When East was West, and North was South
“It’s human nature to want to hold onto the things that are dear to us” says the curatorial statement for the exhibition Status Check curated by Kristína Aðalsteinsdóttir & Þorvaldur Sigurbjörn Helgason. The interdisciplinary exhibition at Gerðarsafn Kópavogur Art Museum invited artists and writers to explore their personal, subjective experience of the present, consciously abandoning the concept of time as a linear concept. Among those involved was a writer who addresses climate change: Jakub Stachowiak wrote a poem entitled Climate Emergency. It describes the danger of turning a blind eye to something that is unstoppable:
„Animals kiss sunless greenery
Lend it their light
Through the roots
And out the four corners
Of the world
Stuck in our own beforetimeswhining
Stuck in our own butwhatifwading
We see nothing
We hear nothing
Nothing nothing nix”
Based on my experience during my secondment in Iceland I would like to discuss in the blog our vulnerability as human beings, as well as our relationship and impact towards the non-human, re-positing ourselves within a non-linear time/space understanding.
My friend Lydia and I both received a seasickness pill when we were handed our whale watching tickets in Reykjavik. Arriving on the boat, we immediately put on the wind and waterproof full body suits – just in case. I was a little skeptical about the whole thing. As our boat trip guide, Miquel Pons, said “Whales are free animals” and there are no guarantees of seeing them. But my doubts vanished into thin air when we saw three humpback whales, which alternately swam very close to the boat and elegantly appeared on the surface briefly and disappeared again waving their fins. Surprised and delighted by this experience we sailed back not noticing that there was some swell, as I was so deep in my thoughts about these beautiful animals.
We got some information about the complex communication of whales. Miquel called them “Love songs”, but in fact it is not known exactly whether the songs they utter are for mating purposes or have some other intent. However, it was observed that different songs are sung in different geographical regions. Apparently, whales, like humans, have their own dialects and languages - depending on the region. They learn from each other and carry on these “love songs”. Australian researchers have noticed a fixed direction of travel – with few exceptions – from west to east. Hence songs that were observed on the Australian coast were later discovered in the regions further east such as New Caledonia, Tonga, American Samoa or the Cook Islands. It is a puzzling phenomenon how this occurs; it is unknown whether a small group of whales migrates on and teaches other colonies, or whether other populations along the way learn from them.
How is it that these highly intelligent animals, obviously possessing very sophisticated navigation and communication systems, are stranded on the coast and perish en masse? We know that the effects of human behavior, such as noise and water pollution, does effect whales. Moreover, we have come to learn that changes in the earth’s magnetic field also have an impact. In anatomical studies, scientists found out different species of whales have small amounts of magnetic material in their brains. Thus, they can perceive the earth’s magnetic field and use it to orientate themselves in the oceans. During high levels of solar activity, which affects the Earth’s magnetic field, whales find themselves lost in the North Sea.
Even though Earth’s magnetic field affects life on the planet, it is difficult to explore such an unpredictable phenomenon. However, we have witnessed drastic changes taking place in recent decades. This affects navigational instruments, such as the ones on airplanes, causing an effect called variation. Variation describes the deviation between the geographic and magnetic north. With larger aircraft, the deviation is automatically programmed so that the pilots receive the correct data for their routes. However, on smaller aircraft, pilots must calculate this annual adjustment themselves and new maps are issued for each year. The above examples show that earth’s magnetic field shift – impacts both whales and humans. Scientists are becoming increasingly nervous because variations are now taking place at a heightened rate of speed making the future unpredictable. This leads me to ask, are we facing a pole reversal soon, or will it be a long time coming? In the past one million years, four pole shifts have occurred. From a human perspective, it is difficult to imagine that there was a time when east was west, and north was south. This phenomenon can best be observed on trees and lava, as it records the prevailing geomagnetism at time of the eruption.
The Icelandic artist Anna Rún Tryggvadóttir was guided by a geophysicist to a place where she could find different stones from different geological periods. These are documents of a time when the geomagnetic fields were different from how they are today. She arranged the found objects in an installation entitled Transmission and fixed a compass needle above to indicate the different magnetism of the stones.
One of the stones was collected on the mountain Skálafell in the highland area called Hellisheiði aged 0.8 million years, the compass needle pointed north. Another one was taken from the mouth of a river on the outskirts of Reykjavík and is about 2 million years old, the compass needle directed south. The third stone originated from the mountain Skálamælifell, located not far from the volcano Fagradalsfjall that erupted last year and is 92,000 years old. This rock documented a magnetic anomaly when the magnetic poles were around the Earth’s equator because the needle pointed west. The needle pointed in this case west.
Anna Rún Tryggvadóttir’s work explores performativity because she highlights the interaction between the elements and their mutual impact. She questions agencies switching between the role of the observer, capturing moments of transition, or inducing processes. Watercolor paintings accompanied her installation Nonsystematic Mapping. The colors, embodying minerals and entailing electromagnetic polarity, took shape by gravitation. It seems like an invitation to step out of our own active role. A modest gesture of admitting the subordination of the human being to nature.
Within the discussion about the geomagnetic shift of the poles, the lack of clarity regarding the mutual influence remains: Is the increased speed of the polar shift a consequence of global warming, such as the melting of glaciers? Or is it exactly the other way around? Is it the change in geomagnetic fields that has an impact on climate conditions? In the cycle of nature, movement and transformation dictate the rules. It may be fatal from a human perspective when agricultural conditions need to be adapted to the new climatic conditions and people are forced to move away because the place where they live is no longer habitable.
Of course, there are aspects within the climate change that function independently from human influence. However, this is not an excuse for environmental pollution and a ruthless exploitation of resources. A radical rethinking is required as described in Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything. Capitalism vs. The Climate (2014). It demands an adjustment of market conditions and more social control, which not only should, but must curb the greed for more profit and growth. If this does not happen, according to Klein, there is a risk of climate-related disasters under which the system would collapse anyway. “To arrive at that dystopia, all we need to do is keep barreling down the road we are on. The only remaining variable is whether some countervailing power will emerge to block the road, and simultaneously clear some alternate pathways to destinations that are safer. If that happens, well, it changes everything.”
 Walltext by Kristína Aðalsteinsdóttir (trans. Larissa Kyzer) from the exhibition “Status Check: A Flat-Pack IKEA Time Capsule” (02.04. – 29.05.2022) at Gerðarsafn Kópavogur Art Museum.
 Sarah Zielinski, Humpback Whale Songs Spread From West to East, in Smithsonian Magazine, accessed 14.04.2022, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/humpback-whale-songs-spread-from-west-to-east-176855840/.
 Roland Knauer, Sonnenstürme verwirren Wale, in Der Tagesspiegel, 11.09.2017, accessed 14.04.2022, https://www.tagesspiegel.de/wissen/magnetsinn-sonnenstuerme-verwirren-wale/20311756.html.
 Definition Variation (Navigation), accessed 14.04.2022, https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Variation_(Navigation).
 The Nordic House on the exhibition Time Matter Remains by Anna Rún Tryggvadóttir, accessed 14.04.2022 https://exhibitions.nordichouse.is/exhibitions/time-matter-remains-trouble/artists/anna-run-tryggvadottir.
 Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything (New York: Simon & Schuster, e-book, 2014), p. 587.