In Charlotta María Hauksdóttir’s work, viewers are introduced to a world rich in physical and psychological intervention. Hauksdóttir takes the landscape of her native Iceland and cuts, composites, and layers memory and experience into the frame.
Starting from a personal reflection on the landscapes she grew up around, the project has evolved to explore the relationship between humans and the environment. Hauksdóttir’s photographs show how we both reconstruct and distort memories. These large-scale landscapes are both seductive and subtly alarmist, showing both the wonders of the natural world and hinting at the harm that our presence and actions brings.
In this interview with Magali Duzant for LensCulture, she speaks about finding a new path in her working methods, the different phases of the project and her need as an artist to create new perspectives with her work.
Magali Duzant: You are an Icelandic artist based in California. Can you begin by introducing A Sense of Place?
Charlotta María Hauksdóttir: This specific project and phase of landscape work has been ongoing for 18 years now with other projects in between. It has taken on a life of its own. In 2016, I wanted to make more landscape work. I wanted to fragment the landscape and had been compositing it within images. I started doing these fingerprint patterns, dispersed through the image. This was done in an intentional way, even if it’s not explicit for the viewer.
I abstracted the patterns and wanted to expand on that, so I started cutting the photographs instead of just the patterns. I began to glue them back onto other photographs and that evolved into these topographic images. I work with time in all of my projects. I like the added elements and change it brings. Through that, I realized that there was more behind it because I was effectively destroying the photographs of the landscape. I started thinking more about the environment, global warming, and the meaning underlying these gestures.
MD: The fingerprint patterns feel very elemental and amorphous. Where did they come from?
CH: I went into the studio, sat down, and thought: “why and how do I want to do this?” I didn’t want to do a random fragmentation of the landscape, I wanted it to mean something. I figured that the fingerprint pattern is so organic. The other landscape work I have made in the past has always been about the physical impact it has on us, on the viewer. It started as a mindscape and then became more of a physical presence in the work.
I started working at a large scale; it was a natural progression that there would be a human presence in the work. In the beginning, it was very literal, round fingerprints, but I didn’t want it to become too obvious so I started abstracting it more. It wasn’t important that people knew it was a fingerprint at first sight. It speaks to our impact on nature and nature’s impact on us. Since I started working with this fingerprint pattern, I see that it is in everything around us. In Iceland there were rocks with these patterns in them. It’s amazing how visible they are in nature.
MD: Artists often build up and experiment towards a method of working. Was this a project that developed over time, through play, or did you know exactly what you wanted the imagery to look like from the start?
CH: Actually, that was interesting because often that is the case; usually all of my projects start as an image in my head and then I just make them. When I start thinking about the work I see where it comes from, and in this work too it’s revealing itself more and more. The way I work now is with more intention. In the other projects, it used to be just a visual image and I’d say, “oh this is where this comes from and this is why I did that,” but now I work with more of a focus. It definitely is interesting—people talk about ‘navel-gazing’ artists but it does come from somewhere. That’s how it is; what you choose to photograph or create and how you choose to work with it, comes from inside. This is probably the first big project that has evolved like this, over time, and because of that it has become a bigger project.
MD: The layering you incorporate, the process of cutting and reconstructing, speaks to the passage of time and how we build memories. Can you speak about the place of time and memory in the work, especially as someone who has been away from the place they are photographing?
CH: That is the reason I started photographing in Iceland. I couldn’t wait to get away from there; it’s a small place but after a while I started feeling like I was a bit lost. It has a big pull. Everyone feels that about their home country, I think. It was overwhelming and I wanted to go back and try to capture that. I was blurring and fragmenting the landscape to show how it just passes you by; you can’t quite hold onto that experience or that feeling and those memories. And then it changed to the human scale where I didn’t want to feel that lost. I didn’t want the landscape to pass me by anymore. So I created these scenes where I could be present in the work, actually step into it. I could visualize the landscape, I could see it. It grounded me somewhat. There is always this break in the work, where you can’t really fully remember or be present. Time is always eroding.
MD: You include some text in select images, was that a big departure from the original idea?
CH: I’m working with palm print patterns now, which I am abstracting as well. I like the idea of the environmental factor and I’ve been adding text to the work, basically about global warming and the effects we’re having on nature. They are just snippets, but it’s an added element to the work. The newest images get closer to that, further from time and memory—it’s more of a statement than the earlier work. It’s been organically moving towards speaking from a more environmental perspective.
MD: As the project evolves what else are you working with? What are your next steps?
CH: The most recent thing I’ve added is a black background, so instead of another photograph it’s a void. I wanted to do more with the idea of the landscape vanishing or being destroyed. The most recent work has a massive black background, made using a fabric that is the blackest black. I’m erasing glaciers and leaving these black backgrounds, these cutouts. I like this sculptural element, the idea of the work being more tactile as well as the landscape. I’m very excited when I see different elements emerging in the work. It adds a new layer of relevance, which is important to me.
MD: The landscape in Iceland is breathtaking. I can imagine it being almost intimidating to photograph. How do you approach making images in a place so famed for its beauty and otherworldliness?
CH: I had never thought about photographing the landscape in Iceland because it has so many amazing landscape photographers. It’s not hard to understand why. They were doing a fantastic job and making amazing photos. I thought to myself, “well, I have nothing to add to that”. It wasn’t until I moved to the states that I started thinking about it in a different way. I was able to present it from another perspective, adding a new layer of relevance.
I remember a lecture I went to where the photographer said: “If you go on Google and look up sunsets, you get millions and millions of results—do you want to add another?” Nothing against sunsets, they’re beautiful, but I’ve always kept that in mind with my work. I want it to be something different. With everything else, someone has already done better than I could. That really motivates me to create new, different work. It’s a great feeling when the work progresses and I’m able to keep it going and adding to it.
Editor’s note: A Sense of Place – Imprints of Iceland was a Juror’s Pick in the LensCulture Art Photography Awards 2021. Check out the rest of the winners for more inspiring discoveries!