With a background in religious studies questioning mysticism to photography, a young artist Sabine Mirlesse went to live three months in an artist residency in Iceland after receiving her Masters in Fine Arts in New York. Iceland— mysterious, enigmatic and magical country where the earth breathes, moves and trembles and where earthquakes shift the landscape daily, where boiling lava forces its way its way up from volcanoes, where the ground bubbles falls concave and then expands — i.e. a land of life and death.
This is a land with a culture of stories and legends and where the link between people and their land is extraordinarily intense.
This is the beginning of an adventure under the double aegis of : the myth of the “Pompei of the North” i.e. the village that bravely survived the unexpected eruption of the Heimaey volcano in the 1970s and, more surprisingly, a line from a Robert Frost poem called “ Directive” , taught in the American schools in the region the artist spent her adolescent years; a kind of a refrain constantly coming back to her during her stay in Iceland.
The last line of the poem is about the search for a water source, by digging far away and deep to find a physical spring but, also and most of all, our own identities.
Far away from reportage or documentary photography, the artist kept searching for this “source”, questioning the nature and strength of the link between the residents of the destructed village who chose to stay and battle the elements and the land they inhabit.
Indeed, the Icelandic identity merges with the land as shown by an elderly couple who refused to leave in spite of the Government’s counsel. as it may be seen also in the faces coated with mud and their prints on the canvas. Under a layer of soil mixing grey and celadon green, faces become a united whole, summoning a primitive dimension harkening back to a period before “civilization”. Then, printed on a white canvas with rough edges, they reveal their organic shapes, and call to mind the very nature of the photographic medium as print, as well as the first hands printed onto the walls of pre-historic caves.
Here we witness something from the origin, something original and essential.
We also witness how proud these people are of their land. They have it in their blood and thus are able to merge with it as well as to fight its force when the volcano erupts.
The work of Sabine Mirlesse then shows us a magnificent wildness of incandescent lava, geysers’ spray, and grey mist transforming the earth into phantasmagorical landscapes, the huge excavations hollowing the ground — like the footprints of supernatural beings — but also the fabric that encloses and protects. There, we can see a young lady and her grandmother, both named Edda, wrapped in a thick and warm wool blanket in a protective cocoon.
Neither Atheist nor religious, Sabine Mirlesse nonetheless embraces the idea of streams of energy, the mysteries of the elements and the search for identity. It is not at all surprising that her next work will be about Armenia —a legendary country of Eden, like Iceland, which has bloomed in the middle of a space between, neither in Asia, nor in Europe and where, centuries ago, where the heart of another volcano once beat, a volcano named Ararat.