of the Duty Free shop, it was ready for transport straight to colleagues at the office, or to supplement a souvenir collection of ironic clay objects from Greece and Mexican wrestling masks.

Iceland is a place where one can utterly be consumed by, and become, the landscape. It is a tempting impossibility to transform this being into product. And it is notably difficult to portray Icelandic nature, without engaging in symbolic representation, and partaking in the Realpolitik that such a product inevitably becomes part of. Promote Iceland, the national marketing agency governed by the Icelandic Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has been so successful in their mission to draw more tourists to the island through a marketing of magnificent nature, that they now must find ways of protecting fragile biotopes from the heavy pressure caused by increased tourism in the aftermath of the economic crisis. Packaged Icelandic air is, to say the least, treacherous. One does not speak loudly about the destruction of natural reserves in favour of aluminium smelters for multinational companies (that empty can most certainly disappeared from the shelves of the airport in conjunction to the major Alcoa scandal 2009).1 The constant sulphur odour, or the days of curfew in Reykjavík due to high levels of toxins in the air during extended volcanic eruptions of 2010 and 2014 are not part of this image either. The questions spin round in my head as I start thinking about this text and I cannot help but write them down: What does it mean when a number of European and Icelandic artists work together on a project about Iceland and its nature? What happens in this meeting with a drastically alien landscape? Is this art tourism, or what does it entail to examine the landscape as a representation of Nordic cultural identity? Is this fascination with Icelandic nature a form of exoticism, a surface of projection – a refined version of that aluminium can of fresh air – or is there something else?

This project stems out of an artist-run exchange. It is an exchange between Air d’Islande in Paris, Slakthusateljéerna in Stockholm and Skaftfell Center for Visual Art in Iceland. The participating artists encourage discussion about what a place is and how the image of it is constructed. They ask how we are affected by the displacements and translations underway within and outside the Nordic region today, and how artists want to work in them. As I return to the artworks, I ponder the notion of the artist as translator and recall the translator John Swedenmark who means that (literary) works always render a given historical situation’s circumstances in relation to its political geography. A serious piece necessarily draws up a map of the world, he says, and depending on distance, it might indicate a specific perspective.2 Translators never truly own their work.

My Lindh’s film Nordic Panoramas, Landscape No. 1 is the first in a series of planned video works. It portrays a landscape. This happens to be an Icelandic landscape, and as such an essentially stereotypical image. At first, it appears to be a still image, a postcard, until some slight unremarkable movement reveals that it is a film. The image slowly slides horizontally, but panning in two different directions. In this translation of quiet dislocation, the embodiment of a landscape starts to disassemble itself through a study of origin and nature. And the film seems to ask whether the very idea of a landscape is a construction.3

The focus of the investigation shifts with Malin Pettersson Öberg’s film Journal of Earth Sciences. Öberg tells a story based on the artist’s own journey through Iceland in 2014. In the form of a fragmented narrative her film moves through a mythical Iceland where imageries of origin and nature merge: the movements of Teutonic plates and the geological remains of the glacial age develop into a backdrop for questions of culture and identity.4 As a story, Iceland is one of the places where an extreme climate, in the form of storms, occasional earthquakes and volcanic activity has an effect on those who live there. The film focuses on this and is permeated by a psychoanalytic narrative that through scientific associations revolves around isolation, travel and exploration. The work becomes a kind of self-reflection that concurrently stages fiction and presents documented material. The desire to discover something raises questions about who owns the story, how much the translator adds and what the viewer projects onto it.5

There is a passage by Simone de Beauvoir that comes to mind, where she writes how she would like to become the landscape in front of her: “I should like to be the landscape which I am contemplating, I should like this sky, this quiet water to think themselves within me, that it might be I whom they express in flesh and bone, and I remain at a distance”, she writes. “But it is also by this distance that the sky and the water exist before me. My contemplation is an excruciation only because it is also a joy. I can not appropriate the snow field where I slide. It remains foreign, forbidden, but I take delight in this very effort toward an impossible possession. I experience it as a triumph, not as a defeat.”6

Perhaps the idea of impossible possession is clearest in its relationship to time. One of the first things that are disrupted in an overwhelming experience of nature is the notion of an objective, uniform ‘clock time’. The time located outside of consciousness, which defines a measure and where the present is that with which we measure. A subjective experience of inner time can through its intensity and concentration completely foil our constructs and create a different understanding of the now. And that external time, located beyond our impressions, which we cannot possess, but that sometimes takes us in possession, seems to evaporate. With a 360-degree ink drawing Linus Lohmann shows 1170 different figures drawn through combinations of strokes with the support of specially manufactured rulers. The drawing plays with the icon that often illustrates computer processing (the machine’s ‘thinking’) and how it often is indicated by means of an animation that moves like a clock’s pointers while the user waits for the software to act. The idea behind Sequence is this simple circular movement and the disparity between external, measurable time and our capacity to submerge into our own subjective experience of it.

Nature in an environment like Iceland can be so tangible that it seems supernatural. Magic constantly lurks around the corner. It might be due to this impossible ownership: If we cannot possess, perhaps we can let ourselves be possessed. With delicate, precise and often site-specific works on textile and paper Litten Nystrøm explores the idea of the unknown. The works balance between recognizable reality and abstract composition, in an attempt to access the discrepancy between an object that cannot be described and an attempt to decipher and interpret it. By pointing beyond what we can distinguish, she wants to position her installations in an unpredictable everyday life where the unknown is omnipresent – “as euphoria rather than tragedy”. Noise as materia. In Stéphanie Solinas’ investigations the realities of the invisible are even more tangible. Her Iceland studies carry the title Le Pourqoui Pas (The Why Not?) and balance between fact and fiction. The title comes from the explorer Jean-Baptiste Charcot’s boat (Charcot drowned at sea just outside Reykjavík). Solinas has for a decade investigated vision and in her works from Iceland she explores the representationof invisible worlds through mediums, scientists and artists. In the composed film The Debt of the Soul, we follow a session with the prominent Icelandic medium Thorhallur Gudmundsson accompanied by two women. One of them is alive, the other present in her absence. In addition to the film, recorded in the artist’s temporary studio in Iceland, she shows a number of ‘cyanotypes’, or blueprints. The series is titled Equivalences and consists of direct impressions, physical photograms on paper from lava stone.7 The imprints are made in places defined as the homes of elves on the lava fields.

Simone de Beauvoir writes that Being resides in the absence of being “but this lack has a way of being which is precisely existence.”8 It is this inadequacy that appears as a magma chamber underneath the works in this exhibition. In the case of Lindh and Pettersson Öberg, smouldering through the surface through links to geological time and the question of the Anthropocene, in the works of Nystrøm and Lohmann it is present in relation to the solipsism of inner temporality, and in Solinas’ work a thin crust of impossible representation shields it. Robert Smithson mentions somewhere that we lose ourselves between the abyss inside us and the limitless horizons outside. It is like finding oneself in the experience of losing oneself. At the very least there is a form of confusion that arises when the self is lost in the unfamiliar, and this seems to be what binds the works of this exhibition together. Rather than the artist as translator, it is the artist who gets lost in translation. Perhaps we are dealing with an urban artist who even enjoys an existence where he or she loses herself in the interplay between a romantic idea of a sublime, almost magical place, a refuge with fresh air or an apparent sanctuary from the commotion of everyday life. But the works are not creating possessions based on this experience. On the contrary, it is precisely an impossible possession that appears to be the recurring theme in all the works. Elusive attempts to grasp our tininess before this vastness: unimaginable and yet so fragile. Perhaps this is a theme that inevitably comes from a foreign gaze. For someone constantly encircled by ubiquitous nature this perspective becomes unmanageable and might lack the vital distance. For the one who is always there, set in an evident environment, might grow blind for her own gaze. My Icelandic friends often describe how they are struck by their own milieu after having been away (Heidegger’s hammer) and perhaps this artistic exchange can assist as such an estrangement.

An exchange and a dialogue between the participating artists is primarily what connects the works in this exhibition. Then something emerges, as they are perceived collectedly. They are all trying to grasp the notion of impossible possession. Not as a shallow critique of the sublime experience as product, but through a common investigation of the pleasure of not being able to possess.


  1. The massive exploitation of natural resources was, together with the economical collapse a determining factor for the so-called “pots and pans” revolution in 2010 where the Icelanders dismissed the sitting government. Also see: Andrí Snaer Magnusson, Dreamland: A Self-Help Manual for a Frightened Nation, Citizen Press, Iowa, 2008
  2. “My gauge for the following judgment, is the knowledge passed on to me through the medium of literature. As a translator of firstrate literary works, I have the privilege of encountering the mechanisms that make up a novel, a play or a poem. Among these constituents, I do not only count the linguistic stuff, and the literary and cultural heritage nested therein; it is also my conviction that each literary work which aims at rendering the actual circumstances of a given historical situation provides an account pertaining to political geography. That is to say that a work of serious intent necessarily draws a map of the world, or a restricted part of the world (depending on perspective). This even goes for conscientious fantasy writing, as put forth in several essays on her craft by Ursula K Le Guin.” John Swedenmark, Translating Encounters i The Nordic Third World Country? Icelandic Art in Times of Crises, ed. Jonatan Habib Engqvist och Karin Englund, Färgfabriken, 2010, p. 50
  3. Speaking of translation, the word “landscape” has a polysemous meaning in many languages. It simultaneuosly designates “part of a visible territory”, “the representation of a view” (for instance through artworks), but when used in a transmitted sense it usually connotes “a coherent entity”. Perhaps the Swedish [landskap] emphasis on construction, or creation [skapa] can be seen in contrast to the way the word in its daily sense represents something “natural”.
  4. The poet and philosopher Édouard Glissant argues for the right to not be understood and introduces the relationship (toward development) as a concept of difference. For instance he talks about how people in island societies think differently from those who come from the (colonizing) mainland, and how they must be allowed to keep their ”opacity”. According to Glissant, a relationship is built on clear respect and a maintaining of difference, historically as well culturally. In order for equal relationships to be established the other’s opacity must be maintained. Somewhat crudely put, it is about “the right to not be understood” rather than always trying to understand the other. It might seem odd to question the bridging of difference, but this is one of Glissant’s clearest ideas, not least when looking at narrative artistic projects like this one: It is just as important to mark the limits of what one thinks that one can understand, as it is to seek knowledge. This model of thought is used among ethnologists to avoid violence against the other. The right to not be understood is however about much more than the meeting of cultures. It is also a general attitude toward meetings between people. Something I would like to call geniune acceptance and mutual respect. See for instance Glissant, Poétique de la relation (1990)
  5. Towards the end of the film it quotes Esbjörn Rosenblad: “The art of writing – this peculiar ability to, by small characters, transmit ones thoughts long distances to other people and to immortalize strange events’.”
  6. Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity. Simone de Beauvoir 1947, I. Ambiguity and Freedom. reference/subject/ethics/de-beauvoir/ ambiguity/ch01.htm accessed16.8.2015
  7. Alfred Stieglitz took over 220 photographs that were given the title Equivalences (equivalents), they all picture clouds in the sky. Most of them only show the sky without a horizon, buildings or other objects in the frame. Some of them do however include hills or trees. The series is often referred to as central to the discourse on photography.
  8. de Beauvoir, op.cit.

Written in connection to an exhibition and a screening at Slakthusateljéerna and Iaspis, the Swedish Arts Grants Committee’s International Programme for Visual Artists, 2015.

Translation by Jonatan Habib Engqvist.