Feminist sci-fi narratives and visual art

At the intersection of visual art and literature, the exhibition Yes, a falling tree makes a sound (and it has a lot to say) explores possible narratives. The exhibition is curated by Helena Aðalsteinsdóttir and takes place at Kling & Bang, an artist-run space in Reykjavík, Iceland. Aðalsteinsdóttir is partly based in London and partly in Reykjavík, and she finished her MA in curation from Central Saint Martins last year.

As the name exemplifies, the exhibition has a solid philosophical ground that draws on political, linguistic and metaphysical topics. When a tree falls in a forest, in technical terms, it emits soundwaves. Sound, however, is a sensation. If no one experiences the sensation, does the sensation exist? Is there a difference between the event occurring, the technical, and the perception of the event? Aðalsteinsdóttir reframes the question to ask: what if the tree fell, and no one was listening? What do our sensations of a situation disclose? Might there be alternative ways of listening? The artists and exhibition drew inspiration from feminist sci-fi to imagine a reality different from ours, where current power structures have been disintegrated or never existed in the first place.

Þórey Björk Halldórsdóttir, Pitstop for a dream, 2021 (Photo: Cosmo Hilyard)

Let’s begin by unpacking the name of the exhibition. Where does that come from? And why did you name it after the metaphysical thought experiment about the centrality of consciousness to perception? What meanings does it have for you in the context of the exhibition?

Titles for works or exhibitions come to me either immediately at the beginning of the thought process, or they can take months. The title for the exhibition was one of those that waited a long time to be realised, and I had to think long and hard about it. The reason is perhaps that the artists approach their subjects in very different ways, and even though the overarching theme of the exhibition is derived from feminist science fiction, the works all belong to their own distinct worlds. The works in the show are very personal. Science fiction is that space where people can truly express their identities and desires by creating worlds that honour whatever rules the author sets.

This isn’t the case in the world we live in, and the title expresses this thought. It encourages the visitor to listen to narratives where they are not the protagonist, narratives that they have previously removed themselves from or ignored. ‘Yes, a falling tree makes a sound. We were all in the forest when it fell and it had a lot to say. But we weren’t listening.’ 

Tarek Lakhrissi, Out of the Blue, 2019 (Courtesy of VITRINE) (Photo: Cosmo Hilyard)

It reminds the visitor to listen to voices previously ignored and kept in the margins. The title attempts to validate different people’s experiences and lived realities. Artist Dýrfinna Benita Basalan illustrates this experience and tells a story of the spider, which symbolises both femininity and resilience. Her metal sculptures are installed in the crevasses, shadows, and margins of the space itself. Basalan’s spiders become more and more visible as the visitor walks through the exhibition, extending from the walls as if slowly infesting the space to a point where they can no longer be ignored. 

I named it after the well-known thought experiment because most people have heard of it – I wanted to make a statement. It relates to how people’s voices can often be silenced or how their views can be deemed irrelevant, depending on their race, religion, sexuality, gender, of beliefs – especially in western society. There are too many voices that go unheard. 

This exhibition lived in the back of my mind for a long time, and the artists were involved in the making for a whole year. The process was very personal, and I started to care deeply for it. It is important that the title has a lot of meaning and that it would become almost beautiful. The Icelandic translation is ‘Fallandi trjám liggur margt á hjarta’ which would translate directly to ‘Falling trees have a lot on their hearts’ which has the same meaning as the title in English.

Josephine van Schendel, Dendrianthropic Bodies, 2021 (Photo: Lilja Birgisdóttir)

In the exhibition, the lines between literature, language and visual art have been blurred to create a new space, simultaneously narrative and visual, bringing the narratives to sensual life. Can you tell me a bit more about how you came to that idea? And why is it that narrative and language can tell us something about the sensual artworks themselves? Do they interact directly?

I was inspired by Minrose Gwin’s essay ‘Space Travel: The Connective Politics of Feminist Reading’. There she describes a feeling that most readers are familiar with, how literature can transport the reader into another space. Gwin proposes that narratives can be interpreted as productions of material space. She suggests a strategy for expanding the reader’s knowledge of people’s realities and cultural spaces by entering other narrative spaces. She calls this strategy ‘space-travel’. This can be politically effective as it drives the reader beyond mere empathy, into the realm of identification, in which the reader is drawn into another’s space and is altered within that space. Gwin has the general perception of space as being fluid and ambiguous and ‘always in the process of being temporalised’. She draws this synopsis from Michel de Certeau’s notion that ‘space is a practiced place’ meaning that a space is defined by the actions performed within it rather than presupposed assumptions of its hierarchical purpose.

I wanted to alter the gallery space to create an unfamiliar environment for guests who were familiar with it already. I extended Kling & Bang’s walls to look as if the exhibition space is completely closed off and inaccessible. Upon further inspection, a door opens when pushed – a sort of secret passage that suggests that you’ve entered another realm. 

The works inhabit the space very comfortably, borderline intrusive. Josephine van Schendel’s installation (Dendrianthropic Bodies, 2021) features poems that crawl 20 feet up the walls and onto the floor. Dýrfinna Benita Basalan’s metal spiders (Impending doom, 2021) lurk in corners, extend from the ceilings and crawl onto Tabita Rezaire’s lit up sculptures (Sorry for Real_Sorrow For…, 2015). Rezaire’s work even makes a guest appearance for a second in Brokat Film’s video work (Sasa on the road, s01e01 | sci-fi TRAVEL VLOG from ICELAND | 2020!!!). It was important that the works share the space and to blur the borders between one another. It’s a reminder that our different perceptions of the world are not separate and that we live in a shared reality.

Elín Margot, the end of me, the beginning of you, 2021 (Photo: Lilja Birgisdóttir)

Tell me a little bit more about the ‘space-travel’ strategy, where the works present a fantasy vision of possible future worlds which imagine the power structures as different from how they are now and how they have been. How does the strategy work? And how is it represented in the exhibition? 

The ‘space-travel’ strategy is to place the visitor physically in a reality created by the artists. I wanted them to feel like a visitor in someone else’s utopia. This is represented in the artists’ works, and I also used it as an approach when thinking about the gallery’s architecture. In the first space, before entering the ‘secret passage’ into the exhibition, Þórey Björk Halldórsdóttir has created a bar that functions almost as a waiting room. She has tinted the windows blue. The transition from this blue light and into the main exhibition space evokes a sensory experience where not only the mind but the body is transformed into a different setting through textures, light and sound. A momentary orange hue and an ephemeral soundscape by Josephine van Schendel is a reminder that this is an unfamiliar place. 

‘Space-travel’ is also represented in the exhibition by storytelling. Bára Bjarnadóttir’s work ‘Blessuð, blíða (Hello Sunshine), 2021’ welcomes the visitor to step behind a plastic curtain and listen to a sound piece. The curtain is adorned with glitter stickers of 3D renders of plants and trees, and the sound is an interview with Bjarnadóttir’s mother. There they discuss her mother’s land and the nature that surrounds it. They imagine how the information flows between the tree’s branches and the women in the family tree of Bjarnadóttir. The curtain creates a tranquil space in the otherwise crowded exhibition.

Another example is Tarek Lakhrissi’s short film which offers a recentralisation of marginalised identities. In his short film entitled ‘Out of the Blue’, Lakhrissi presents a reality where an alien invasion has led to the disappearance of all CEOs of the world. This new arrangement leads to the deconstruction of power structures, a realisation of feminist dreams. Tarek has described his narratives being a political act, a place where he can be seen, heard and defined in his own words.


 Dýrfinna Benita Basalan, Impending Doom, 2021 (Photo: Lilja Birgisdóttir)

The artists participating are:

Bára Bjarnadóttir

Brokat Films

Dýrfinna Benita Basalan

Elín Margot

Josephine van Schendel

Tabita Rezaire

Tarek Lakhrissi

Þórey Björk Halldórsdóttir

Further reading: 

Minrose Gwin: Space Travel: The Connective Politics of Feminist Reading

Legacy Russell: Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto

Donna J. Haraway: Staying with the Trouble

Octavia E. Butler: Bloodchild and Other Stories

Ursula K. Le Guin: The Carrier Bag Theory of FictionVictoria Sin: Dream Babes zine

Tabita Rezaire Decolonial Healing: In Defence of Spiritual Technologies (The SAGE Handbook of Media and Migration)

Eva Vilhjalmsdottir

Eva Lín (b. 1995) writes about art on the side of her MA philosophy studies. She currently lives in London but is from Reykjavík, Iceland. You can find her work is on her website: https://evalin.is/