Integrating Catastrophe. A Talk on Drawing

October 25, 2003
The International Institute for Drawing Research
Xi'an Academy of Fine Arts
Xi'an, China

In this talk, I will take you on an anecdotal history of geological pilgrimage. I will focus on recent research interests, using slides of my work to describe how drawing is part of my practice.

In Lapland, the river broke very early last year. The floods that came as a result were as bad as in 1981 when you had to get a boat down the main road, and Koppelo, where I was living - which WAS the village at the end of the road - became an island. Ideas, like landmass, perpetually shift, lay dormant and erupt again. Known territories submerge. New land mass forms. In November 1963, off the Southern coast of Iceland, the island of Surtsey broke through the surface of the sea. On New Year’s Eve 1964 another new landmass showed promise nearby. They named it Surtla, but it was to be an unconsumated romance. Surtla never appeared, retreating back into a break in the ocean floor. It is here, at the break, that the first membrane may have formed, distinguishing itself from the water above and the magma below - an airbubble. The potential origin of life. These places emerge with a different set of rules - both spontaneous and precise - like geological gossip erupting during lunch on a field work session on the crest of a volcano. This is how ideas form - unexpected juxtapositions of the casual and the inconceivable. Within my practice, drawing, like landmass, combines known events with fantastical occurences that happen in real life.

On September 18th, 2003 I turned 30. I celebrated my birthday with the Eldfell volcanic cone on the island of Heimaey off the southern coast of Iceland and just slightly north of Surtsey - born in 1963 - though from the top of the crater if the sky had been clear we would have been able to see the island that is older by ten years. Eldfell and I were born at almost exactly the same moment geologically and practically speaking. It is not so often that you and a landmass share the same age and therefore I could think of no better place to be at that exact moment at that exact time.

In 1976, thousands of snakes committed suicide off the coast of Guadeloupe. There was about to be a massive volcanic eruption on the island. The ground temperature rose above boiling point. The snakes fled down the slopes of the volcano and into the water where promptly they drowned. Most snakes don’t swim.

Tourists were on holiday at a coastal resort in Turkey shortly after the catastrophic earthquake that happened there afew years ago. A series of aftershocks hit the area and the tourists, fearing another massive quake was about to occur, leapt from their windows in an effort to escape impending collapse.

The earthquakes did not escalate to anything other than trembling chandeliers, but a small fissure was left in the form of an impulse. To swim when you can’t. To jump when, with broken limbs, it would be impossible to move quickly enough to be out of the shadow of falling debris.

My sisters and I used to play our favorite game in the Hall of the Great Whale at the Museum of Natural History.

The rules of the game:

In the Hall is a whale so big it would fill an olympic sized swimming pool. It is suspended in midair by invisible threads as it leaps in an arc towards the floor. You run under the tip of its nose. It is looking down at you. You stand and look up at it for as long as you can stand to. The one to stay the longest is the winner. The longer the stare down, the clearer it becomes - the whale is about to dive through the floorboards. If you are the one to be there when it happens you will be crushed. It is the same sensation as a game you play when you are slightly older. You stand directly in front of a very tall building with your body almost touching it and look up as hard as you can. The building sways.

My father told me about a man who went to the same synagouge as another man he knew. The man worked on one of the top floors of the Trade Center. He was there when it happened. His floor was above where one of the planes hit, so there was no getting out. In Orthodox tradition, if someone who is married dies but their body is not found, their partner must remain widowed until their own death. Knowing this, the man called his wife and said he would not be able to escape from the Towers and was about to jump out of the window of his office. He did not want her to have any illusions about his potential survival. In this way he gave her the freedom to start a new life. Maybe he was the person in the newspaper leaping midair. This changed my interpretation of the story of the snakes.

For me, drawing is a study in potential. Through re-interpreting information, excavating narratives and locating connections between divergent fields, with one ear to the ground I try to decipher events. This can take many forms. Conversational core samples, or the metaphors that specialists use to describe their research, serve as source material for my work.

Two years ago I met with a subsidence specialist in Glasgow City Council to find out why the city is sinking. We talked about hidden mine shafts, damp and general disrepair. He made a small sketch of unmarked landfill sites. This informed the devlopment a 25 foot long wall drawing I made in Tramway that charted the progression of imagined rifts and fissures. The piece was part of a project called ‘The Difficulty of Falling in Love During an Earthquake’.

Werner Herzog made a documentary in 1976 called La Soufriere. 75,000 people had been evacuated from the island of Guadeloupe because the volcano was about to erupt with the strength of 5 or 6 atomic bombs. One man refused to leave. Herzog and a crew of two went to find him. They wander empty streets. Steam, smoke, cracked intersections, soot, ash. They meet no one. They head up the volcano. It could erupt at any time. They find the man. He says he has nothing but the volcano and if it goes, he goes.

The volcano never erupts. In the last scene Herzog says, ‘This is a documentary about a catastrophic event that never happened.’ At the time, it was a public humiliation that the volcano remained calm. Now it is a study in the potential of an event.There is a famous story about an eruption that happened years earlier on the same island. Everyone in the town was killed by the volcano except for one man. He was a convict in the local prison, saved by the thick walls of his cell.

In the North of Iceland along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, two newlyweds move into their first house. They are very excited - new house/ new life. No one tells them when they move into the house that it sits on a fault line.There is a massive volcanic eruption followed by an earthquake. Their house splits in two. Their living room has a huge gash straight through it. They are horrified - devasted. What does this mean? Their house is destroyed. Their marriage had only just begun, and the chasm running through their marital bed does not bode well for their future. They realise that actually, the house has a clean break down the middle, and instead of devastation it could be a sign for something much better. They build a new room in the space of the gap, transforrming a potentially catastrophic situation into an expanded living space. Integrating catastrophe.

In the same area, a factory split opening, enlarging the boss’s office, though his responsibilities stayed the same.

Nearby, I boiled milk in the crater of an active volcano and met a friend on the fault line. As Iceland is made up of two tectonic plates which converge in the middle, she is standing in Europe and I am in North America.

Dr. Fritdjof Nansen was part of the race to reach the North Pole. He charted the attempts made before his own and recognised that many ships made swift progress until they reached the pack ice. At that point within their journeys, they would either bravely sail directly into the ice, where often they would get struck or stuck and sink; or turn around and sail South again. Nansen also followed studies by his contemporaries made on currents in the ocean. Scientists discovered material from one part of the world in another part of the world where it was not native to the land. Drift wood from the West coast of Greenland was repeatedly found on the East coast of Iceland and on the Northwest coast of Norway. This meant it was possible that currents in the ocean, and the pack ice along with it, were moving along similar routes, taking material from one place to another, operating on an almost assigned network of submerged invisible roads.

Nansen realised perhaps the problem was not with the treachery of the pack ice itself, but with the approach. Rather than perpetually working against the ice, perhaps they should work with it. Nansen designed a ship called the Fram which was rounded on all sides. He sailed it directly into the pack ice, where it froze. As the ice drifted North, so did he. As there was not even a small groove where the ice could catch, when the ice contracted the ship was gently lifted up, when it expanded the ship slipped back down. Nansen’s journey with the drift ice took him farther North than anyone had ever been. He returned home with his ship intact and his entire crew unharmed. In the race to get to the North Pole, he travelled two miles every twenty four hours.

I am in the Krafla volcano fissure row. There are two distinct kinds of lava - smooth and rocky. I ask why and someone says, ‘To imagine how this happened - take a cup of milk and pour it down a hill - that is how the lava was when the smooth flow formed. To understand the rocky - take a cup of thick yogurt and pour it down the same hill. There you go.’

When I Draw, this is what it is like
The coalescing of an event, a thickening lava flow which is slowing down as it cools. Move one more inch down the hill before the drawing is finished. Make sure the idea is out.

Precisely between Pantelleria and Sciacca, on the trade route between Europe and Malta, a volcanic island sprouted in 1831, and from its birth to its disappearance it's development was followed and studied by the most illustrious scientists of the epoch. On June 28 1831 there was a series of earthquakes. July 17 an island grew quickly in dimensions and height. Each country gave the island a different name, trying to lay claim.

Within months the new island began to shrink. By December 17th it was gone, slipping beneath the waves where it remains today as a constant hazard for shipping. Diplomats said that the submerged island last featured in an international dispute in 1987, when a US warplane patrolling the area during a confrontation with Libya mistook the submerged tip of the Island for a Libyan submarine and dropped depth charges on it.

More recently, a man pursuaded Ferdinand's descendant, Prince Carlos of Calabria, to allow a marble plaque inscribed with the words "This piece of land, once Ferdinandea, was and shall always belong to the Sicilian people" to be placed 20 meteres below the surface of the sea on the remains of the underwater island. Weeks later, a diver found the plaque smashed to pieces.

A man named Herman Horst, aged 60, had a terrible form of Diabetes. He went to the island of Stromboli, climbed up to the top of the volcano - placed his wallet and glasses by a rock, and walked into the crater. Never to be seen again.

I went to the island of Stromboli. It was the site of the movie and the excuse for the ensuing romance between Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini, with a backdrop of molten activity. The volcano, known as ‘The Lighthouse of the Mediterranean’ erupts all the time. I had only seen lava for years in my dreams.

It is 95 degrees outside. We begin the three hour walk up to the top of the volcano. I’ve never walked up a volcano. I’ve never walked up a Munro. This is as high and as hot as both. I fly into a panic. Smoke everywhere - more hot than almost ever before. I keep drinking gallons of water. They tell me not to. I am going to faint. We are half way up and I’ve had it - can’t even look at the top of the volcano - don’t even care about it at all because it is so steep I am sure I am going to fall off the mountain.

I begin to have visions. They will have to get a helicopter to take me off the volcano. I am in an extreme state of terror. I can’t move. I am holding onto once molten rock. Lava is flying out of the volcano and I can only look at my feet. A recurring dream - and you imagine you can rise to the occasion. I discover I can’t. I will never make it to the crater. You never know yourself in a situation until you are in it.

The sun goes down. It gets alot cooler. I can walk. We reach the crater. It is not something I should be allowed to see - the bowels of the earth. And all I can do is think about Herman Horst. I have to remind myself that you can’t just walk into the crater. Like when standing by a waterfall, you really have to remind yourself not to jump - not necessarily because you want to die - more because it seems to make sense to do it.

Maurice Kraft, along with his wife Katya, was killed in a pyroclastic blast in a volcanic eruption in 1991. They were skilled volcano watchers, hopping on planes around the world at the slightest hint of an eruption. Years before they died on the volcano, Maurice was travelling through Yosemite National Park with a co-worker, Bob Decker. Maurice seemed uninterested in the surroundings, so Bob began to talk about the cataclysmic volcanic activity that created the landscape. He asked Maurice if he found it interesting and Maurice replied, ‘Yes, but I am here one million years too late.’

Robert Smithson said ‘One pebble moving one inch every one million years is enough activity to keep me really excited.’

There are different approaches.

During an artist residency in Akureyri, 60 miles below the Arctic Circle in the North of Iceland, I spoke with a landslide specialist at the Natural History Center in town. When I introduced myself at the front desk, I told them I was interested in geology, so they sent me upstairs to meet with the main regional specialist in the center.

First he gave me a test :
So some years ago afew artists used permanent spray-paint on one of the walls in the Jokarlson Canyon? Did you know that? We still can't get it off...

I say Oh no, that's horrible! You are kidding me, who would do that? If I ever work outside I make sure not to leave a trace!

He pauses, then we begin to talk.

He tells me a story that took place near Vatsdall, part of a chain of mountains that no one can explain. They look like they have been dropped from the sky - hundreds of perfectly formed cones of debris. Problem is - nothing is near them, nothing could have caused the debris to fall that way and nobody knows how they formed. They say there are only two things in Iceland you can't count, the hills of Vatsdall and the islands off the West coast of the country. There are several versions of the story from different areas in the country. He told me one.

A girl lived on a farm at the foot of Vatsdall Mountain. She was known as the girl who looked after the ravens. In the winter, when the freshkill was hidden under blankets of snow, she saved them scraps of meat from the table and fed them until the thaw in Spring.

One day many ravens appeared outside her window. They seemed starving, squa-ing and causing a ruckus so she brought them out some food. They circled her, about to take the scraps and then flew away. She followed them. Again, they circled her and seemed ravenous, but would not take the food from her hand, flying farther and farther away from the farm. She followed them until they reached a place on higher ground. At that moment the farm was covered by a landslide.The girl was the only one to survive. They say the ravens saved her for her kindness to them each year.

He explained they are using this story to study the history of landslides in Iceland, establishing patterns of catastrophe in the past to anticipate where and when it might happen in the future. They have carried out excavations in each place the story originated, and in every instance, they have found the remains of a once active farm.

The night before I leave Akureyri I invite people over for an open studio. One friend sees a drawing of Vatsdall and says

Oh, I saw an amazing thing there...It was a few autumns ago I saw the Raven Alping (the Icelandic word for parliament). There were hundreds of them gathered in what seemed to be a circle at the foot of the mountains. They were pairing off for the winter, deciding what farm to go to when it was cold. Did you know that, that ravens pair off? So, this was when they met to discuss who was going where. It was crazy, incredible, all those ravens in one place talking.

Tectonic plates move at the same rate as your fingernails grow. Glaciers move one to two meters a day. Every moment has an infinite number of possibilities. Drawing provides a framework through which new territories can emerge.