Interview with Steina Vasulka Part I
“Being an Icelander…an incurable disease”:
Christian Schoen: Steina, you were born in Iceland. You have lived in Prague and New York. You have spent a lot of time in New York and many other places of the world. Now you are living in Santa Fé. Is Iceland still your homeland?
Steina Vasulka: I fled out of Iceland. I felt everything was too small and I was fed up with this nepotism. I ran fairly out of the country when I was seventeen years old. I dropped out of school and left everything behind. First I went to Denmark and then to Germany before I landed a grant in Czechoslovakia, which meant that I didn’t have to worry about finances. But over the years, I recognized how much of an Icelander I am and how strong those roots are. You know, you meet somebody from Düsseldorf or Kiel and you ask them how it was to grow up there. “Oh, it was just like normal,” they would reply. But if you talk to Icelanders they would say: “Growing up in Iceland is, as a whole, a very intense experience…and something extraordinary.” So it dawned on me slowly that being an Icelander is an incurable disease. It is their whole orientation, their attitude towards nature, to inclemency of the weather, and very deep friendships. And of course the language is very special. It is a carrier of culture as well as being a medium of communication.
CS: So it was always Iceland that influenced you?
SV: Yes. In my work and in my life. I have never felt at home. A large portion of my life I have lived in the United States, much larger than anywhere else. I have never felt like an American.
CS: Has Iceland changed in the past decades from your point of view?
SV: The Iceland that I come to now is very different from the one I left. There has been a very remarkable renaissance here, especially in art and culture. Well, as you see in most other places, there is a decline. And this is different here: I come home, I hear of new artists, of new musicians, that they have opened up cultural places all over the country. When I left Iceland there was basically no culture outside Reykjavík. The intensity of the activities and the places to show and everything is magnificent. So when I come back now, I am coming to a different country. But one that pleases me…I am always very pleased when I come back here. But I am not a connoisseur of the visual arts, though I am called a visual artist. So I could hardly judge the change in the field of the Icelandic visual arts scene.
CS: When I came here, I was expecting more artists working in the field of new media. I was expecting that the fact of geographical isolation would have caused intensive work with the computer, the internet and video. But in fact it almost doesn’t exist.
SV: It does astonish me, too. I came here several times to school in order to teach. And when I started, it was kind of shocking to have to start from the very beginning. But the few who could be called media artists do very well here—Finnbogi Pétursson, for example; he is of world class.
CS: But back to how Iceland has influenced your work. You represented Iceland at the Venice Biennale in 1997. Was “being selected as a representative of Iceland” an issue for you?
SV: Yes, of course. I took all the images from Iceland. I specifically went on a shooting trip to Iceland in the spring because I was going to be in the Biennale and I did not want to present some other works. But I never thought of clichés—that has never been an issue. So definitely, it was a topic. Although nobody in Iceland knew me, I thought I could represent Iceland—again, it was the idea to be Icelandic. But I felt this kind of resentment that I was a foreigner, an outsider.
CS: After this Biennale, Iceland will present their artists in a different location. The pavilion, built by the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto and was used in the past, belongs to the Finnish government and they will use it in the future for their purpose. What do you think about this prospect?
SV: At first I have to say that I think every Icelander appreciated being alone, being the only representative. Other pavilions of other nations often share—the space and the attention. But I was not very impressed by the pavilion itself. I mean, it was built by a very famous architect who has done marvelous things. But there was nothing remarkable about this building—as far as I remember. I don’t know the history, but I assume that it was not planned for eternity…But I am afraid that the Icelanders will try to build the biggest pavilion ever, and they will send a hundred people there…
Reykjavík, August 16, 2005
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