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”I can hear the ocean when the wind is blowing from the south”

Artist Hildur Bjarnadóttir tells stories of colors and belonging in her recent doctoral work at the University of Bergen. She works from a plot of land in Southern Iceland, using plants to make art in unexpected ways.

Hildur Bjarnadottir
ON THE GROUND: Hildur Bjarnadóttir picking plants on her plot in Southern Iceland.
Photo:
Hildur Bjarnadóttir

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It was three years ago the Icelandic artist acquired the plot Þúfugarðar in the South of Iceland. Hildur Bjarnadóttir had no previous connections to the place, but bought it both as a place to live and a place to make art.

– I have for the past three years, been forming roots and planning a future on this land. It is situated in the middle of farmland, flat, with a far extending view to the surrounding mountains and towards the ocean. It has diverse rich flora, which is typical for that part of the country, such as meadowsweet, northern bedstraw and stone bramble, Hildur Bjarnadóttir says.


Weaving stories from the soil

The project Bjarnadóttir planned, and that has since evolved out of the land, is called 'Textiles in the Extended Field of Painting', adding two subtitles; 'reconstructing the painter’s canvas both conceptually and literally through weaving', and secondly; 'using plants as a source of pigment in connection to a place or a person'. Bjarnadóttir recently defended her work at a viva voce at the Faculty for Fine Art, Music and Design at University of Bergen.

Key elements in the project are woven paintings and plant dyed silk. The paintings are made from plant dyed wool and linen thread covered with acrylic paint. Hildur Bjarnadóttir mixes two types of color systems, one industrially made and the other a natural system.

– My aim is to sharpen the characteristics of each color and create a dialogue between two different substances. In my work I use the color as a material, I am more concerned with where color comes from than what it looks like.

While the acrylic paint is easily obtainable and can be bought almost anywhere, extracting plant dye is quite another task. Bjarnadóttir first had to get to know all the plants at the plot.
 

Contemplation as art

– In Þúfugarðar there are at least 90 different plant species. When I examined what plants were on the land, there were no surprises and no disappointments, all plants are quite common in the area. So I had to choose between which plants to pick, my choices guided by subjective, compositional, practical and aesthetical reasons.

While dying wool threads with plant dye, she also painted wool-threads with acrylic paint, one by one. In her critical reflection Hildur Bjarnadóttir explains the contemplative element in her artistic research,

– The first summer I felt like I had tuned in to a frequency that was exposed to me through spending this time with the plants on the land, Some of the titles in my work like Secret moment and I can hear the ocean when the wind is blowing from the south, refers to these sort of experiences on the land, discoveries that are only available to the person who slows down and tunes into the frequency of a place.

The very different history of acrylic paint

Hildur Bjarnadóttir explains that much plant dye is a yellow color, and will fade over time.

— Using only plant dye is idyllic and unrealistic. Synthetic materials, such as plastics, have become a part of nature, it is a fact that we have to deal with. Using both types of color, natural and acrylic sharpens the contrast between them and highlights this relationship.
The acrylic paint has no connection to a place like the plant color, but refers instead to a long history of painting. This is the inherent content and context of the acrylic paint I am using.


The exibition: Colors of Belonging

In the Norwegian Research Programme the focus is on how artistic theories are developed and tested through the artwork itself, where for instance an exhibition or a concert is the main topic of the evaluation.

Bjarnadóttir presented her work in an exhibition, Colors of Belonging, at Bergen Kjøtt in 2015. She suggests that at first glance, the works in the exhibition may appear to be abstract and formalistic.
– When the viewer understands the source of the color the perception changes, and it becomes figurative. The pieces carry the content of the plant and the context of the land in them a very physical representation. The works in this exhibition also explore the desire to find one’s place in the world, and takes this piece of land as its point of departure. The land functions as a platform to contemplate issues of belonging and ecological disruption.


The experience of the plant

Bjarnadóttir says the plants on the land act as recording devices of the place they grow in and the ecological and social system they belong to, taking in information through the soil and the air, as well as their roots, petals, flowers and leaves. Many things affect the state of the plants.

–  Was the plant picked in the spring or in the fall? How has it been affected by humans or animals? Has there been an eruption affecting the atmosphere and the ground? Is there a polluting industry in the area or even further away? How are industries in the world affecting the weather which then again affects the plants on this land. This information is passed on in the colors I extract from the plants and which I have used to make the works.

How about your silk works, can you explain what they amplify with regards to the different types of information from the plants?
 

– The silk pieces offer a different experience of the plant dye than the woven paintings. Due to the scale of them the viewer is surrounded by the plants, walking into a usually hidden universe of the earth. The plant-dyed silk is an atmosphere where the color can be experienced quite physically through the body of the viewer. The viewer can walk around the piece experiencing the plant dye in three dimension. I use the silk as an armature, a grid or a net, that catches and holds the content and essence of the plant, making it visible.


In the footsteps of her grandmother


Plantcolors, being in little use, what was your main idea about bringing them into your artwork?

I started to become interested in plant color for my work around the year 2000. My grandmother had attended and cultivated a plot of land in Iceland for 70 years and I started working with the plants she had planted there as a connection to her. It was through her plot of land that I realized that the plants were, through time, recording her presence and existence. I then became interested in the concept of belonging in connection to a place and how that materializes in the plant color.

So in your work the question of belonging is personal?

My interest in the concept of belonging comes from contemplating my own rootedness in my grandmothers land and then later in the plot of land, Þúfugarðar, I acquired and was working with in my research project. A sense of belonging can be a complicated issue and does not only involve being tied to a certain place as it does in my work. I am interested in this feeling of rootedness, how that is formed and what it contains.

Tartan-tradition

In your critical reflection you place your work in relation to other artists and traditions. For instance you say that your artwork is also in dialogue with the Scottish tartan tradition. Is it the patterns of the weavings or the technique that make up for the link to tartans? Or is the link mainly connected to the use of organic color?
 

– My woven paintings function much like the old tartans, being hand woven and hand dyed both with local plants and acrylic paint. Even old tartan fabric used local plants and imported dye. In a sense the woven paintings are simultaneously a district and a clan pattern, connected both to a place and identity. Just as the tartans draw up a certain portrait or image of the place and the people who live there, the woven paintings can be seen as a portrait of the land and myself.


There is so much to extract from your work, even more so when you explain your ideas and the way you work. Do you think people need to know about the context to grasp the full richness of your work?
 

– My work can be experienced through many different channels, I do not expect everyone to access it in the same way or to grasp everything at once. Time is both a material and concept in my work and it takes time to experience it. The more time the viewer spends with the work the more information the work will reveal. Writing a critical reflection or giving a lecture about my work or publishing a book gives an opportunity for a different reflection which can go beyond the work itself.

Writing your way into the core

In your critical reflection you write: ”I claim that my research is embedded in the artwork, but there is no denying that the written text that accompanies my work does open doors into its core, which would otherwise have remained closed both to me and others. ”
 

– The writing has forced me to explore my ideas on a different level, acquiring clarity through the nature of written language. I would say that writing about the work has contributed to a deeper understanding of the work’s meaning, function and existence; it has affected the way I understand and talk about my work and will have an affect on its progress. I envisioned this text to be more useful to others than myself, I think this has turned around. I almost want to say the text is, in the end, written for myself.