ReykjavíkLjósvaki // Æther 101
New works by Selma Hreggviðsdóttir & Sirra Sigrún Sigurðardóttir
The vaguely familiar title of the exhibition can be traced back to a collection of theories about the imaginary element æther, that was supposed to be present everywhere in the universe and possessed the quality of carrying light through time and space. This theory was later debunked through Albert Einstein‘s theory of relativity.
The spellbinding moment experienced when looking through a crystal of Icelandic Spar and the world doubles itself in an instant, due to light refraction, is the source material for the works that can be viewed here by Selma Hreggviðsdóttir and Sirra Sigrún Sigurðardóttir, meanwhile shedding light on the curious history of an extraordinary Icelandic natural phenomenon, still hidden to many.
It was in the 17th century that fragments of Iceland Spar were carried down the mountainside along tiny streams near Helgustaðir in East Iceland where they caught the attention of locals, as well as Danish merchants that had settled nearby. Once people started digging into the mountain, gigantic rocks of Iceland Spar were discovered, some up to a meter high, according to sources.
Iceland Spar is calcium carbonate that has crystallised in a specific way. This material, also referred to as calcite, can be found in layers of the earth all around the world and is one of the main constituents of limestone and marble. Up to the year 1900 it had only been found in a completely clear variety in Iceland, where it was also distinguished by Iceland Spar‘s typical shape. For centuries, these crystals had gained attention and scientists had been sharing them amongst themselves all over the world. While calcite crystals could be found elsewhere in the world, they always differed in colour and shape. History tells us that around 1800 the French scholar René Just Haüy had dropped such a crystal on the floor, causing it to break into multiple little pieces. Once he took a closer look at them he noticed they all exhibited the same regular shape as the Iceland Spar crystals. Subsequently he yelled ,,All is clear!” and in continuation he went on to lay down the basics of what became modern crystallography.
Due to its double refraction and other material properties, Iceland Spar played a key role in developing new theories within physics, especially physics of light and crystallised materials for about 250 years. Additionally, it helped shape new research methods within petrology, chemistry, biochemistry and medicine. These developments remained buried away in ancient academic publications, until geophysicist Leó Kristjánsson decided to embark upon a journey for discovering the fate of the Helgustaðir crystals and their scientific impact. He was able to shed light on the importance of Iceland Spar in the development of science and technology between the 17th and 20th century, establishing it as one of the most important Icelandic contributions to world history as we know it.
The exhibition by the two artists is part of an ongoing research project on the phenomena mentioned above, with the first chapter already exhibited in Eskifjörður in the summer of 2019. This time around, Sirra Sigrún and Selma present the exhibition space of BERG Contemporary with a new appearance, only allowed by the polarized view through Iceland Spar, in their video Extraordinary Ray (2020), in addition to capturing the flash of a moment created inside the crystallised dome of the University of Iceland, originally made by Guðmundur of Miðdalur and Guðjón Samúelsson (Iceland‘s former state architect), in their unique work Hvelfing (2020).
Alongside their man-made crystals, the artists have put forth a unique Icelandic Spar sphere, borrowed from the Icelandic Institute of Natural History. The ball was shaped by Bjarni Ólafsson from Brimnesgerði, with the intention of bringing it to the World Expo in Chicago in 1892. Bjarni‘s craftsmanship seems impossible as the Iceland Spar is highly delicate and has a high risk of it breaking into its original, natural shapes. The sphere, about three centimeters in diameter, smooth and crystal clear, never made it to the exposition. It is an exquisite relic, that in its altered shape defies its very own law of nature. By allowing it to be exhibited alongside natural crystals that the artists have created themselves, a compelling conversation is born, on what lies at the boundaries of the natural and man-made, meanwhile shedding new light on generation of knowledge through physical properties, underlining the importance of visual experimentation when it comes to research, both old and new.
-Kristján Leósson & Kristína Aðalsteinsdóttir
all images © the gallery and the artist(s)