Australia & Iceland: countries with extreme rural & remote environments, at opposite ends of the earth; both have stories of extinction, survival & adaptation at their heart.
So much of my art over the past two decades has been inspired or informed by the environment around me and my working knowledge of regional and rural Australia. This was the starting point for Eye of the Corvus. When the opportunity arose to do an artist residency in Iceland in 2019, it made complete sense to make this part of the project given how many similarities and differences there are between Australia and Iceland.
Australia’s land mass is 7.692 million square kilometres
Population – 24.6 million
11th most urbanised OECD country
The Australian continent is the oldest, driest (not including Antarctica), flattest of any continent. It has the most erratic climate. Poor soils and an arid and unpredictable climate have seen the plants, animals and people evolve and adapt in unique ways.
We’ve historically, both pre-colonial and post, been very close to the land although not always treating it with respect. There’s been much interest in recent years of how Aboriginal people managed the land, intuitively and systemically. Books by Bill Gammage and Bruce Pascoe have put the spotlight on ancient ‘farming’ practices more atuned to the harsh environment of Australia, than the European practices of the white settlers.
What we have here today, in light of climate change, or an increasingly variable climate, is a damaged environment. Australia’s ability to continue producing food and supporting biodiversity – many species already threatened or extinct – is under severe threat from drought, bushfires, invasive pest species, loss of top soil, water, and habitat.
Practices are slowly changing, but it’s too slow. In just over two centuries, we’ve almost irreversibly altered the country. While we experience yet another of the worst droughts in living memory, our politicians chose to ignore the bigger picture.
The geographic scope for Eye of the Corvus in Australia is Central and Western New South Wales, with Dubbo as my base. This is my homeground. I’ve lived, worked and travelled this part of Australia for most of my life. Using the imagery of Dorothea Mackellar’s My Country as directive cues, I’ll be aiming to capture the landscapes of this region in its many guises.
Iceland’s land mass is 103,000 square kilometres
Iceland population – 338, 339
8th most urbanised OECD country
Formed from volcanic eruptions on the Mid-Atlantic ridge, separating the Eurasia and the American systems, Iceland is a land of volcanoes, earthquakes, and ice – often described as an arctic desert. The climate is subpolar oceanic, meaning cold winters and cool summers.
The landscape is shaped by nature’s forces, and ranges from deep fjords to vast volcanic deserts, black sand beaches, snow-capped mountains, glaciers, geysers and waterfalls.
Iceland has a settled history much younger than Australia’s ancient habitation, the colonisation of the country occured in the 9th century, when the country was settled by Irish monks. They were followed by Vikings lead by Ingólfur Arnarson, who built the first permanent Norse settlement near Reykjavík in 874.
The years that followed the settlement of Iceland are described in the famous Sagas, mostly written around the 13th century. What probably hasn’t been well documented in the centuries since is that it’s believed 25-40% of the country was covered in birch woodlands. The Vikings made short work of the trees, soon creating a landscape that has become iconic for it’s austere, bare vistas. Like Australia though, Iceland suffers severe weather conditions at times, including sand storms, and soil erosion making farming a difficult task. It’s basically a ‘wet’ desert.
With climate change having direct impacts on the country today, reforestation is being seen as one of the ways to meet climate targets. Like changing land management practices in Australia, it appears the job of reforestation is a slow business.
I’m looking forward to exploring the Icelandic landscape, drawing on the Sagas and other literary pastoral references to direct my work. I’ve been reading Jónas Hallgrímsson poems, such as Iceland, to provide some of the visual cues. Most of my work will be centred on the area around Skagaströnd, on the north coast of Iceland, where I’ll be based for the two months of my artist residency.
Ninety-four percent of Icelanders live in cities or towns – the eighth most urbanised country in the world, and the second most urbanised of the OECD countries. Australia is the 11th most urbanised of the OECD countries with 90% of our population living in urban areas and mostly on our coastlines.
Given these high levels of urbanisation, and the subsequent disconnect with the environment, it raises the question of whether anyone really cares about what’s happening outside the city limits – beyond political point-scoring, keyboard advocacy or dinner party conversation. Despite tourism and primary production industries underpinning both economies, when you’re not personally experiencing drought, heat waves, dust or sand storms, it’s an abstract notion.