(A secret tryst in a landscape)
The crest of the Kambar hills overlooks flatlands framed by famous white-capped mountains and the surly Atlantic Ocean, which beats against the shore, night and day. The view is magnificent, in spite of there being no verdant valleys with large estates and rich green pastures; instead there is tussocky ground, and swamps, and grazing enclosures for horses. Down by the coastline we catch a glimpse of Eyrarbakki and Stokkseyri; Ţorlákshöfn is there too, somewhere and Hveragerđi is straight ahead.
Is someone waiting to meet us here, in this flat landscape? Are they expecting us?
This is a national route, both ancient and new, and probably the busiest one in the country, barring the road to Keflavík airport that leads directly off the island. Many drive through here without stopping. In May 1918, Bjarni Bernharđsson and his wife Ragnhildur Höskuldsdóttir travelled this route in a four-wheeled covered wagon drawn by two horses. Their home in Hafnarfjörđur had been dismantled and since Bjarni’s home district was Gaulverjabćjarhreppur, they had no choice but to go there. The home district of the husband was decisive in this regard, not that of the wife. The family travelled to Sléttaból in the Flói district and the following day people arrived to take away the children. Óskar (6 years) went to Efri-Gegnishólar, Bjarni (2) went to Austur-Međalholt and Róbert (7 months) went to Hellar. Ragnar (5) stayed at Sléttaból initially, then went to Skógsnes and later to Fljótshólar, while Arndís (3) remained with her parents in Eyrarbakki. Bjarni and Ragnhildur had two more sons after moving to Eyrarbakki: Ólafur, who died at the age of 14, and Bjarni, who died aged three. Bjarni and Ragnhildur had also experienced having their childhood homes broken up, and attempted to have their children returned to them. All those farms are still inhabited today, save for Sléttaból.
A year after the relocation of the family, a hospital to serve South Iceland was built near Eyrarbakki. It was designed by architect Guđjón Samúelsson in typical Icelandic style, with steep gabled roofs painted red. In 1929 it was turned into a labour camp, incorporating the land Litla-Hraun and Stóra-Hraun. Ever since, the labour camp has been referred to as Litla-Hraun, and is today Iceland’s maximum-security prison. Additional buildings have been built to the east and west of the original building and the latest structure added to the grounds, a building with a blue tower, was taken into use in October 1995. Today the Litla-Hraun prison can accommodate 87 inmates, out of a total of 134 prisoners in Iceland. According to media reports, prisons are now so full that inmates are forced to share cells. A new prison near Reykjavík is currently on the drawing board, and if a plan presented by authorities and which is accessible online is anything to go by, construction is already underway. The great majority of inmates are males between the ages of 20 and 30 and judging by the news, many are incarcerated for drug offences.
At first glance the works of Borghildur Óskarsdóttir and Sigríđur Melrós Ólafsdóttir have little in common: the artists are of different generations and have based their work on different criteria, each not knowing much about the other.
Borghildur was born in 1942 and has worked as a sculptor for a long period. Writer and critic Ragna Sigurđardóttir has said that Borghildur’s work reflects the past and the present, the near and the far, the tiny and the huge. In recent years, Borghildur has been working with her own family history. Six years ago she exhibited the work “Maternal Patterns” at the Reykjavík Art Museum, arranging numerous portraits of members of her maternal family into a large, circular form on a blue background. Her paternal family was up next. Borghildur interviewed the siblings that were distributed among the farms in the Flói district in May 1918, also examining the historical context and recollections. Those siblings are now all deceased. The last to die was the oldest brother, Óskar Bernhard Bjarnason, 95, who passed away in October 2007. He was Borghildur’s father, and had a vivid recollection of the trip eastwards in the horse-drawn carriage.
Borghildur’s multi-faceted work in the Arnesinga Art Museum is a follow-up to an exhibition she held at the Icelandic Federation of Labour’s Art Gallery in April 2007 and which she called “Spreads – stories from the past in the light of pictures”. She has created a work that suggests books – tablets with photographs and text that she arranges on the floor so that they are reminiscent of landscapes or gabled houses. The photographs show buildings, landscapes and ruins of buildings in the Flói district and elsewhere in South Iceland. The sides of the tablets that contain text tell the stories and memories of Óskar, his siblings and relatives. Borghildur involves herself in the story by exhibiting journal entries that she wrote while preparing the exhibition. She records her day-to-day existence while examining her family’s roots in the landscape. The landscape connection is highlighted by allowing the journal pages to form a sort of line in the landscape, on the wall. She has also shaped a great number of clay bowls by hand, and stacked them up. The effect is that they appear to have grown that way, to be organic. They reveal a sort of measurement of time, similar to the annual rings of a tree.
Sigríđur, a painter and printmaker, was born in 1965. In the past she has primarily created group pictures of people from her immediate environment. She has used her own photographs as the foundation for those pictures, and broken up her subject matter into colour surfaces using a computer. The pictures have then been recreated on canvas in the form of paintings, at which they are given a two-dimensional feel slightly reminiscent of pop art. According to Sigríđur the pictures are self-portraits to a certain degree because she can mirror herself in them, identify with her subjects. Her latest picture series is a departure in the sense that the world it depicts is removed – it is made up of pictures of inmates at the Litla-Hraun prison. The origin of the series is an exhibition dubbed “the golden brushes” which was held at the Kópavogur Art Museum – Gerđarsafn in January and February 2007. The exhibition was named after the colour indigo. In an interview with Blađiđ on 17 January, Sigríđur said: “When a decision was made to have indigo, the darkest colour in the spectrum, as the theme of the exhibition, I bought every tube of indigo I could find and asked myself what I should do. I felt no connection to it, but gradually an idea began to take shape about the inmate and his incarceration.” Shortly afterwards Sigríđur met with the warden of Litla-Hraun, who put her in touch with the inmates’ association. The inmates agreed to have their portraits painted and Sigríđur was assigned a classroom in the prison, in which she took their photographs. They were given permission to pose whichever way they pleased. In the interview she was quoted as saying that she had taken a liking the inmates and had been careful not to start “pondering why they were there or what sort of baggage they were carrying”. She continued: “One of the things I enjoyed about meeting the Litla-Hraun inmates was that I got insight into a completely different world. They have their own pecking order and status and ambitions that are entirely different from that of the artist.”
Sigríđur uses the photographs to create drawings, transfers those onto linoleum, and cuts out lines. She then applies print colour or printer’s ink to the linoleum and presses it onto paper. On some of the paper sheets she continues to work in India ink, ink, tempura, or whatever she considers appropriate. Some of the pictures are blue and reminiscent of night. For the Gerđarsafn exhibition she titled the picture series
God looks after my friends, I look after my enemies. This rather curious title is drawn from the fact that many of the inmates sport tattoos and Sigríđur soon noticed that they enjoyed showing them to her. On the way home she thought about how virtually a whole essay had been etched into the back of one of the inmates, in French with Gothic lettering. She later asked what the quote had been and was told it was something like God looks after my friends, I look after my enemies. Sigríđur sent the inmates an exhibition catalogue with this title, and received a letter back informing her that the quotation was incorrect. It should have read God protect me from my friends, I’ll take care of my enemies, myself.
This latter version of the quote is certainly harsher than the former. In French, it reads
Dieu Protége moi. Des Mes Amis ... Mes Ennemis ... Je M´en Charge. This was the motto of one Jacques Mesrine, one of the most infamous bank robbers and murderers in France. The world of the prisoners is a world unto itself, with its own value system and ambition. Mesrine was killed by French police in an ambush in 1979 as he sat unarmed in his BMW automobile on the outskirts of Paris. This year, two feature films about the life of Jacques Mesrine will be released.
The works of Borghildur and Sigríđur are joined by their social references. They both focus on people moved somewhere by society against their will and placed in a specific location, whether it is their home district or an institution named “labour camp” or “prison”. In both instances the state is enforcing its ultimate power, in both cases people are stripped of their autonomy and freedom. Children are taken from their parents and sent to be with strangers; young men are locked up, sometimes for years.
Economically and technically speaking, the difference is that the inmates are provided for by the state while they are in prison, and their names are kept on a criminal record after their release, whereas local authorities invited farmers to place tender bids for the care of the children. That care was then assigned to farmers in the district in return for payment. The farmer with the lowest bid had the greatest possibility of securing the child.
Ragnar Bjarnason remained at Sléttaból when his brothers were taken away. A year later the couple who owned the farm moved to Stokkseyri. Ragnar, who then was six, expected to accompany them, but this turned out to be impossible since the district in which Stokkseyri was located had no legal obligation to care for Bjarni and Ragnhildur’s children. Ragnar was therefore left behind in Gaulverjabćjarhreppur district, and was sent to Skógsnes, remaining there for three years, or until the farmer moved. The couple that took over the farm did not want to keep Ragnar, so he was sent to his parents in Stokkseyri, who had wanted to have him returned. Just short of a year later his father died, so Ragnar was sent to relatives in Fljótshólar, where he stayed for five years. The district stopped child support payments when children were confirmed, so Ragnar remained an extra year on the farm as a labourer.
District relocation had deep roots in Icelandic society. It was based on the Poor Law from 1834, a spin-off from the 1703 Census which had revealed the staggering fact that the “needy” in Iceland amounted to just over 15% of the population. The Poor Law had stipulations concerning obligations by the districts to care for the poor, as well as about home districts and district relocations. Certainly those were conceived in response to a social problem, but the legislation was political and revolved around what was most appropriate in terms of the social status quo, not necessarily what was right for individual families. The Poor Law dissolved families and not only robbed people of their autonomy but also their right to vote and eligibility to run for office. The last district relocations are believed to have taken place in 1927, when a family in the Strandir area was moved from one district to another.
The same may be said about prisons. Society responds to specific behaviour that is in violation of the laws of any given period by locking the perpetrators up for a longer or shorter term. In the 1930s, Icelandic prisons were full of moonshine sellers. Today they are full of drug dealers. The terms “legal” and “illegal” drugs tell a story. We are talking politics. Some people may recall the effort by Icelandic authorities to make Iceland a drug-free country by 2000. Setting heavier sentences for drugs violations is a political decision. Yet experts like Helgi Gunnlaugsson, professor at the University of Iceland, have pointed out that very heavy sentences tend to drive street prices for drugs up, which in turn means that those who do manage to smuggle illegal drugs into a country make a huge profit. There is a lot to be gained and obviously there are many who are prepared to take the risk. A vicious circle results, something that was clearly depicted in the American film Traffic, which received a great deal of attention a few years ago.
Those who are disturbed by the rise in inmate numbers in Icelandic prisons can take comfort in the fact that Iceland has the fewest number of inmates per capita in Western Europe. An article by Helgi Gunnlaugsson published on the Icelandic Science Web in 2003 revealed that there were 110 inmates in Iceland in 2002, or 38 inmates for every 100,000 residents. That same year there were 59 inmates per 100,000 residents in Denmark and Norway, and 96 in Germany. Great Britain held the European record, with 139 inmates. Meanwhile the United States held – and still holds – the world record. In 2002 there were 686 incarcerated prisoners there per 100,000 residents. To reach the same ratio in Iceland there would have had to have been nearly 2,000 prisoners in this country.
It is indicative of the age that a recent article in daily
Fréttablađiđ stressed the importance of establishing rehabilitation wards in prisons, to turn them into detox centres of sorts. One might say that, with this, medicalisation has entered the prisons. Inherent in that is the notion that prisoners are sick people who are not accountable for their actions. On closer examination this is a logical extension of a trend that has long been ongoing. In his book Discipline and Punish, French philosopher Michel Foucault claims that in centuries past, punishment was primarily aimed at the body. Those who violated the law were whipped, branded, had body parts cut off, and were sometimes executed. Being locked up in prison for a lengthy period was rare. With the spread of information, punishment began to be about the shaping of the prisoner, just as the growth of a tree could be shaped. In other words, the focus was no longer on the body but on the soul. According to Foucault this had nothing to do with humanity but was rather a calculated need to have functional members of society who would disrupt society’s mechanism as little as possible.
As stated above, Borghildur and Sigríđur differ as artists and base their work on different criteria. Yet both of their works are composed with a sense of serenity and precision. Both manage to artistically explore images that are charged with emotion, and stories that are free from sentimentality. Their works do not create victims for us to look at and pity from a safe distance. The inmates in Sigríđur’s works look out at us without expression, the lines on their faces carved in linoleum. Most of them also have images carved into their own skin. According to Sigríđur it was interesting to carve out the linoleum, deciding on which lines to carve and which to omit. She only met the inmates on one or two occasions, but having recreated photographs of them as linoleum engravings and then transferred those onto paper, she felt like she had got to know them. Perhaps she found herself in them, perhaps we find ourselves in them. Perhaps they were waiting for us, perhaps they were expecting us.
We might have a similar sensation when we examine Borghildur’s works. In his renowned contemplations on the concept of the story, German philosopher Walter Benjamin writes that the past carries secret signs that lead to its redemption. “Are we not surrounded by the same air that those generations breathed? Can we not hear in those voices to which we listen an echo of voices that are now silent?” Benjamin maintains that past generations expect us on this earth, that they have a secret tryst with us. He is not talking about the supernatural but is rather primarily thinking of the past – the anonymous, forgotten and impoverished past. Borghildur takes the initiative in opening up that past and simultaneously invites us to share in her own life. She illuminates the past with pictures and narratives while at the same time keeping a record of her own time, which ultimately is the time that belongs to us all.
And Orion appears, the brightest constellation, representing a hero in an ancient saga who was above all others in terms of talent and splendour. There he is, descended from the night sky, in all his glory. Borghildur has drawn him on the wall. Opposite him Sigríđur pits a wiry tattooed inmate who flexes his muscles, naked from the waist up, distant as the night.

Hjálmar Sveinsson