Iceland Specimens: On the Work of Ólöf Nordal
BY EVA HEISLER
Walking along Reykjavik’s craggy south coast, one encounters a penguin-like bird on a boulder in the sea. Clearly artificial—metallic, smooth—it is a duplicate of the extinct great auk. Out of reach in the cold sea, Olöf Nordal’s sculpture is a beaked ghost located at the coast off of which the last known nesting pair of great auks was killed in 1844. Aware that the great auks were near extinction, collectors offered large sums of money for display specimens, and the pair was killed by Icelanders for a foreign collector.
Nordal’s aluminum representation of the extinct bird, about twice the size of the actual bird, may strike one as a conventional figurative monument evoking a fallen hero—in this case, a flightless sea bird slain for quick profit and, ironically, “preservation” by a collector. Nordal’s sculpture is not simply a memorial to an extinct species, however. It also evokes a more recent event in Icelandic history: in the early 1970s, there was a national campaign to raise money to purchase a stuffed great auk that was reputed to have been from Iceland. The art historian Audur Ólafsdóttir recounts the story of the nation’s efforts to acquire the specimen from Sotheby’s: “There was a general hue and cry, everyone contributed to the fund to bring home the great auk; children even emptied their piggy-banks, and at the end of the day there was money enough to buy the equivalent of a three-room apartment.”1 Ólafsdóttir suggests that the attempt “to bring the great auk home” was a collective act of penance. It was the acquisition of a loss, a loss in the form of an object whose sole purpose was to display that loss.
Both acts—killing the nesting pair of great auks in 1844 and purchasing the stuffed specimen in 1973—involved transactions with foreign collectors. Nordal’s bird is cast of aluminum, a material whose production for foreign interests has led to further impoverishment of Iceland’s natural environment. This work by Nordal marks a spot, and a violence, and an absence. As the art historian Rosalind Krauss has put it, the traditional monument “sits in a particular place and speaks in a symbolical tongue about the meaning or use of that place.”2 Nordal’s bird questions the use of the particular place in which it sits. The work mourns a loss, but it casts the loss—in aluminum—in a material and form that interrogates the very nostalgia that it risks.
The irony of the great auk’s extinction is that its rarity was its demise: it was the desire to display the rare bird that contributed to its value and hastened its extinction. The politics and aesthetics of display are central preoccupations of Nordal’s works. “Corpus Dulcis” (1998) consists of fragments of an idealized male body cast in chocolate and heaped on a podium for the consumption of viewers. In a 1996 exhibition at The Living Arts Museum, animals associated with Icelandic folklore were represented in plaster and displayed as if neoclassical figures. These included “busts” of a ptarmigan and falcon, sister and brother in folk tales, and embodying the twin values of gentleness and fierceness.3 Traditionally the bust, even though it presents only part of a human form, is not considered to be a fragment. These bird-busts, however, strike one as fragments. By transferring a convention associated with human portraiture onto the representation of a bird, the artist generates an unsettling and dissonant coupling of forms.
The recent “Iceland Specimen Series” consists of large photographs of animals that are, or have been, part of natural history collections in Iceland. Ten photographs feature specimens of albino birds found in Iceland. These include an albino raven, snipe, arctic tern, thrush, and puffin. Each albino—colorless beaks pointing to the left and pink feet pointing right—floats in the center of the picture plane. The background is a Reykjavik sky filled with clouds. For a moment one might think one sees a soaring bird, but on inspection each albino is clearly lifeless, lying on its side with wings closed. The profiles of the birds are recognizable—the long bill of the snipe; the short, wide beak of the puffin—but the uniform whiteness renders the familiar profiles otherworldly. There is an odd contrast between the deflated bodies of the birds and the drama of the skies: the whiteness of absence and error in contrast to a white that indicates activity and suggests presence. One might recall Herman Melville’s digression on the whiteness of the whale in Moby-Dick. Melville wonders why whiteness, despite its associations with beauty and purity, “shocks the eye” when encountered in the form of the albino. He points out that “in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors.” Melville goes on to ask, “Is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows—a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink?” He suggests it may the “indefiniteness” of whiteness that “stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation.”4
In Nordal’s photographs of albino birds, the contrast between figure and ground might be read as a juxtaposition of body and spirit. As specimens, the birds serve as concrete examples; they are objects in a system that seeks to articulate and compare visible characteristics. The clouds, in contrast, are in constant motion and, despite fluffiness that might give the illusion of tactility, can’t be touched. Birds belong in the sky, of course; but these birds appear suspended on a sky. It is a convention of natural history tableaus to exhibit specimens against painted backgrounds of their natural habitat, but these specimens are not positioned to represent living creatures; rather, they are suspended as display objects.
The photographic series of albino birds is reminiscent of the earlier White Ravens (1996). This work consists of four plaster reproductions of ravens perched on steel pedestals. It is not immediately clear whether the adjective “white” describes the fact of the plaster objects (in other words, the ravens are described as white because they are made out of a white material); or whether the plaster forms are intended to represent albino ravens. This ambiguity is central to the artist’s preoccupation with the relationship between mythology and science. Nordal’s four plaster ravens refer to the four recorded sightings of white ravens in Iceland, the last occurring in 1959. A “sighting” refers to the initial or momentary glimpse of something that has been hidden from view. In ”White Ravens,” Nordal reproduces these “sightings” as objects on pedestals. The sighting—a flit of whiteness against the sky or on a branch—materializes into spectacle: these are no longer sightings but a “sight.” Another meaning of the word “sighting” is the action of aiming a gun toward an object to be hit. It is the 1959-sighted white raven that ends up a specimen in Iceland’s National History Museum and is pictured in the artist’s photographic series of albino birds. The white raven’s rare appearance was a mystery. It was considered to be, as Adalsteinn Ingólfsson put it, “a harbinger of unusual events.”5 Once there was scientific evidence of the white raven, however, its mystery diminished. The white raven was nothing but an albino raven, its whiteness signifying not mystery but absence of pigment.
The “Iceland Specimen Series” includes a photographic triptych of deformed lambs that were preserved by taxidermists in the early part of last century. In the first photograph, a brown six-legged lamb and a two-headed lamb are positioned in a mossy lava field south of Reykjavik. The photograph is called “Sleipnir,” a reference to the eight-legged horse of the Norse god Oddin. “Cyclops,” the center photograph, features the brown lamb again and a three-eyed lamb positioned so that its middle eye directly faces the viewer. “Janus,” the third and last photograph, features the two-headed lamb and three-eyed lamb once again, positioned in the same landscape. In contrast to the repetition of the animals throughout the triptych (each lamb appears twice), all three photographs share a continuous horizon line: there is spatial continuity but not sequential (or narrative) continuity. This creates the illusion of a logical impossibility: frozen time in a living space.
Typically, the natural history museum takes bits of the natural world and brings it into the museum in order to educate and inspire. Nordal’s move is the reverse of this: museum “bodies” are put back into the natural world. One does not immediately notice the lambs’ deformities; the animals are small and innocent fixtures in the landscape. The bodies are “stuck,” however; they won’t develop or even change position. That these stiff bodies are called by the names of mythic creatures is an irony. The horrific one-eyed giant is a small deformed animal. The swiftness of Sleipnir is a lamb with six immovable legs. The time-traveling two-faced Janus is a two-headed lamb frozen in place by the skills of a second-rate taxidermist.
“The Iceland Specimen Series” also includes the photograph of a stuffed animal reputed to be a skoffín, a mix of dog and fox. The animal was one in a litter of strange puppies born to a dog after it had mysteriously disappeared from a remote farm in the north of Iceland. It was an affectionate creature but displayed behaviors associated with the fox, including nipping at the nose of sheep. Other odd characteristics included not barking and the absence of a mating instinct. Once the farm family moved to the town of Akureyri, the animal was eventually killed because its exuberance, although friendly, frightened children and its temperament was generally ill-suited to containment in town. Because of the stories surrounding the creature’s mysterious origin and eccentric behavior, it was stuffed by a local taxidermist when it died. Stories of skoffíns abound in Icelandic folklore; these are creatures that are a mix of cat and fox, or dog and fox. The fox is the only native wild mammal in Iceland, and the primary characteristic of the skoffín is that it is a mix of the domesticated and the wild. In Nordal’s photograph, the “beast” stands, one paw forward, a stiff figure in an Icelandic landscape.
Ralph Waldo Emerson captures the nineteenth-century enthusiasm for natural history when, after visiting a collection in Europe, he declares that “the world lies no longer a dull miscellany and lumber room, but has form and order.”6 Classification does not diminish the marvelous, but is in service to it. He writes, “The ambitious soul sits down before each refractory fact; one after another, reduces all strange constitutions, all new powers, to their class and their law, and goes on forever to animate the last fibre of organization, the outskirts of nature.”7 The world, ordered, becomes intelligible. It is this concept of intelligibility—as the ordering of the visible—that Nordal’s work questions. The work is not sentimental in its approach toward nature and the past, but it does raise questions about the presumed clarity of scientific illumination. In an obscure text of 1894 called Naturalist on Prowl, E. H. Aitken writes, “I noticed a lovely little silvery spider, and resolved to specimenize it.”8 The obsolete form of the word “specimen” reminds one of the destruction necessary to the display of “loveliness.” This is Emerson’s “ambitious soul” at work in the world.
In the 2005 installation “Hanaegg” [“Cock’s Egg”], the artist imagines the inside of a cock’s egg. Two video screens at right angles show floating fetus-like forms. Large pink cushions—breast-shaped and tongue-shaped—provide seating for the viewer to watch the pulsating forms. One is confronted by a “fetus” with fully developed breasts, a four-fingered hand, and something odd, like another hand perhaps, coming from where a human umbilical cord would be attached. The forms are monstrous and, with overdeveloped breasts and extended tongue, vaguely pornographic.
The installation is dominated by the color pink: pretty pink; girl pink; cartoon pink. One can’t be sure if one is experiencing cartoon or critique; the work straddles the line between “cute” and “grotesque.” The title “Cock’s Egg” is a contradiction in terms, and the “fetus”—both infantile and sexual—is disturbing to view. The referent of the word “cock” in the installation’s title is ambiguous; the fetus with cleavage is the offspring of whose desire? As with other works by Nordal, different rhetorics of visualization are combined, in this case that of medical imaging technologies and pornography.
In folk tradition, the cock’s egg refers to the beastly offspring that results from the coupling of two worlds. Many of Nordal’s works explore unnatural or odd couplings. A forced coupling of the artificial and the natural occurs in “Gull” (2001). This series consists of photographs of parts of plastic children’s toys attached to sheep horns: the bare-breasted torso of a plastic doll sits atop a sheep’s horn; a set of Barbie-doll legs, splayed in a provocative pose, emerge from another horn; a long fake fingernail spirals from yet another horn. Animal horns and bones traditionally served as toys in Iceland. The artist is not only contrasting toys of the rural past with that of the more urban present, however. “Gull” exposes the implicit sexuality of objects manufactured for child’s play.
Susan Stewart characterizes the collection as “a form of self-enclosure” that is necessarily ahistorical. She points out that “the collection replaces history with classification, with order beyond the realm of temporality.”9 Nordal’s work in general, and “Iceland Specimen Collection” in particular, presents and re-presents objects that have been transferred from narrative structures to classification systems. The artist draws from natural history collections to form a collection of her own. This is not only a collection of categorical misfits and the offspring of odd couplings. Nordal’s collection is composed of specimens of “specimens,” and what the work displays are the effects of display itself.
1 “Nútímaafsteypur táknmynda,” Skírnir 176 (Winter 2003) 516. English translation of passage by Adalsteinn Ingólfsson.
2 “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Myths (Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press, 1985) 279.
3 Sveinsson, Einar Ólafur, The Folk-Stories of Iceland, rev. Einar G. Pétursson, trans. Benedikt Benedikz, ed. Anthony Faulkes (London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 2003), 296.
4 New York and London: Penguin Books (2003), 212.
5 Thanks to Adalsteinn Ingólfsson for explaining this to me. He also points out that there is an Icelandic expression, “Rare as a white raven” (“Sjaldséðir hvítir hrafnar”).
6 “The American Scholar,” Essays and Lectures (New York: The Library of America, 1983) 69.
7 “The American Scholar,” 55.
8 “Specimen,” The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed. 1989, OED Online, Oxford University Press, UMUC’s Information and Library Services. 26 July 2005 <http://www.umuc.edu/library>.
9 On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993), 151.