Guðríður Þorbjarnardóttir, born around 980 in Iceland, traveled to what is now called America (most likely close to New York) around the year 1000. While there, she gave birth to a son, Snorri, before returning home. Aside from a couple of Icelandic sagas that tell the story of her travels, she would have largely remained a footnote in history, but in 2000, the Icelandic government launched a campaign to credit the Viking explorer Leif Erikson with the “discovery” of America, 500 years before Christopher Columbus’s arrival — and began promoting Þorbjarnardóttir and Snorri as its poster mother-and-child.
At that time, President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson focused on the statue “The First White Mother in America” (1938), created by sculptor Ásmundur Sveinsson for the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, to promote national identity. In the year 2000, a copy of the statue was unveiled at Laugarbrekka in Snæfellsnes, the birthplace of Guðríður Þorbjarnardóttir. And there it stood, until early April of this year, when someone stole the statue. It turned up, only days later, inside a DIY rocket ship outside the Living Art Museum in Reykjavík, where it had been placed by artists Bryndís Björnsdóttir and Steinunn Gunnlaugsdóttirand in a symbolic intervention to launch the statue into space.
“Our rocket could be interpreted as a failed launch, a staging of such an event that couldn’t be completed,” Björnsdóttir and Gunnlaugsdóttir told Hyperallergic. “In space there is a lot of debris after failed launches, and ‘The First White Mother in America’ could become such trash if we decided not to continue celebrating the narrative and racist ideology that it stands for.”
The artists described the Icelandic government’s story surrounding Guðríður Þorbjarnardóttir as problematic, indicative of “an attempt to align Iceland’s national identity with imperialist nations” and “a small state’s inferiority complex.”
“This complex has been much reflected on by anthropologists as Iceland, having been a colony of Denmark for roughly 500 years, used racist discourse to try to distance themselves from being viewed as belonging to others similarly oppressed,” Björnsdóttir and Gunnlaugsdóttir said.
The rocket ship artwork, made of welded oil drums and other scrap metal set upon a steel launchpad with the bronze statue visible from a circular opening, is titled “Carry-on: The First White Mother in Space.” Obviously, the intention was not to literally send the statue to space, but to comment upon its aggrandizing of colonialism — a quality that the artists find it shares with the billionaire-fueled space imperialism of today.
“The new space race and Iceland as an analogy for other planets was one of our inspirations for creating our spaceship,” the artists told Hyperallergic. “Capitalist extractivism has entered space, evoking parallels between the exploration and colonization of outer space with earlier ventures on Earth.”
The work, which has caused a media sensation and led to a police investigation, builds on ideas cultivated by each of the artists individually and in partnership. For the 2018 Cycle Music and Art Festival at the Gerðarsafn Art Museum, for instance, Gunnlaugsdóttir presented “The Little MareSausage“ in a downtown city pond. The work, which became a cultural flashpoint with audiences divided between love and hate, referenced Denmark’s iconic monument “The Little Mermaid” and the Danish — and later Icelandic — national dish, the sausage. Björnsdóttir exhibited an installation titled “De Arm,” consisting of a single match carved out of wood from the chair of a Danish enslaver that was on display in a historical exhibition in Denmark.
Though the Living Art Museum had no knowledge of the planned theft, and the artists remain conspicuously noncommittal on the subject of how the purloined statue came to be part of their installation, the new work was intended to correlate with the multi-venue IMMUNE/ÓNÆM exhibition, organized by Björnsdóttir and on view through May 1. But authorities removed the entire installation on April 22, 13 days after it appeared, and the artists will now contend with a charge issued against them by the mayor of Snæfellsness. They have nonetheless issued a statement asking the police to return the work to the site.
Obviously, the destruction of the original statue was never the intention, because it was not disposed of, only re-contextualized — and, as the artists point out, many copies of it exist. The idea is to conceptually trash the kind of imperialism for which it is a symbol: not to bring racism into space, so much as to discard it on Earth.
As the artists explained, “The title ‘Carry-On: The First White Mother in Outer Space’ refers to the luggage that is still being carried in society from past occurrences but also this brutal force of continuation of dominant powers.”
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