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Insights Combining art and engineering in Iceland

Eric Mortenesen

images of erik

Some people believe engineering and art occupy different universes, but it hasn’t always been this way. Leonardo da Vinci was famously both a painter and an engineer. As a struggling artist, he found employment as a military engineer, devising movable barricades to protect the city of Venice from attack as well as a scheme to divert the flow of the river Arno, among other projects.

It is in this “Renaissance Man” tradition that Atkins water engineer Eric Mortensen participated in the List í ljósi light festival in the town of Seyðisfjörður, Iceland, a weeklong art event celebrating the arrival of the sun after months of darkness. During List í ljósi, the East Iceland town is lit up with curated artworks by international and local artists, ranging from installations, projections and performances to large-scale immersive experiences.

For this year’s festival, Eric collaborated with Iowa-based sculptress Heidi Zenisek to present Medusoza, a large fiber optic sculpture of an abstracted jellyfish submerged in Fjarðará, the river which flows through the town. The piece combines Eric’s technical and topographical research into the river with Heidi’s creative research in ecofeminism and the allegorical war between Mother Nature and Mankind to create a visual representation of the married ideas.

Medusoza takes the public’s perception of flooding and parallels it with the myth of Medusa, a Greek gorgon with venomous snakes in place of hair. Medusa is traditionally depicted as a horrific, evil monster who must be destroyed, but the events of the myth describe something far more tragic, including elements of misogyny and victim blaming. She was attacked by a God (Poseidon), turned into a monster by his wife, and then chased by mankind for the trophy of her head.

Eric says flooding is sometimes seen similarly as an unruly, catastrophic natural phenomenon that must be controlled by man through any means necessary; however, it is the anthropogenic impact on water systems and the decisions society makes, such as where to live and what lifestyle to pursue, which often results in the most deleterious impacts of flooding.

A significant theme of Medusoza is how climate change is a factor behind increased flooding globally, including in Seyðisfjörður. Normally during winter, the river is frozen. Because of warming temperatures, wintertime rain storms are becoming more common. As rainwater cannot seep through the frozen ground to infiltrate the underlying soil, the result is more flooding.

“People look at flooding and see it as a bad thing, but the truth is a lot of our decisions have resulted in this,” he said. “It’s my hope that when people look at the piece, they begin to understand the consequences of their own decisions that led to this, and how dependent on water they are for their lifestyle.”

Originally proposed as a two-piece sculpture, the project’s final design ended up being a single large jellyfish. During the mornings, Eric would do his day-job as an Atkins engineer, then he and Heidi would work on the piece in the afternoon/evenings.

“We worked on several prototypes the first day, and then went all-in our final design. It ended up being a week of very long, busy days (6am – after midnight), but it was all worth it. Even with a last-minute design change, we ended up finishing slightly ahead of schedule,” he said.

Medusoza was well received by the general community in Seyðisfjörður, as well as by the other artists who attended a critique of the project. The pair was even interviewed by Icelandic television.

Eric and Heidi met while studying at the University of Iowa and have been collaborating ever since. Before participating in List í ljósi, Eric used his engineering background to help tear down an abandoned net factory and refurbish it into a new studio for the LungA Art School in Seyðisfjörður during summer 2018. Heidi completed a residency with the school in 2016.

As a result of their experience at List í ljósi, Eric and Heidi say they are brainstorming more pieces for a collaborative series of works and have been in touch with representatives of other festivals and galleries around the world to continue their exploration of art and science.