Without Destination - Curatorial text

20 January 2011

Welcome to Without Destination!

Presented here are new and recent works by local and international artists that illuminate our concepts of travel and place, in both the geographical and imaginative senses. Each work engages these concepts in its own terms, using methods that range from objective documentation to interpretations of personal experience, though it is not always easy to distinguish between the two. Museum visitors may view each work either as a stop on their own journey from place to place or as someone else’s description of a far-off locale; this layering complements the exhibition theme, the factors shaping the interplay between travellers and the environment.
The inspiration for Without Destination is the steadily-increasing flow of domestic and foreign tourists through Iceland, a volume that forces some perennial questions about the nature of tourism. What draws us to exotic places, up mountains and over water? How do travellers perceive their surroundings? How does experience jibe with expectation? Many contemporary artists and researchers have studied the relationship between man and the landscape in travel, bringing to light diverse factors impinging on the travel experience. Without Destination offers two ways to approach this body of work, through the present winter-spring exhibition and through a conference slated for the first week of February, dedicated to nature-based tourism.

The exhibition at Hafnarhús is divided into four parts: WANDERLUST focuses on travellers and travel; PLACE examines the relationship between the traveller and the environment; TRAVELOGUE presents diverse individual experiences in narrative form; and TRAIL guides the viewer from place to place within the museum. Many of these works came into being through travel in Iceland, and it is remarkable how differently individual artists view the same places. This diversity clearly demonstrates that places are no less states of mind than geographical coordinates or locales. This raises questions about how the image of Iceland promoted by the travel industry relates to the actual experience of travelling here. Can we think of Iceland as something more than a destination?

Wanderlust (Gallery A)
The trip, the traveller, and wanderlust are the themes of the works on display here. What does travel involve? On a trip, one is always either choosing a route or en route. What do we take from the experience? Indulging in dreams of travel to exotic places is taken for granted in modern life and it is now comparatively easy to carry out those dreams. But what gives rise to our desire? Perhaps the closest analogy is the idea of freedom, that we are all free to go somewhere far from the daily grind. All roads lie open to us; we can freely quench our thirst for new surroundings. Does wanderlust leave some people cold?  Most of us seem to dream of travel, but some are content to travel only in their minds, “to stay still yet be underway,” as poet Jónas Hallgrímsson put it, reminding us that we can travel without stirring a foot and that thoughts are the one thing we carry wherever we go.
Place (Galleries B and C)
The artists presented in this space are exploring various ties to places near and far in time as well as space. These works reflect ideas of places, destinations, and non-places, both geographical and intangible. They focus on the dynamic intimate dialogue that arises from being in an exotic locale and shapes our sense of place. Many of these works pertain to Iceland, and demonstrate the many angles, both familiar and bewildering, from which the same place may be viewed. Thus, in depicting a foreign experience, these works may give the viewer a foreign experience of the here and now. They convey an idea of how a nondescript area becomes a place, and suggest that someone must experience and portray a place before we can recognize it as such: Can we imagine a place before it has become someone’s memory? Can person and place be independent of each other?

Travelogue  (Gallery B Black Box)
The American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson said that life is a journey, not a destination. The idea that the paths to our goals are more important that reaching them has found expression in various media. The tale of a journey is a classic genre in literature and cinema, carrying a transposed meaning of increased knowledge and maturity. Travelogues unfold through a search for a destination or goal that later turns out not to matter much. In this full-day’s program of travelogues, artists present a wide range of journeys. Most of the works are set in Iceland and sometimes Iceland itself is the subject. Each artist starts out with a different set of assumptions and as the interaction and interplay between the traveller and the environment progresses, individual experience brushes up against cliché. As the stories progress, the viewer’s own past experience and sense of place get drawn into the narrative.

The artists’ portrayals of their experiences of travel and place encourage visitors to contemplate their own process of discovery within the museum. The question recurs throughout the exhibition: How is absorbing a place while travelling different from seeing an art exhibition? Institut für Raumexperimente [The Institute for Spatial Experiment], directed by artist Ólafur Elíasson, is an educational research facility at the Berlin University of the Arts. Attendees conduct experiments on spatial relations in buildings, urban environments, and landscapes. In summer 2010 a group from the institute went hiking with guide Ósk Vilhjálmsdóttir in the Icelandic interior. The upshot of that experience may be seen here in the form of placards posted around the museum. Museum guests are encouraged to take a specially-made map of Hafnarhús, showing the locations of the posters, and make their own expedition.

Without Destination focuses on our common desire to travel and experience new places. It appeals to our desire to get out of familiar surroundings, see and try out something else, and return the richer for the experience. Simultaneously it offers reasons why others are willing to go to such lengths for a taste of places that are old hat to locals. Tourism commodifies destinations for profit. That process takes little note of the complex and variable emotional process on which the industry is based. In 2008 tourist volume in Iceland reached an historical high, of more than half a million visitors to the country. The next projected  landmark is a million visitors by 2016. Studies show that the chance to commune with unspoiled nature and the adventure entailed therein is presently Iceland’s main draw as a tourist destination. In view of annually increasing tourist numbers one may question whether it is realistic to bank on this image or—more pointedly—whether it is realistic in general to bank on a cut-and-dried image? Should the travel industry strive to confirm tourists’ assumptions or might it be more salutary to allow leeway for serendipity?

The travel industry is transforming Iceland. In her book On the Beaten Track, Lucy R. Lippard, one of the February conference’s key-note speakers, debates whether sustainability and tourism may be irreconcilable concepts, given the significant and unavoidable ways in which tourism alters places. Yet even so, the next question has to be whether it isn’t worth trying to rope the two together anyway. It is up to Icelanders to ensure that the necessary changes occur that will enable us to conduct tourism in the long term, and allow the country to sustain high-volume traffic without diminishing its appeal or leaving the inhabitants feeling like bit-players in someone else’s destination. Minister of Industry Katrín Júlíusdóttir recently stated in a public forum abroad that Iceland was the land of longing. Was she perhaps stumbling upon a solution? Instead of luring people with prefabricated, precarious notions, perhaps it would be more honest to say that Iceland offers leeway to travel without a fixed destination. After all, no matter where the traveller goes, the trip will always lead to the same point, a clearer sense of self.




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