Volcanic art: ‘Iceland is like a blank canvas’
UCD scientists went to Iceland to study subglacial activity in the wake of the ash cloud. With them went a painter
Siobhán McDonald, artist-in-residence at the science building in UCD, at work at Vatnajökull in Iceland, with a team of scientists
Earlier this month, an Irish team of scientists from University College Dublin set off on an expedition to the Vatnajökull glacier in Iceland. They were leaving a rare warm Irish summer to spend a couple of weeks in a remote, cold, windswept region about a 2½-hour drive from Reyjavik.
Their mission? To place an array of seismometers along the flanks of Grimsvotn, an active volcano that sits at the edge of the glacier, and record the tremors and rumbles that occur deep below the glacial ice. The idea is that by listening closely to the “heartbeat” of Grimsvotn, the team might learn more about the inner workings of the volcano, and perhaps gain some useful information to help detect the early signs of an eruption.
The trip is part of Futurevolc, an international project funded by the European Commission to try to improve the monitoring and evaluation of volcanic hazards. Iceland is a rich source of such hazards, as the rest of Europe discovered in 2010 when the Eyjafjallajokull volcano spewed out a giant ash cloud that brought massive disruption to air travel. The volcano being explored by the UCD team erupted a year after Eyjafjallajokull, but its ash cloud headed off east, sparing Europe, and thus making fewer headlines.
“We want to be able to distinguish between is the volcano becoming active or is it just water activity or is the glacier moving,” says Dr Aoife Braiden, from the school of geological sciences at UCD. “When Grimsvotn last erupted, the lava took 2½ hours to melt through the ice before it became visible. Having all the information early on can make a big difference when you’re evacuating a region affected by volcanic activity.”
To get on this team, you need to be well-versed in volcanology, a specialist in seismology or have a grounding in geology. Or you could simply have a talent for creating beautiful art from the apparent desolation of this region of Iceland. For this trip, the team brought along the artist Siobhán McDonald, who is artist-in-residence at the science building in UCD.
Her mission? To listen to the volcano, gather information and harvest inspiration for an exhibition and sound piece. And maybe uncover some hitherto unseen connections between Iceland’s volcanic activity and Ireland’s weather patterns down through the centuries.
A shade of Eyjafjallajokull
McDonald’s love affair with Iceland began when she was cycling through Dublin in 2010 with a new painting she had just finished, and which hadn’t completely dried yet. By the time she arrived at her destination, her painting was covered in a layer of soft ash, the fallout from Eyjafjallajokull.
When everyone else was trying to get away from the ash cloud, she wanted to get closer to this forbidding but fascinating landscape.
“I wanted to experience all that whiteness and put it in my paintings,” she says. “Iceland is constantly erasing and recreating itself – it’s like a blank canvas. It’s inspiring for me as a painter.”
Over the past couple of years, McDonald has made a few trips to Iceland and put her impressions down on canvas. The landscape may look barren, but for McDonald it is alive with possibilities. And there is life aplenty if you look and listen closely enough.
It’s utterly quiet and peaceful on an Icelandic glacier. It’s also very cold, with a biting wind, in stark contrast to the unusually warm summer we have had.
“All the senses are muffled,” says McDonald. “You’re in a completely different headspace. There are no sounds up here except the sounds generated by the wind or the odd bird or fly going by. You’re aware of the raw energy of the place and how the natural forces gather there.”