We are part of the land, as it is part of us.
Human evolution was intimately bound to landscape. As a species, we have been shaped by what the land gave and what it withheld. Our brains evolved during the two-hundred millennia that we were hunter-gatherers, living with the land, its flora and fauna. What today we feel as aesthetic pleasures are the remnants of reward mechanisms that evolved through the austere triage of survival. They lie deep within, much later to be re-adapted to the visual vocabulary of art. It is a process called exaptation, where a reward mechanism that gradually evolved because it improved survival is later adapted to activities which, in themselves, may have had no direct incremental survival benefit. Except that today, when many of our basic material needs are catered to, but mental health has become an increasing cause for concern, art can engage and exercise the complex psychologies necessary to live in a vastly bigger, faster, interconnected world.
If our aesthetic responses to landscape originate deep in the sediment of our ancestral past, they are strained through the filters of personal experience. The impressions that images suggest are selectively pieced together in the subconscious, only subsequently to become tractable ideas. We perceive as much through the workings of memory and imagination as through the senses. As such, our environment can not only inform us of the present and remind us of the past, but suggest – through imaginative projection – things we anticipate are yet to come.
It is this interplay of possible meanings that the artist Serena Dzenis engages in her haunting images of natural, urban, and industrial landscapes. She depicts scenes that, while they exist in the real world of today, rekindle a mythical past or spark a prescient speculation. Born and raised in Australia, but now resident in Iceland, her images of European countryside capture an Old World of folklore and fable, while her interest in science fiction – a narrative form that explores the social and ethical implications of technological progress – leads her to ponder the practicalities and moral challenges of human beings colonising other planets. Her poetic skill is to evoke the otherworldly in landscapes created out of this world.
What draws you to the landscape as a subject?
My underlying belief is that everything is inextricably linked. As Carl Sagan once said: “we are all made of star stuff”. Rocks, mountains, oceans … it all comes from the materials that burst forth from stars a long time ago. It’s the same stuff that makes up you and me. We are part of the land, as it is part of us.
Many of your images have an otherworldly quality to them. Why do you choose this way of representing landscape?
I believe that there is fleeting beauty in every moment of the small amount of time that we actually have on Earth. It’s like when you dream; REM sleep accounts for only a small amount of time in our sleep cycles, yet a dream can feel like it is taking place over an extended period of time from hours to days. When I photograph the landscape, I want people to feel like they are in a separate world just as they are when they close their eyes and go to sleep. My photographs can seem like something from a dream, but that moment really did exist. So often, we are just too busy to become aware of it.
Can you give an example?
Sometimes, when you’re alone in the landscape, it can feel as though nature is whispering to you. The air hums as stories unfurl in your mind. I had a moment like that in Bavaria… Your surroundings take on a life of their own, beckoning you to dissolve into what has already been and what is yet to come. Nature whispers that everything is connected, and we are part of it.
With ‘An Unmarked Place’ [the image heading this interview], I wanted to convey the feeling of discovering a well-visited and beautiful scene anew in the solitude of sunrise. Most of the Earth is now mapped and defined, but here you can still dream. Romance could never be boring in a place like this.
Your images in northern Finland seem to take an anthropomorphic turn.
On my first visit to Finnish Lapland, in 2016, I managed to get myself completely disorientated near the peak of a mountain. The light was fading, and I was alone. All around me, trees bent under the weight of the snow – a phenomenon known as ‘tykky’. In the eerie winter light, I found myself immersed in a strange fantasy world where fairy-tale creatures appeared to be roaming the land. The experience filled me with nostalgia for my childhood, rekindling my sense of the magical. It inspired me to create the series ‘Winter Awakening’, and later I returned to another part of Finland to make the ‘Imaginarium’ project.
What took you to Iceland?
I first visited Iceland at the beginning of 2016 and moved here a couple of years later. I had not travelled much before and, when I hit thirty, I stumbled into an existential crisis and my sense of identity felt like it was imploding. I saved as much money as I could for a year and then set off to Iceland on six weeks of annual leave, to see what I could find out there that might fill the void I had within.
Many of the forests in Iceland were felled a long time ago. I arrived in deep winter and, initially, I found the lack of flora and fauna deeply disturbing. Over time, I came to be fascinated by these otherworldly landscapes. Scientists have even taken advantage of the conditions here to test technology like the NASA Sand-E space rover.
[Left] © Serena Dzenis ‘Blood of Eunuchs’ 2021 from the series ‘Geothermal Iceland’
[Right] © Serena Dzenis ‘Fallout’ 2017 from the series ‘Geothermal Iceland’
The geothermal activity in Iceland is a vivid reminder that the Earth is alive beneath our feet, and it is the one thing that can really sustain us. I wanted to draw attention to this with photographs of geysers, fumaroles, and mud pits, demonstrating the inner workings of our planet bubbling forth into the visible environment. Up to thirty per cent of the electricity used in Iceland is generated from geothermal energy. If humans can find a way to harness geothermal energy in other parts of the world with less volcanism, then here is a way to reduce and perhaps even reverse some of the damage that we are doing and have already done to our environment through non-renewable energy extraction.
You worked for several years in the field of mental health therapy and advocacy. How has that experience shaped the way you conceive of landscape?
I think it has had a profound effect. Mental health exists on a continuum and can change with context, affected by both internal and external factors. I have worked with people who were at their most creative during their highest highs and their lowest lows, while others perceived the world in ways that few could ever imagine. To see the art that they were able to create, even at their most vulnerable, was like being given a glimpse into someone’s soul where the chaos of all their joys and despair abruptly culminated in a moment of peace. These experiences inspired me to look at the world differently, to observe more closely, and to recognise that what is unusual for one person may be quite normal for another.
Has the Covid-19 pandemic changed the way you work or the direction you are taking?
When the pandemic first began, several of my plans were completely thwarted. There was a lot of talk in the media about using this time productively to work on projects, but I just felt immobilised and depressed for the first half of the year.
We never really had a lockdown in Iceland, though we were advised not to travel too far and there were restrictions on the number of people you could meet. When the summer came, I began making friends with fungi. I developed the ‘MycoWorld’ project and threw my energy into photographing the fruiting bodies of mycelium. There was something deeply comforting about crawling on my hands and knees through the dirt, taking hundreds of macro images for focus-stacking.
When winter returned, the fungi retreated, and the pandemic worsened. To escape a growing sense of insularity, I began exploring my immediate surroundings, which led to a new project: ‘Meanwhile… in Reykjavík’. My focus had shifted from landscapes and fungi to the anonymity of the city, with its mundane architecture that could be representative of anywhere else on this planet.
How did ‘2021 ± II: Utopia Broadcasting’ begin?
While I was working on this architectural project, I found myself contemplating the fragility of life and the impact human beings have had on Earth in the relatively brief time that we have existed. I began exploring new subjects and looking at ways to tell a story that would juxtapose the fascination we have for the beauty of nature with the religious buildings that enshrine human belief systems and the industrial architecture we would rather forget but which nonetheless sustains life.
One of the first images I made was ‘Planet Exploration’ and this inspired the rest of ‘2021 ± II: Utopia Broadcasting’. The image shows a section of the Reykjavík Art Museum in the former studio of the Icelandic sculptor, Ásmundur Sveinsson. I had driven by this structure many times and thought about how it resembled a spacecraft or a grand interplanetary residence. It gave rise to an idea that kept reverberating through my mind: Should we colonise other planets? Do we have the right to take over another world?
If we were to colonise another planet, what sorts of resources would be available to us? Would we begin the cycle of mining and manufacturing just to make it habitable? ‘The Gemini Project’ [above] depicts a concrete batching plant. Without structures like this, our world would not be as we know it. Yet, unless we can come up with new ways of building structures for the survival of our species, then perhaps we will only be relocating our cycle of destruction.
I wanted to open up a conversation around the ways in which we have shaped Earth and how our future might look if we were to colonise another planet. Would we make the same mistakes again? What else would we require on another planet to satisfy our human needs? Is a utopia possible on another planet or is our species destined to extinction here on Earth?
[Left] © Serena Dzenis ‘Interstellar Ark’ 2021 from the series ‘2021 ± II: Utopia Broadcasting’
[Right] © Serena Dzenis ‘Dreamcode’ 2021 from the series ‘2021 ± II: Utopia Broadcasting’
This work has a distinctive colour palette.
I’m a bit of a sci-fi nerd. I listen to a lot of synthwave music, which has its roots in Eighties video games and sci-fi soundtracks. It’s a pseudo-futuristic sound that evokes in me an internal experience of these colours. I wanted these images to be unlike anything that anyone had ever seen from Iceland; like a space colony on a different planet.
There is a curious tension here between the strange beauty of the images and the darker undertow of ecological ideas that lie beneath.
Conceptually, I want these images to suggest an ideal world rather than a dystopia, in order to draw the viewer in before inviting them to think more deeply about the underlying ecological ideas. I wanted to transport the viewer to a place outside of time. Consequently, I focused on bringing together visual elements, such as the Moon, with carefully photographed sections of buildings that removed them from their context. I felt that this, along with an otherworldly colour palette, would heighten the sense of being on another planet.
In your earlier writing, you posed the rhetorical question: “Given the Earth is potentially not the only place where humans can thrive in the future, what reasons would we have for protecting this environment once we can realistically leave and inhabit another planet?” How would you answer that?
The future of Earth is a bleak one; this isn’t a paradise that will be around forever. If humans don’t finish off this planet, then Earth will likely be absorbed by the Sun in around seven-and-a-half billion years’ time. Well before that, we will face celestial events and glacial periods that might lead to mass extinctions. Changes in axial tilt will affect the seasons. Rising solar radiation and decreasing atmospheric carbon dioxide will ultimately lead to the extinction of all plant life, resulting in the death of most animal species on Earth.
That’s a long way off and it is possible that human beings may never find a way to inhabit another planet before becoming extinct ourselves. If we do manage to escape, then the answer will most likely lie at the intersection of how valuable the Earth and its resources will be to a civilisation that is escaping destruction, as well as our ability to harness resources found elsewhere.
[Left] © Serena Dzenis ‘Paradiso’ 2021 from the series ‘2021 ± II: Utopia Broadcasting’
[Right] © Serena Dzenis ‘Waterworld’ 2021 from the series ‘2021 ± II: Utopia Broadcasting’
How have viewers engaged with those challenging ideas?
When I started this body of work, I didn’t anticipate that people would resonate strongly with the theme of futurism, given that we were amid the stress and fatigue of the pandemic. What has surprised me is the large number of people who do not think we should colonise another planet, even if we are able to develop the necessary technology to do so. It seems that there is a strong feeling out there that everything humans touch, we will eventually destroy.
What have you learned about yourself – or your sense of yourself in the world – in the process of making these photographs?
The things that stand out the most for me are that, on the one hand, we are all made of the same fundamental materials (Sagan’s ‘star stuff’) and, on the other, that our individual lives are so fleeting. Each one of us who is alive now will be long gone before we discover any real meaning in the Universe. The best thing we can do is set aside our differences and learn to live together in harmony. Nothing that surrounds us will last forever.
In the process of making these photographs I’ve found a way to be in the present. And that is something that I can enjoy, if only for a quiet, fleeting moment.
Serena Dzenis was born in the State of Victoria, Australia, in 1984. She studied documentary photography at RMIT University, Melbourne. In Australia she worked as a mental health clinician in youth early psychosis crisis assessment and adult forensic psychiatry, becoming Senior Vice President for the Health and Community Services Union (HACSU). During this time, she also worked as a freelance photojournalist with a focus on the music industry. In 2016, she moved to Iceland to take up the position of Editor in Chief for an Icelandic travel and landscape photography publication, and has since worked as a photographic artist, educator, and guide. Her work has featured in several exhibitions in Australia, Germany, and the United Kingdom. She has been shortlisted for a number of awards, winning first place (professional architecture) in the Eighth Fine Art Photography Awards (2021–22) and overall winner of the Being YoUnique International Photography Contest (2016). She lives and works in Reykjavík, Iceland.
This interview is a Talking Pictures original.