Remembrance of fish past
This essay reflects personal impressions from a research trip in Iceland I conducted this July with Dr. Alison Rieser, Department of Geography, University of Hawai’i at Manoa, and with the support of the ENHANCE network. Alison and I will be writing a more in-depth account of our journey later this year.
Iceland’s Great Herring Adventure has become the Icelandic Great Tourist Adventure. Skeletal ghosts of the once booming herring fishing industry – boats, docks, factories – now hold up the tourist industry’s less tangible flesh. Crumbling concrete and rusting iron, alternatively exposed or painted, are bared to the gaze of visitors. In Siglufjörður and Djúpavík, where once thousands of men and women flocked to fish and gut, salt and distill, dance and flirt, these same experiences of the 20th century are now laid out for the tourists who flock here instead. These two journeys and the people who make them are distinctly different, a century apart, yet they also resemble each other a great deal. Both are explicitly framed as adventures (“Find your adventure”, invites Iceland’s tourism website, and a thousand brochures, agencies, and tour guides echo it, evoking a sense of goldrush – much in the same way that the herring industry did for Icelanders young and old a century ago). Both journeys could be seen as rites of passage, proclaiming the personal independence of the adventurers while also admitting them to the ranks of those others who already have (the adults who earn money salting herring; the adults who gain experience braving the North). Both draw on the Icelandic landscape, thrive on its fjords, on its cold productive waters. And finally: both serve(d) as the driving engine of Iceland’s economy and national identity, thereby spurring rich imaginaries.
Plaques at the Herring Era Museum in Siglufjörður explain that herring was Iceland’s “first industry”, playing a vital role in both the establishment and the independence of Iceland’s modern state. State-sponsored processing plants (Sildaverksmidjur rikisins, or SRs) became an important source of national revenue in the 1930s and dominated herring processing in Iceland until their privatisation in 1993. The museum does not explain that modern tourism has taken over these tasks in the 21st century – although, evoking neat symbolism, the museum itself is hosted in the buildings associated with one of the original Icelandic SRs. The facade of the SR building proclaims its original function in large letters painted over bright patches of colour – green, yellow, red, blue.
Bridging herring and tourism, herring-industry-related artistic expression – art waiting and asking to be seen, experienced, or consumed – permeates the tourist landscape. If a landscape simultaneously holds past experiences or imaginings and offers up its emptiness to new emotions, as Huijbens and Benediktsson have claimed, then the reflexive thought, and especially art, on local fishing heritage shapes this duality for the Icelandic landscape. In the Herring Era Museum, for instance, a cubic painting by Arnar Herbertsson starkly presents the visitor simultaneously with the artist’s childhood recollections of the Siglufjörður herring industry, with the museum building’s own vibrant original purpose as an SR, and with the visitor’s own imaginative prowess as the bridge between museum, art, and industry. Helpfully, the plaque suggests that the painting exemplifies Arnar Herbertsson’s search of a “national” Icelandic style.
Elsewhere in the museum, a performance space has been set up among old factory instruments once used for pressing and separating oil; today, the wooden benches and stage in the space in the middle host folk music performances and town meetings. Hence, the local and tourist experience both reimagine abandoned herring industrial space, reform it through art into something else, undetermined, potent with history yet open to discovery.
I enter the abandoned herring factory in Djúpavík through a curtain of misty rain. The ground floor space is sparsely lit, highlighting the vibrant colours of moulding walls against the matted background of rusty-gray engines, dark shadows, and black-and-white photos of life in the past. The tour guide’s opening description feels modernistic; she does not start with chronology or with orderly facts, but instead populates the room with scattered experiences: of women working sixteen-hour days to salt fish and their sense of independence; of men dancing after a long day’s work; of herring shifting their migration patterns. But I am distracted, by the artful display of artifacts, almost casually, against half-rotten benches and rusted cabinets.
Through the tour, we move upward over dangerously uneven, littered industrial floors (a nightmare of a risk assessment, this). I cannot decide if the effect of moving from darkness – a hall with boarded-up windows, meager yellow lamps – to light – the white hallway on the second story punctuated by photography – is intentional. Much of the space feels accidental, chaotic, a work in progress; and yet it does so in a strangely neat way. The factory is interspersed with both beautiful decay, and with art, as though both naturally belong here. Where not covered, the windows alternatively reveal either the striking waterfall off the side of the fjord, or the sea.
The factory is alive today with these experiences of past and present, herring and tourism, lived by visitors local and global. Art displayed on its walls presents, over and over, parts of the Icelandic landscape. An abandoned tank seems still to echo with the sounds of famous Icelandic band Sigur Ros, which performed here as tribute to their chief inspiration: Iceland’s nature and heritage. As the tour wraps up, our guide tells us cheerfully how locals gathered to hear them; and she encourages us, her guests, to enter into next year’s photography contest. Who knows – we, too, might thus populate these walls.