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Katrina Thomson Freshwinds Biennale, Iceland 2015-2016 Project Report for the JWT
Thank you to the Jan Warburton Charitable Trust for the support towards my recent residency in Iceland in January 2016.
Going to Iceland as an artist at the Freshwinds Biennale in Gardur, amongst other artists was one of the best experiences of my life. To sum up the project, I was making a new art work, walking a lot, living and breathing nature, and having some great connections with likeminded, inspiring and interesting people.
Iceland is absolutely stunning! It was incredibly windy, harsh and dark at times, and then the most glistening white peaceful place with sunshine. I had to hunt for my installation site in some major storms. Navigating my way to the hardware store 12KMs away took some time too – but eventually the people that work there almost knew me by name.
I built a bridge; I wanted it to be a beautiful bridge in the ocean with the tides rising and falling around it. The people in Gardur all warned me against putting it in the sea, for they told me how strong the tides and storms are and that it wouldn't last one tide. But my mind was set on the symbol of a bridge in the ocean and so I built it, trying my best to make it as strong as I could, and trying to focus on both robustness as well as aesthetics.
To me it symbolises relationship – the bridging between different things, like us and the ocean, or the ocean and the atmosphere. I did some reading and watching of lectures on ocean science – especially relating to the equilibrium of the ocean, its biodiversity and ecosystems, and the links the ocean has to stabilising the atmosphere and climate. All the big marine species are needed to control the medium species that eat the small species that eat the tiny species – or something along those lines. When this is disrupted, trophic cascades occur, and all the jobs of all the species aren't being done properly, and havoc within ecological systems is wreaked. For example, water stratification is happening from climate change as well as trophic cascades. I think I read that the ocean only churns or mixes fully through once every 1000 years, and with all the systems being damaged, the control of the ocean temperature and equilibrium is not happening. The ocean and the atmosphere are ecosystem engineers, working together intrinsically. If the ocean is unhealthy, it changes the climate – and if the climate changes, it changes the ocean reflexively.
Our relationship to the ocean is changing the nature of it - not only through climate change, but also directly through overfishing. The ocean and its cycles are robust age-old systems. But our relationship to it is a take-take one which is destabilising the other relationships I have mentioned – that of species, and that of the ocean and climate and of course, that of human survival. In our times we have fished nearly all of the big fish with the availability of bigger and better technology. We go to ridiculously far reaching depths to catch them. We are deep sea trawling – an action basically like bulldozing the ocean floor and killing off everything there, ruining symbiosis, like ploughing down a rainforest and all its species. It will take years and years to begin to repair itself, but if species are ecologically extinct, repair may not be possible, and in the mean time, the systems of atmospheric engineering are disturbed. The water becomes acidic, stratified and dysfunctional with ‘dead-zones’. In the ocean, there is an invisibility of the loss beneath the surface.
So, this bridge that I built – I considered burning it. Because once you burn your bridges, you can't go back, and that’s how I see what is happening with climate change and our effect on the ocean. But I was uneasy about the notion of burning my built bridge in the ocean, because although the image would be impactful, the notion is perhaps cliché and more importantly, the act seems to be
Katrina Thomson Freshwinds Biennale, Iceland 2015-2016 Project Report for the JWT
a metaphor for nihilism. I considered beginning to burn it and then dousing it with seawater but I was undecided about that concept.
The Freshwinds Exhibition runs for one week with an opening weekend and a closing weekend on either side. My bridge was standing after five nights in the sea, which is 10 high tides. A big storm was forecast, and in the morning I went to see the bridge but found that the ocean had taken it. Completely taken; no broken bits remained, just the two wooden footprints where I had bolted it to the rocks. The sight of the bridge not being there gave me a strange feeling of something being misplaced – then I felt a deep sense of loss for the bridge, and the familiarity that I had formed with it through the complete vision of it; from the concept, to the very hard work of building it in a relatively short timeframe, to the faith I had to have in its realisation against all the people saying that it wouldn't work, and to the ecstasy of seeing it still there, beautiful in its place in the ocean after night one.
I am glad that the ocean has taken it though, because I didn’t have to burn it or remove it. The symbolism or mythology of the ocean taking it feels important.
The loss I felt was akin to a loss I feel for what we have lost of the many species. The regrets that I had for not bolting the bridge better, or engineering it better, even though I had been advised to do so, seems like the complacency I think we have for the ocean health that scientists are advising us needs to be addressed with more urgency.
The ocean in Gardur is omnipresent. It is and has always been the livelihood of this area and the Icelandic government has good policies for fisheries quotas. As well as having sustainability awareness, Iceland has a deep sea trawling company. I find this, and the worldwide fishery dilemma paradoxical – people need to eat, and fishing is a tradition that many people worldwide rely upon, both economically and also for simple non-economic survival. But we need to not extract wildlife from the ocean wantonly as if it were a supermarket. We need to not trawl the ocean. We need to not overfish, and not eat it unless we need it – and we need to work out ways to do intelligent ecosystem restoration. A Bridge can symbolise connection, stability, and transition. A bridge is a way to overcome something difficult.
I spent some time searching the shores for the bridge I built, but it is much harder to find something you’ve lost than it was to lose it.


November 2015

Katrina Thomson: Projects
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