Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Mothers of Mount Esja, By Jessica Langley, 2008-2009, Iceland

I went to Iceland on my Fulbright grant to study the contemporary concept of landscape and how it is used in both industry and art. What I quickly discovered is that the landscape is a thread that runs through every fiber of Iceland’s being. Evidence of this was made clear upon first hearing a translation of the very well known Icelandic lullaby, Sofðu Unga Ástin Mín (Sleep My Young Love) by Jóhann Sigurjónsson (1880-1919). Another very apparent fact in Iceland is the landscape’s powerful presence. Mount Esja is a range that looms over Reykjavik and is also popular for day hikes. I hiked this mountain and saw views that look out over the vast sea in one direction, and back into the interior (a treacherous area, with very limited access) in another. Both dwarfed the city in size and power.

In collaboration with artist Benjamin Kinsley, my Fulbright project titled The Mothers of Mount Esja, involved working with six new Icelandic mothers singing Sofðu Unga Ástin Mín to their babies by the sea at the base of Mount Esja. When this haunting and highly descriptive lullaby is sung by the six mothers, the effect is both chilling and calming. Because the lullaby’s subject matter deals with the tragic decision to expose a newborn child to the harsh elements indigenous to the Icelandic landscape, we wanted to create a contemporary situation with these mothers in which safety and protection played against the tragic outcome described in the lyrics. Upon first arriving in Iceland, we noticed two striking things: there are a lot of young mothers, and babies are often left outside in the cold to sleep in their prams. These two cultural phenomena were part of the impetus behind this project.

In preparation for this project, we sought out moms who were willing to work with us under such harsh conditions as filming outside in the cold for several hours. We posted fliers and solicited help via the “Craigslist” of Iceland (www.barnaland.is, translation: babyland!). We received more volunteers than we expected and a lot of curious emails.

The mothers who worked with us were
(below, from left to right): Brynja Guðmundsdóttír, Magnea Brynja Magnúsdóttir, Sif Heiða Guðmundsdóttír, Hlín Pálsdóttir, Thórunn Sóley Björnsdóttir, and Sigríður Kristinsdóttír.


These women not only provided their amateur, yet beautiful voices for the video (and patiently endured the cold), they also provided us with much insight into the two cultural phenomena we were chronicling. For starters, the babies slept peacefully throughout the entire filming. This was in part due to being sung to constantly for several hours, but they were also very warm inside their prams as we were later informed. They were covered head-to-toe in the softest lamb’s wool sleeping bags, tucked cozily inside layer upon layer of woolen blankets. The outside layer of the pram protects babies from the wind and rain.

Mothers of Mt. Esja from Ben Kinsley on Vimeo

“Why are there so many young Icelandic mothers?” we wondered. There is not a simple answer, and it may have a lot to do with the support and encouragement families receive from the government to pass on their genes. Because Iceland’s population is so small, every new Icelander counts!

The Mothers of Mount Esja, or the Mommies Project, as I fondly refer to it, was an experience that went beyond the final outcome of the video. Everything the project entailed, from the research, to soliciting volunteers, to the video’s production, was a cultural learning experience. Meeting and working with the mothers provided a platform to share experiences. The lullaby served as a comfort and a warning during the year as well. Its soft, soothing sound balanced out the hiss of the harsh winds common in Iceland. The lyrics framed how I would view the landscape for the coming months; listening for the “fissures that groan in darkness” as I visited the glacier during the long, dark winter, or noticing the black sand that “scorches” the green landscape. As lonely and isolating as the lullaby (and landscape, for that matter) can seem, one does not have to search long to discover the warmth and sense of community that Icelanders share.

My Advice for Fulbright Applicants in the Arts:

The most important things to keep in mind while preparing and presenting representations of your work is that your slides should be clear, consistent, and professional. This ensures that anyone viewing your slides will fully understand what it is that they're looking at. Bad slides, whether they are blown-out or too dark will make or break an application. Take the time to prepare good slides. It’s worth it.

How to Prepare Clear Slides:
  • Avoid including unnecessary information (this is especially true for installations and sculpture - take a look at the room where the pieces are showcased and find what is extraneous).
  • Clearly and evenly light each piece (no glaring spotlights). Use a minimum of two lights pointed at 45 degree angles to each piece, parallel to the face of the camera.
  • Make sure the camera is in focus.
  • Use a tripod.
How to Prepare Consistent Slides:
  • Make sure the (color) temperature of the lights used to illuminate the works is the same for all pieces.
  • Check your slides on a well-calibrated computer screen (the color on laptop screens is incredibly unreliable).
  • Make sure the maximum pixel dimension is the same for all of your slides.
How to Prepare Professional Slides:
  • Set up a designated slide shooting area (either a blank, well-lit wall, or a large empty room).
  • Rent or borrow professional tungsten lights from a photo shop or studio.
  • Rent or borrow a professional SLR camera to take your slides. The photos will contain more information and allow you to obtain very nice high resolution images if you ever want or need to print them. Starting with high resolution images, and then reducing the size of the file later, will assure that you maintain high quality images.
  • Bracket your photos to assure the best exposure. There is nothing worse than whites that are blown-out, or shadows that show pixels.
  • There is always the option of hiring a professional photographer, but make sure they have experience shooting art works. They will know the process, but you must be there to manage all the details and to make sure that the work is handled carefully.
  • Always look at your work either on a projector or another computer. This will give you the opportunity to make corrections, if needed.
I hope this advice helps. Always remember to back up your work! If you keep one giant file containing your Fulbright project on your desktop, it will inevitably be deleted. Burn a disc or back up your work on an external hard drive periodically. Good luck!

Top photo: Jessica Langley, 2008-2009, Iceland (right, in red hat) with artist Benjamin Kinsley (left, in brown and green sweater), working with Icelandic mothers on The Mothers of Mount Esja project

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