One of the best things about doing an artist residency is the opportunity to take time out to reflect as well as the chance to make new work. Another great benefit is to connect with an unfamiliar landscape, to learn about a place and it’s people. It is a rich experience and one I value greatly as an opportunity to grow and challenge the status quo of my day-to-day life.

Runes made from stone from Govnik beach and carved by shells, also from Govnik beach.
Runes made from stone from Govnik beach and carved by shells, also from Govnik beach.

My intention on this journey to the Nordic lands was to explore links to ancestors, migration and connections to the ‘old country’. At the beginning of the journey, I discussed these interests in a post about the Waters of the Past project. When I wrote this post, I was full of anticipation for The Clipperton Project expedition to the Faroe Islands and the SIM Residency in Iceland.

To gain a fuller understanding of ancestors is not just about a linear journey of going back through times and dates in the family tree. It is also about seeking out the possibilities of existing cultural connections – the potential of ‘familiars’. Finding cultural context is a challenge for people of migrant descent. This is because for many coming to the new country meant marrying other migrants from other lands. With each generation the story become more diverse, diluted and disjointed. For example, my family heritage is Norwegian, English, German and Irish. This cultural mix is apparently is quite common for people of 3rd and 4th generation migrant backgrounds in South-East Queensland. Overall I know very little about any of my ancestors, except what towns they immigrated from.

I know the least about the Norwegian ancestor whose surname I bear – Anton Benson. In an earlier post about Anton I commented that:

Like many of migrant heritage, my stories have been lost on the waves – our family have not been able to learn much more about Anton before he came to Australia. I wonder if these fragmented stories could be pieced together to create new narratives that traverse time and space?

Over the years, I have been very privileged to have spent a considerable amount of time around Indigenous people in Australia and New Zealand. They have been my friends, teachers and collaborators. This experience has not only given me a rich understanding of some First Nations cultures, it has also provided a pathway to consider where I ‘stand’ in relation to place, belonging and identity.

When tracing back the family tree for the migrant, it is not so simple to find cultural contexts according to the place of departure. For example, one issue for people with ancestry from Britain and Ireland is that over the centuries these countries were invaded by Romans, Spanish, Vikings, Germans and French – the list goes on. On my maternal side, my family have been traced back to the Dooms Day book, and apparently this branch of the family originally came from France.

It is not clear whether Anton hails from Viking heritage or from the Sami (Norway and northern Scandinavia’s Indigenous Peoples). Without a pathway to trace back the generations it is purely a speculative exercise. It certainly has been a conversation had around the family dinner table at different times.

Anton and Johanna Carolina, date and place unknown
Anton and Johanna Carolina, date and place unknown

What I struggle with a lot is that with my migrant heritage often comes an assumption of a ‘western’ identity. But what does that mean exactly? I don’t really identify with the modes of thought that encumber western knowledge. For example, I struggle with how the arts and sciences are seen as separate and discrete practices and that within those frames are further modes of categorisation that create further specificity of thought and practice. Also the western concept of time as linear is also something I am challenged by as it creates a singular view of history, which is extremely problematic.

The world is not really like that at all. I leant from a young age from my Tiwi friends at school that land, religion, language and culture are all connected. This way of understanding the world triggered in me an interest in learning more about pre-Christian European religions as they have stronger connection to the earth. I think that the resurgence of interest in Paganism in contemporary Europe and further afield is an attempt to reconnect with a more holistic way of ‘being’ in the world.

To digress, many years ago, I was reading a lot of literary theory and was quite fascinated by the Möbius Strip – a form like a figure eight with a twist – so the outside becomes the inside and vice versa. It was an appropriate motif for a lot of the reading I was doing on the body, especially Elizabeth Grosz’s book Volatile Bodies: Towards a Corporeal Feminism. It was around the same time I performed Scalpland, a work which linked notions of the feminised body with the environment and suburban identity. It is a work which continues to resonate for me on so many levels.

In my recent work from the Faroe Islands,  (see Traces in the Landscape, More Traces in the Landscape and Making the Mark), I used Runic inscriptions to connect ideas of place with the invisibility of the Viking history. This was also a personal connection, not a claiming of Viking heritage, rather a reflection of the fact I was reading the runes on a daily basis and it was one of the few routines I had continued in the Faroes.

I guess one of the concerns regarding using the Runic symbols is the appropriation of these symbols and whether or not this form of cultural referencing is ethical; given my tenuous connection to my Nordic and Germanic ancestors. It is certainly not ok to appropriate symbols and imagery from other cultures, most significantly First Nation cultures, where the lines, dots and marks map out country and identify a person’s cultural and spiritual connection to that place. For example, the recent essay How Aborigines Invented the Idea of Object-Oriented Ontology by Dylan Rainforth thoughtfully deals with some of the core issues around objects in collections and their importance to the community.

In some ways the use of the Runes calls to my childhood and a number of well-loved stories which have Runic inscriptions as part of the plot- Journey to the Center of the Earth and the Lord of the Rings. As a child I loved to decipher code and this ancient language intrigued me greatly.

Recently I met a young woman in Reykjavik, Hildur, who had some beautiful simple line tattoos on her arms. She told me they were inspired by Ötzi the Iceman; the 5300 year old mummified body found in the Italian Alps. She spoke of how she responded to the simplicity of the lines and how they seemed more organic and connected to the earth.

Our conversation still plays in my head, perhaps it is as uncomplicated as that; that this journey seeking the ancestral realm is a quest to find connections to something more organic. And then there is always the ocean…

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