Stuff and Stars

Uncultivated pastures and wetlands in the lowlands in the south of Iceland. A scattering of traditional A-shaped house, roofs and walls clad in corrugated iron, telephone poles and dilapidated fencing. Overgrown ruins and sand dunes on the eastern banks of Ţjórsá-river. Does this landscape store worthwhile stories? Does someone expect us here? Is someone here to meet us? The landscape, the houses and the overgrown ruins are of course a testament to bygone days and a different way of life. But a lot more is at stake. In the unpublished memoirs of Finnbogi Höskuldsson, born in 1870 on the farm Stóri-Klofi in Land-province, an entry in 1882 recounts that late spring that year, a bout of severe weather, bringing on a fierce sandstorm, killed off nearly all the livestock forcing his parents to evacuate the farm. The family moved to Skarđssel, a deserted farm, but only a few years later harsh conditions and sandstorms yet again obliged them to move house. The farmhouses themselves were actually moved to the banks of Ţjórsá-river where there was no danger of sandstorms. The farm however collapsed in the big Suđurlandsskjálfti-earthquake of 1896, three years after the houses had been relocated and erected there. Everything is doomed to perish, disappear and fall into oblivion.

In the month of May, in 1918, the family of Ragnhildur Höskuldsdóttir (the sister of the abovementioned Finnbogi), her husband Bjarni Bernharđsson, and their five children was dissolved. They were required to abandon their home in Hafnafjörđur-town and move East to Gaulverjabćr-shire in Flói-province. The day after the family arrived at Sléttaból-farm in Flói-province, people descended on the farm to fetch the children. Óskar (6 years old) went to the farm Gegnishólar, Bjarni (2 years old) to Austur-Međalholt and Róbert (seven months old) to Hellar-farm. Ragnar (at five) was to begin with taken to Sléttaból but Arndís (three years old) stayed with her parents in the seaside-village of Eyrarbakki. After they moved East, Bjarni and Ragnhildur had two more children, Ólafur, who died from diphtheria at fourteen, and Bjarni who died when he was three years old. They tried to get their children back, but to no avail. Both of them came from families that had been dissolved.

On 8 February 1982, Óskar B. Bjarnason, first cousin of Finnbogi, turned seventy. To mark the occasion Óskar’s siblings came to visit: Ragnar, Arndís, Bjarni and Róbert. The reunited siblings were photographed together in the sitting room at the home of Óskar and his wife Sigurbjörg Emilsdóttir, at Hörđaland no. 6 in Reykjavík. Twenty-five years on, or in the month of January 2007, Borghildur completed a part of the present exhibition: She sculpted 31 bowls, one a day, and kept a diary, a page for each day. From entries in the diary one learns that Óskar is now living at Grund, a home for the elderly. His daughter Borghildur visits him regularly and takes him for walks. She worries about him and he finds it hard to accept having been “put there”. One day, when they were taking their usual stroll in the vicinity of Grund, Óskar asked Borghildur what she was working on. She told him that she was preparing an exhibition and asked for his permission to use a genealogical text that he had written twenty years earlier. The stories in the exhibition
Spreads are in fact taken from interviews that Borghildur conducted with Óskar and his sisters and brothers.

Three years ago Borghildur organized an exhibition of her uncle’s paintings, the amateur painter Ragnar Bjarnason. A year later she published a book containing her conversations with him, as well as colour prints of his paintings. Five years ago she exhibited the work
Maternal Patterns in the 30th anniversary exhibition of the Association of Reykjavík Sculptors. In the exhibition she hung numerous portraits of her relatives on her mother’s side to form a huge circle on a blue background. In a text the philosopher Eyjólfur Kjalar Emilsson wrote for the occasion, he states that Borghildur is, in her work, not only tackling forgetfulness but time itself – that elusive phenomena that always seems to slip through our fingers. The same could be said of the present work, Spreads, except now the subject matter is “paternal patterns”. One could add that in Spreads the reference to other stories, of ordinary people of the past in general, is stronger.

In famous ruminations on the concept of history, Walter Benjamin writes that the past carries with it secret signs that lead to its redemption. “Doesn’t a gentle breeze of the same air that bygone generations breathed caress our cheeks? Can we not hear in those voices, when we truly listen, an echo of voices that now have fallen silent?” Benjamin goes on to say that we are awaited by the generations that went before us, that we are destined for a secret rendezvous. And if this is the case, he goes on, it can be said that we, like all other generations, are ordained with a
weak messianic force that the past has a claim on. Benjamin is here not talking about supernatural things; he calls his approach to history, a historical materialism with a touch of theology. He is mainly concerned with the nameless, the forgotten and the poor of the past. Borghildur has in her own way opened up a door to this very same past and she has Orion, the most beautiful and splendid of constellations, illuminate it. In this way it gains dignity and dimension – redemption, Benjamin would have said. In addition, Borghildur leaves her mark, her fingerprints, on bowls of clay, the stuff stars are made of…

Hjalmar Sveinsson 2007

Translation: Geir Svansson