Finding Place in Abandoned Place: Tinna Gunnarsdóttir’s Artistic Exploration of Héðinsfjörður, Iceland

Una Thorlaksdottir, 2021

Tinna Gunnarsdóttir, ”Brook Cup”.

Far up north in Iceland is Héðinsfjörður, a fjord that has been uninhabited for decades. Until recently it required quite an effort to visit this place, as the fjord is closed off by steep mountains. To reach it, you would follow old hiking routes over the mountain. A few years ago, the fjord became more accessible when a road was built between the neighboring fjords, consisting of tunnels through the mountains on each side of Héðinsfjörður and a road by its shore. I remember the first time I drove into the fjord, when the tunnels had just opened. Instead of driving directly through the fjord, I felt the need to pull over and get out of the car. I was there all by myself and even though I just looked around, I kind of felt as if I were breaking the silence that had covered the fjord before I arrived.

At an exhibition in the Nordic House in Reykjavík this summer, three video installations that explore Héðinsfjörður from different perspectives have been on display. Artist and designer Tinna Gunnarsdóttir purchased an abandoned farmland in Héðinsfjörður some years ago. Since then, she has been on an explorative journey to understand and find her place in the fjord. This journey has turned into an art research project that goes by the title “Touching Landscape”. To touch the relatively untouched landscape of Héðinsfjörður is precisely what Tinna attempts to do, although delicately and sometimes even metaphorically. The aim of her project is to establish a connection between humans and wilderness, hoping to engender environmental awareness. I met up with Tinna to discuss her art and her thoughts on nature on an afternoon in Reykjavík in early July.

Through the lens of a camera, Tinna’s video installations touch on three coexisting realities in Héðinsfjörður. The video “Above” is, as the name suggests, filmed from above and is presented on a large screen, which lies flat on the floor of the exhibition space. In a mode reminiscent of aerial photos used for maps, Tinna plays with how landscape turns unfamiliar to the human eye by looking at it from a different angle. Colours look different, the surface flattens out, rivers seem to disappear temporarily as vegetation or gravel covers their course and the only ditch in the fjord suddenly looks like a scar in the landscape. At the end of the video one can spot a car, probably with the artist standing nearby. From this perspective, the human subject is small.

Water is the focus of the video “In between ”. It is filmed during a period of annual spring thaw resulting from the snow and ice melting up in the mountains. Those floods are in Icelandic called vorleysingar, which translates to “spring release”. I sense a fabric-like quality in the water as I observe its large projection on the concrete wall of the exhibition space. Situated elsewhere in time and space, I observe the underwater world of the fish that dwells in the river. Just above the surface I see how vegetation is submerged in water and a delicate bog star appears in the foreground, shooting up through the plant debris from last year. For an Icelander, the resilience of this seemingly lonely flower creates connotations to Iceland’s national anthem’s “eternal little flower”. Through this video, we get to reflect on things in their individuality but also how everything in the natural world is interconnected. The water is constantly moving and through the deathbed of last year’s vegetation grows new life. Tinna tells me that this video is inspired by how anthropologist Tom Ingold describes landscape in terms of temporality:

 “Imagine a film of the landscape, shot over years, centuries, even millennia. Slightly speeded up, plants appear to engage in very animal-like movements, trees flex their limbs without any prompting from the winds. Speed up rather more, glaciers flow like rivers and even the earth begins to move. At yet greater speeds solid rock bends, buckles and flows like molten metal. The world itself begins to breathe.” (From Tom Ingold’s 1993 article “The Temporality of the Landscape”.

 The third video, “Beat”, goes even further along this line of thinking. This work is presented on a small screen placed on one side of a column in the space. The video zooms into footage from “In between” and everything runs together into a blurred image that transforms the figurative and familiar. Everything is moving and yet this everything seems to be one. Tinna is attempting to capture the rhythm in nature, the underlying beat that keeps the world going.

The philosopher Yuriko Saito writes in her influential paper “Appreciating Nature on its own Terms” that to appreciate nature we ought to listen to “its own story” and recognize its reality as distinct from ours. With our sympathetic imagination, sometimes guided by ecology, geology, mythology or folklore we should try to make sense of the natural phenomena we experience. Everything starts with the sensuous surface, how we perceive things, but our experience shouldn’t end there if we are to understand nature on its own terms. To be respectful towards nature we should lend our ears to the stories nature may be telling through its different ways of appearing.

Tinna Gunnarsdóttir, ”Brook Cup”

Tinna’s videos are consistent with Saito’s way of thinking about nature. Her representations of Héðinsfjörður are far from the postcard-like renderings we are so familiar with from mountainous areas. Through her work, Tinna guides us into an imaginative experience of the different stories and realities we can find in this place, seeking an understanding on multiple levels. I find her analogy between time, movement and space interesting, and her videos are almost like containers of time, to borrow an expression used in a different context by a friend. Icelandic landscape is spacious and open, with its far-stretching views and lack of trees. Some have even described an experience of nothingness in the Icelandic highlands, as if situated nowhere at all. But even if it can, at first, feel as if time is standing still in the wild, change is occurring every single moment. With its rich flora and harmonious circle of life and seasons, Tinna describes to me what she senses to be a state of balance in Héðinsfjörður. Everything is somehow just as it should be.

Is it possible to sense a belonging in such a place, where everything seems so self-sufficient? As I described in the beginning, the visitor might feel that she is interrupting something as she passes by. Should we just look around and listen and just leave nature be? Possibly from far away, as in the exhibition space in Reykjavík? In this context, Tinna is exploring implications of her belief that humans are inseparable from nature. During our discussion, Tinna tells me how an embodied understanding of the landscape in Héðinsfjörður has emerged simply as she has moved around in it on foot. Her sense for the place and its most subtle details has grown as she has physically become one with the landscape.

A connection to a place can be formed through our bodies as they are situated and moving around within it. In an earlier project in Héðinsfjörður, Tinna has as a product designer speculated on further possibilities of enriching the experience of dwelling in the wild. Her suggestion is that material things can function as a medium in the connection between our bodies and earth. Following a suggestion from Heidegger that places of dwelling are “created around things”, Tinna’s ideas resulted in three kinds of objects that the traveler can find when she orients in the landscape of Héðinsfjörður. A pair of “River-Sticks”, a “Brook-Cup” and a “Centre-Pin”.

The two River-Sticks are to be placed by a riverbank close to the highway to indicate a good place to cross the river. Implicitly, Tinna is directing the traveler into her own farmland which is nested deeper inside the valley. Along the way, the traveler might stumble upon the Brook-Cup by a small creek with clear mountain water. The silver material of the cup beautifully reflects its surroundings and from it, the wanderer can serve herself some fresh water that is running through her surroundings. The last object, Centre-Pin, is placed on the overgrown ruins of the abandoned farm of Möðruvellir and is supposed to mark a destination as well as, in a sense, a new beginning. The idea is that the pin can be taken as an invitation by the passer-by to briefly dwell in this historical place of dwelling and for Tinna, too, the pin marks a place she revisits every time she is in Héðinsfjörður. As the pin is made from wood it will eventually deteriorate and disappear into the landscape, just as the previous settlement gradually is.

Tinna Gunnarsdóttir, ”Centre Pin”

Reading about people and events from Héðinsfjörður’s past is a further way to acquire a deeper understanding of the place. From Héðinsfjörður there are, for instance, accounts of snow avalanches that tell us how it was to dwell in a place with harsh winters, there is the account of an airplane crash in the mountains, and then there are simply census records from the past that listed people living in the farms that are now abandoned since long ago. The names of sites in the landscape also tell a story, but so do the sheep roads in the mountain made by the sheep that dwell in the fjord each summer. By contemplating on those stories and reading the landscape, perhaps Tinna is bringing forth memories that in some ways are embedded within the place. The past gets juxtaposed to the present and enhances the experience of this abandoned place, which is, in fact, not that abandoned anymore.

Tinna’s website:

More about ”River-stick”, ”Brook-cup” and ”Centre-pin” can be found here: