Polar bear encounters in Iceland tend to take a predictable form: a bear, often weak and emaciated, is spotted by a local. Panic ensues; the police are called, the media incite a brief hysteria. The bear is shot.
This chaotic cycle, bound to repeat itself every few years, is in part the subject of “Visitations”, an exhibition by the Icelandic-British arts partnership Snæbjörnsdóttir/Wilson, which won them the prestigious Icelandic Visual Arts Award.
“A lot of people told me not to say it was a surprise,” says Mark Wilson. “Actually, I thought we might be shortlisted, but Bryndís didn’t get it at all.”
“I didn’t even think about it”, confirms his partner, Bryndís Snæbjörnsdóttir. “I don’t do art to get accolades. But at the same time, I don’t deny how wonderful it was to receive him.
“I didn’t think the Icelandic art scene had come to this,” she continues. “I felt so happy that they could award the art prize to something that goes beyond this idea of the romantic artist.”
“Conflict and Paradox”
Mark and Bryndís’ work is about as far removed from traditional notions of visual art as one can imagine. Presented at the Akureyri Art Museum from September 2021 to January 2022, Visitations was the culmination of a 3-year multidisciplinary research project, funded by Rannís, the Icelandic Research Fund. Presented using a wide variety of media – video, photographs, collages, drawings and zoological remains constituting just a few of the various exhibits – the project exemplifies Snæbjörnsdóttir/Wilson’s artistic practice, which they have developed over the over the past 20 years.
“Sometimes people think we’re working on animals, but we’re not – we’re working on weird human behavior,” says Mark. “We use a particular animal and the interface humans have with that animal to explore different interests, and often to reveal a lack of consensus; conflict and paradox.
A personal connection
Mark and Bryndís have been creating work together since 1999, and polar bears – or rather the bizarre human behaviors associated with them – have often been at the center of their artistic exploration.
“It started from a very personal perspective,” says Bryndís. “It had to do with my name – Snæbjörnsdóttir [‘snow bear’s daughter’, in English]. I lived in Scotland for many years and was persistent enough that people could say my surname. I don’t know why, but it became extremely important to me.
Photo by Daniel Starrason
Photo by Daniel Starrason
A transformative moment came when Bryndís visited a museum store in Scotland and was confronted with the sight of hundreds of stuffed animals of all kinds. The experience, she says, “activated this deep sense of some kind of loss. You know, what did we do? What do we do?”
The disturbing incident provided an unexpected momentum and helped crystallize the approach Bryndís wanted to take with his practice. The couple quickly completed their first project, ‘nanoq: flat out and bluesome’: an artists’ survey of taxidermy polar bears in Scotland.
This first collaborative work confirmed not only the duo’s enduring interest in experiments with polar bears, but also their desire to involve partners outside the artistic sphere, an element of their practice that has remained a common thread throughout. throughout their various projects. From historians, folklorists and zoologists to farmers, animal owners and hunters, Snæbjörnsdóttir/Wilson consider collaboration an essential part of their work.
“This thing about ‘the artist, the genius’…I always felt like it was complete nonsense — and it still is, basically,” Bryndís says, waving hands disdainfully. “Art is bringing people together.”
“It’s about making unlikely connections at all levels,” acknowledges Mark. “We work a lot with other disciplines, and we talk a lot about the importance of that.”
For Visitations, the artists focused their work on two arrivals of polar bears in Iceland in 2008. The two “wanderers” – as non-native visitors are called – both landed on the north coast of Iceland, a few weeks apart. Both were shot and killed, although there was serious talk of trying to tranquilize the second.
“How do you treat a stranger, when the stranger poses a threat?”
In a macabre twist of fate, Bryndís had the strange experience of encountering this particular bear twice: once alive, and again after it died. She was able to accompany the press to see him running hungry and scared through the wilds of Skagafjördur. The second encounter took place while she and Mark were conducting research at the Icelandic Institute of Natural History. It was there that they discovered that many skeletons of bears killed in Iceland are kept for scientific purposes.
“On one of our first visits there, they just lent us the bones of this particular bear.” Bryndís said, almost in disbelief, as if she still couldn’t believe such a thing had happened.
“Again, you have those kinds of moments,” she continues. “You drive your car and in the back of the car are the bones of the bear you saw alive. It’s hard to let go; it haunts you.
The idea of the stranger
This complex idea of a haunting, of a relationship to a species mediated by an intoxicating combination of folklore and fear, is the basis of Visitations. The bones that Bryndís and Mark brought home that day were also an exhibit in the show; not wired together and displayed like in museums, as if they still inhabit the ghostly form of an absent animal, but in a heap stacked in a box. An indisputable container of evidence of what happened when a bear encountered a man.
“More abstractly, we’re looking at the idea of the stranger and the idea of hospitality,” says Mark. “How do you treat a stranger, when the stranger poses a threat? Because obviously, historically, there has only been one answer to this question.
‘Visitations: Polar Bears out of Place’ took place at Akureyri Art Museum from 25.09.2021 to 09.01.2022, and was curated by Æsa Sigurjónsdóttir. Learn more at visitations.lhi.is