Iceland. The country’s name might seem to say it all. But in reality, only about 10 percent of this island nation is covered with ice. The other 90 percent encompasses cooled lava flows and cliff-lined fjords, craters and bubbling hot springs, boulder fields and hardy, persistent plant life.
Forged from volcanoes and glaciers, Iceland’s rugged beauty is captivating. Photographer Feodor Pitcairn and geophysicist and poet Ari Trausti Guðmundsson reveal this land of fire and ice in the new exhibition Primordial Landscapes: Iceland Revealed, opening July 2. Primordial Landscapes looks at some of the Earth’s most dramatic geological processes using themes of Fire, Ice, and Transformation.
Iceland is one of the most geologically active places on Earth. Volcanic eruptions and subsurface geothermal activity produce hot springs, geysers, and steam plumes. Arctic ice and snow, rain, and glacial melt combine to form powerful rivers and waterfalls that carve the Earth’s surface. After active lava flows cool, life slowly and persistently begins to take hold. To see the Icelandic landscape is to see many of our planet’s most fundamental processes at work.
Photographer Feo Pitcairn first visited Iceland in 2011 and was captivated by its landscapes. On that and on subsequent visits, he captured the 41 images displayed in the exhibition. “With each return to this place at the edge of the Arctic Circle, I became more intimately humbled by nature’s power,” he said. “I have found great inspiration while sojourning with my camera in these wild and varied landscapes.”
In addition to the photography, Primordial Landscapes: Iceland Revealed also features poetry by geophysicist and writer Ari Trausti Guðmundsson, translated from the original Icelandic. Excerpts are printed large scale on the exhibition gallery walls, and a soundscape of Guðmundsson reciting his work in Icelandic is paired with English translations projected onto the walls. The exhibit’s soundscape also includes wind, cracking ice, geysers, and other environmental sounds recorded in Iceland. In addition, visitors can get a close-up view of volcanic rock samples and see several examples of Iceland’s extremely hardy plant life from the NMNH Botany Department’s collection.
NMNH lighting specialist Virginia Croskey created an immersive lighting display for the exhibition to allow visitors to experience a taste of the aurora borealis, or northern lights. After failing to catch a glimpse of the northern lights on a trip to Norway, Croskey saw them earlier this year while visiting Iceland.
“I wanted to show the serenity and magic,” she said. “It’s there—and then it’s not—and it’s back, in a different shape—over there.”
Primordial Landscapes: Iceland Revealed parallels the United States’ 2015-2017 chairmanship of the Arctic Council, the governing body responsible for coordinating policy affecting Arctic nations and indigenous peoples living within the Arctic Circle. The Museum will be celebrating the U.S. chairmanship with public programming and research symposia directed by the Smithsonian’s Arctic Studies Center.
By Laura Donnelly-Smith, Exhibits Writer/Editor, National Museum of Natural History