Natures Purity

This article analyses representations of nature as brand and resource in current Icelandic society. This is done through an interdisciplinary approach consisting of concepts from the discipline of cultural geography and the analytical methodologies of visual cultural, imagology, discourse and brand analysis used to highlight key narratives in images and written sources. The article discusses how ideas of purity are used in branding strategies and what they mean in Iceland today e.g. as a part of the emerging regional consciousness of ‘Arctic Iceland.’ The current overlapping crises of the economy, the environment and the collective self-image in Iceland have fostered critical representations of the past, present and future of the relationship between humans and the environment. Thus utilitarian environmental policies and shallow ecology is treated critically in contemporary Icelandic art, as is the question of what constitutes pollution. Such internal conflicts of interest are analysed to show critical perspectives on the dominant narratives about Icelandic nature and society that are communicated to the outside world through nation branding. 

The Crisis in Iceland and the Role of Nature

There are numerous examples that art and environmental theory can express and criticise dominant attitudes toward nature in a given cultural and political context. Artworks may even be viewed as laboratories for environmental theory. The canonical artwork The Course of Empire (1833-36) by the American artist Thomas Cole (1801-1848) presents a narrative of the destructive potential of civilization. The five paintings depict a development from a state of wilderness through a sequence of stages ending with the dramatic downfall of an empire. An implicit warning is expressed in the transition from a pastoral society in the second image to the rise and fall of a fully fledged empire in the two following images, ending with a final image of the primeval forest re-claiming the ivy-covered ruins. This depiction of the relationship between nature and civilization is an example of a vanitas allegory that exhibits the impermanence of cultural products on the grand scale of geological history. However, current theories and artworks are pointing out the blurred boundaries between fundamental natural processes and human activity as well as the importance of representation.

Currently pure nature is attributed considerable value, but there are conflicting ideas about the ideological framework that should define this concept. In Iceland, differing views about priorities and responsibility are spurring conflicts about the management of natural resources. The crisis following the economic collapse in 2008 has intensified the debate about natural resources, the intertwined nature of the local, regional, global and planetary geographical levels and the political strategies associated with them. In addition to the scholarly and literary debate, criticism of official environmental policies is found in artworks in the decade leading up to the collapse and in the years following. The crisis in Iceland has called the previously strong narrative of national unity into question when financial strain and uncertainty emphasizes conflicting interests.1 At the same time, the global climate change crisis and the Anthropocene2 thesis that humanity has become a significant shaper of geological, atmospheric and biological processes are also reflected in various contemporary artistic representations of sites in Iceland. In these works, local, regional, global and planetary geographical levels—and related political agendas—are renegotiated. Two topics relating to issues of purity and the role of nature in visions of the nation’s future are particularly high on the agenda: first, a new regional awareness in Icelandic politics that links Iceland to the Arctic3 and, second, the management of Iceland’s natural resources such as hydropower and popular tourist sites. In current representations of the Icelandic landscape in political rhetoric, branding and art, the concept of purity constitutes a battleground for renegotiations of geographical levels and the relationship between society and nature. The representations in question interpret these ideas from very different angles and come to opposite conclusions.