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Walking – in gardens

An assessment of the performativity of spaces and places in Húsavík Gardens
Jan Aksel Harder Klitgaard
Þjóðfræðingur, með mannfræði sem aukagrein.


Through the heart of the small north Icelandic fishing town Húsavík runs the river Búðará emptying the lake Botnsvatn above the town and separating the town in a northern and southern part. For centuries the locals have farmed the banks on both sides of Búðará and kept their livestock in enclosures close to their homesteads. As the town expanded during the 20th century and incorporated many of the home-fields into more urban areas, the farms were pushed further away from the river. However not all former home-fields were transformed into building sites. On the southern banks of the river an area, outlined by the streets Garðarsbraut and Reykjaheiðavegur to the west and to the south, and the hill Skógargerðismelur to the east, was given by the town council to the local women’s society, Kvenfélag Húsavíkur, with the purpose of landscaping a garden for the locals and guests to enjoy. The project of landscaping the garden, colloquially called Skrúðgarðurinn today, was launched 16th of July 1975 when Kvenfélagið and members of the local Rotary Club planted 17 Larch trees and six Rowans. All together that year, 391 trees and shrubs were planted in the Húsavík Gardens.

I have worked for many years as a gardener in this garden and know almost every plant and corner of the garden. In this essay I wish to stroll along the paths in Húsavík Gardens and discover, rediscover, examine and interpret the performativity of the places and spaces within the garden. In short I wish to look at how these various places and spaces perform, how we as the audience interact with the performances and the performer, and what impact these performances have on us as an audience. I will try to accomplish this task by; firstly looking at place and space theory, using among others Michel de Certeau and Vivian M. Patraka. Secondly I will try to connect these performing spaces to means of communitas-creating rituals, conditions of liminality and liminoid, storytelling and healing referring among others to Victor Turner and Arnold van Gennep. I will start the walk with a broad overview of the whole garden and its performance and connection to the town, and from there I will choose six places within the garden to scrutinise and mirror in the chosen approaches and theories.

Spaces, places and their functions

Many scholars from a variety of disciplines such as philosophy, human geography, sociology, history and so forth have pondered and theorised about the concepts of place and space for many years. As a point of departure in this article I will use French scholar Michel de Certeau’s theory of spaces and places as he describes them in his book The Practice of Everyday Life, in which he makes ʻat the outset […] a distinction between space (espace) and place (lieu).ʼ Furthermore de Certeau concretises this distinction by defining place in this way:

A place (lieu) is the order (of whatever kind) in accord with which elements are distributed in relationships of coexistence. It thus excludes the possibility of two things being in the same location (place). The law of the “proper” rules in the place: the elements taken into consideration are besides one another, each situated in its own “proper” and distinct location, a location it defines. A place is thus an instantaneous configuration of positions. It implies an indication of stability.

So a place can to be understood as a stable physical unit consisting of an element, occupying the place, by whose present the place is defined. With regard to space de Certeau states that ʻa space exists when one takes into consideration vectors of direction, velocities and time variables.ʼ And he continues:

Thus the space is composed of intersections of mobile elements. It is in a sense actuated by the ensemble movements deployed within it. Spaces occurs as the effect produced by the operations that orient it, situate it, temporalize it, and make it function in a polyvalent unity of conflictual programs or contractual proximities. On this view, in relation to place, space is like the word when it is spoken, […] in contradiction to the place, it has thus none of the univocity or stability of a proper.

So while place is defined as a stable unit, space is defined as being a non-stable concept occurring due to action. The American scholar Elizabethada A. Wright elaborates on de Certeau’s theory and speaks of place as being physical and space as being spiritual, and she uses the metaphor of a mirror seeing the material mirror as lieu, being real, while espace is the reflection, and only exists in the mind of the viewer. However an interesting point in this connection is the confusion that occurs, which Wright also mentions, and is due to the fact that places can become spaces just as spaces become places. And de Certeau himself words it like this: ʻStories thus carry out a labor that constantly transforms places into spaces or spaces into places.ʼ It is thus the stories conveyed that make places and spaces, and a dynamic interaction between the two, are added when people interact with them and the places and spaces are affected by the individual. Vivian Patraka, Professor of English, states that ʻeven the sites of artefacts whose meaning is intended to be self-evident can become spaces, instead of places, changed by the paths visitors themselves create as historical subjects.ʼ So it is apparently, among others, the stories told by places and spaces, in other words the performance of the place, in conjunction with people and their personal history, the audience, that determines when a place becomes a space or vice versa. Places can become spaces and spaces can become places, however it is not necessary that this dynamic occurs, and for most of the time places do not change into spaces due to their mentioned properties of stability and constancy. However the argument that this dynamic exists between spaces, places and people as historical subjects, is essential for some of the interpretation of the space and place that I will put forward in this article regarding performing spaces and places in Húsavík Gardens.

The stories told in places and within spaces can be of the greatest importance, as it it these stories and how we interact with them that potentially make us who we are, as I will show and argue in this article. They help us to create our identities, for example historian Peter Borsay argues that ʻmyth, memory and place interact[ed] to generate identities,ʼ and psychologists Nick Hopkins and John Dixon state that ʻ[o]ur understanding of who belongs, who has rights, […] the nature where one may feel ‘at home‘, […] are all contingent upon the construction of space, place, and identity.ʼ Ultimately Canadian geographer Edward Relph rounds it up and states that a significant part of being human ʻis to live in a world that is filled with significant places: to be human is to have and know your place.ʼ Hence it seems fair to conclude that it is the interaction on the personal level, how you know your place, the interaction between space and place and the audience, as the historical subject, that creates the dynamics between place, space and person. Thus the individual can enter a space within a place and experience the performance of that place, the stories told, as de Certeau puts it.

So what is it that goes on within these places? Many things, I guess. However in this article I will restrict myself to looking at issues with regard to performances of places and storytelling, and in which ways these stories create a sort of ritual space and to an extent a sense of communitas, which then can be connected to identity creation and a healing process, the healing element being one of the features and functions of performances according to professor of performance studies, Richard Schechner. Using the term performance linked with concepts of places and spaces can be problematic glancing at scholar definition of performances as ʻa tangible, bounded event that involves the presentation of rehearsed artistic actionsʼ as scholar Henry Bial states. Nonetheless Schechner ties up the term of performance with his concept of restored behaviour and sees performances best understood as being related to being, doing, showing doing and explaining doing. The being in performance is easily fulfilled by both places and spaces. The performance of places and spaces however can better be understood using the idea of performativity. That there is more to performance than just action is also recognised by Bial stating that performance ʻis a way to understand all types of phenomenon.ʼ Performativity is used to indicate something that is similar to a performance and Schechner employs the term ‘as performance‘ in this connection, which, as I see it, explicitly pins down what this is all about. American scholars Andrew Parker and Eve Sedgwick ask ʻ[w]hen is saying something doing something?ʼ Subsequently it seems fair to ask, not just if, but when is just being there doing something, telling something? Many places and their performativity are man-made in order to invoke a certain scenario, like for example maps, and such places resemble Patraka’s sites which are intended to be self-evident, mentioned above.

As a part of the performance in places is the idea of the ritual. Bial argues that ʻ[r]ituals are performances that provide structure […] to our lives … [and that] … [t]hey are a means of ordering the world to fit our perception.ʼ Schechner takes it a bit further connecting ritual to memories and stating that ʻ[r]ituals also help people (and animals) deal with difficult transition, ambivalent relationships, hierarchies, and desires,ʼ and adds that ritual has the ability to see people into a second reality. This entrance into a period of second reality might be seen as what French folklorist Arnold van Gennep termed as transition rites or liminal rites, which involve the liminal phase, or liminal period as British anthropologist Victor Turner terms it. However the interpretation of what goes on within the liminal period has been divided into two different concepts by Victor Turner: the liminality concept which involves an element of unchangeability and the everyday like liminoid concept. In the context of this article the concept of liminoid is of the outmost importance as most interaction between people and places in the Húsavík Gardens are on a voluntary and everyday basis. Finally I want to bring into the discussion the notion of communitas, a feeling of social cohesion and sense of connectedness created within the ritual process, Turner referring to communitas as ʻ[a] blend […] of lowliness and sacredness, of homogeneity and comradeship.ʼ It is within the frame of the above approaches and theories that I would like to examine some of the places in the Húsavík Gardens and interpret the performative interactions between people and places as healing encounters involving a sense of communitas within the ritualistic liminoid space. I will argue that within these spaces of liminoid conditions, stories of healing and communitas are being performed by the places.

Húsavík Gardens

As mentioned in the introduction Húsavík Gardens are located in the heart of the town of Húsavík on the southern banks of the river Búðará where it connects to and radiates out towards the surrounding town, in all directions. Even though the garden is located in this fixed place, the contours of the garden are quite blurry and not that explicitly defined, and the multiple entrances into the garden makes it possible to enter, exit and reenter the garden without being fully aware of it. This blurriness of the place adds, in my opinion, to the magical experience of the garden, where you all of a sudden can find yourself surrounded by softer contours than the concrete houses and asphalt outside of the garden. Such blurry boundaries are a common essential aspect of performance according to Schechner. Of course such an experience is more likely to occur for a total stranger, but I believe that also locals can be lead into the garden unconsciously, even though deliberate encounters with the garden are equally likely to occur. Once in the garden however the performative interaction between the garden and the individual is highly dependent on the mood and outlook of the person. It is possible to rush through the garden on your way to the other end of town. However if you, in the words of American author and philosopher Henry David Thoreau in his essay Walking, are ʻready to leave father and mother […] have paid all your debts […] are a free man; then you are ready for the walk,ʼ ready to experience the performance of the garden. Thus if you are ready to encounter and interact deliberately as Patraka’s historical subject to a, in Relph’s term, significant place, things may happen.

A second aspect of blurriness is the ever-changing appearance of the garden due to changing weather and seasons, changing the sensory experience of moving around in the garden and thus the possibilities for the garden and the places within the garden to perform. On a warm summer day the garden invites you to stay for while and indulge yourself, while on a rainy and stormy October day or during a winter blizzard urge you to hurry home. The changing colours of leaves, the experiencing of delimited, enclosed places becoming transparent when the leaves start to fall in the autumn, only to reemerge as delimited places the next spring, adds to possible and different performances and stories told on a weekly, daily basis, even within an hour or a matter of few minutes.
A third aspect to the blurriness of the garden is in conjunction with the river, the river being a perceived natural part of the garden. As a place the Húsavík Gardens are, apart from being situated central in the town, equipped with four bridges (see Pic. 1), clearly within the outline of the garden, which are used daily by many people on their way to or from work, school and so forth. In this way the garden both divides the town with the river into two halves and connects with the bridges the town and its inhabitants, not only on a physical level, but even more on a mental level, that it is our garden and we are all Húsvíkingar. One of the many clearly defined places in the garden that plays a major role in performing unity and communitas among the Húsvíkingar is, through the ritualistic performance of feeding mallards, the pond (see Pic. 2).


Picture 1. One of the four bridges over the river.


The pond is one of the main places in the garden and a perfect place to perform and generate communitas experiences in various ways. The pond is actually a dam and water basin built in 1916 and served until 1947 as water reservoir for electricity production to the town. In this way the pond is creating the possibility of what Turner would define as a sense of communitas with the ancestors and predecessors of the people visiting the pond today, even though the purpose of the pond and its meaning to the people has changed significantly during the last century. However in order to get the chance to experience this communitas you have to ask similar questions, as Lucy R. Lippard asks people in her search for the glocal, ʻabout the place where you live[d] or were raised. Who lived there before? What changes have been made?ʼ In short you have to get to know your place in order to be able to experience the placeʼs self-evident properties, to read the objects in it and create space, as Patraka might have termed it.

Another construction at the pond, which connects to the ancestors, are the stonewalls with grass on top, which encircles the pond area. These are made in the same way as stonewalls in old turf-houses, thus connecting the area to a long tradition of stonewall building. In this case pre-knowledge of the place is not necessary, only a visual memory of a turf-house. Here more temporal communitas with the past is being created by the pond as a place.

Pic. 2. Three generations feeding mallards at the pond.

Picture 2. Three generations feeding mallards at the pond.

Other types of potential communitas can also take place. Through an everyday ritual of visiting the pond with old bread in a plastic bag to feed the mallards, communitas is created between for example parents and children. This is a communitas creation that might be said to be brought about within the ritual of going to the bakery, walking to the pond, breaking down the bread into smaller pieces, throwing them into the water to feed the mallards, and being parent(s) and child(ren) acting together in a potential liminoid period creating yet another communitas with all of nature, in the form of mallards. Nonetheless places can turn into spaces as de Certeau states and sites can become spaces, instead of places, changed by the people themselves, according to Patraka as mentioned earlier, thus it might be noted that people do not always feed the mallards. Due to some childrenʼs experiences they choose to throw stones at the defenceless birds, swimming towards the children in the hope for a piece of bread, only to be attacked with stones. Communitas might exist between the children but the link to nature is broken and the pond as an apparent potential place for feeding mallards turns into a space functioning as a vent for possibly pent-up feelings. That the same place and similar objects, can evoke very diverse emotional experiences can be further seen in our next objects.

More than 100 species of trees and shrubs from all over the world are found in the garden, and all together thousands of trees and shrubs have been planted since 1975. All of these trees and shrubs are special in one way or the other and offer an opportunity for people to create a special space and maybe even a personal place. Some trees like a Lenga Beech tell stories of their lands of origin as far away as Tierra del Fuego, some trees like a 17 year old Swedish Whitebeam tell stories of the founding of the Icelandic Horticultural Society in 1885, as the mothertree of this clone was planted in Reykjavik in 1884 by its founder Hans George Schierbeck, still others tell stories of deep tragedy and sorrow as we will see in the below. In order to hear and understand the stories of the trees you need to know the language they speak or know their history. In this sense understanding the trees of the Húsavík Gardens is very much like understanding codified acting and theatre which Schechner mentions in his book. As mentioned many of the trees carry stories, but in this context I will restrict myself to telling the story of only two.

As you approach a small Swedish Service tree situated close to the path (see Pic. 3), you know right away, due to the thick wooden pole next to it, that this is a place, and you are invited to come and read the metal sign on the pole. While reading the sign, an interactive space is created where the tree gets an opportunity to tell its story and help you, within this space, to enter the liminoid, or maybe even the liminal, and gain an opportunity to create a communitas to all other people knowing of, or being involved in, the Sri Chinmoy Peace Run. This fragile tree standing apart from the others in a space of its own is only one of many Peace Run Trees in the world and was planted in June 2013. This performance of the tree and the pole, them telling a story of human beings wishing for peace on Earth, can thus light up your day when skies are grey, and potentially heal you.


Picture 3. The new-planted Peace Run tree in June 2013.


However, it is not all trees that have a pretty story of peace on Earth to tell. Around 20 metres from the Peace Run Tree a group of five Larch trees is situated in the lawn (see Pic 3). These trees are about 40 years old and one of them has a branching which is about two and half metres above the ground.

Pic. 4. The Larch trees, to the left, and the Peace Run tree on a winter´s day.

Picture 4. The Larch trees, to the left, and the Peace Run tree on a winter´s day.

There is no sign explaining the performance of the tree, no sign telling the story of a young man that hung himself in this Larch tree on a summer day, a couple of years ago. However knowing the story, gives you an opportunity to enter a particular space and create a place for yourself, and if you wish, communitas with the deceased. For people that knew the man in question this tree is not just a tree, it is a place. It is ʻ[a] physical place and a spiritual space, [that] confuses the symbolic and the physical to allow memories forgotten […] to survive – often silentlyʼ In short it is like a grave space in a cemetery. Again it is the individual human being as a historical subject and the local dynamic, that creates spaces and places like this. However not all memorials places are as hidden as the Larch tree. A short distance from the Larch tree group stands a beautiful bench of cast iron.

The bench stands in a small lawn, in the middle of a horseshoe shaped perennial bed (see Pic. 5) . During the summer this bed is one of the most colourful places in the garden with more than 50 different perennials of all sizes, shapes and colours. It is a place that tells a story of abundance, richness and the enormous diversity nature provides for humans. In this place, even on a rainy summer day, sitting down on the bench invokes a breathtaking experience of intersensoriality and synesthesia where the smell of thousands of flowers, the taste of the air, the tactile experience of sitting, maybe with bare feet in the humid grass, listening to blackbirds and redwings singing while trying to sate their ever hungry offspring, and looking at colours and shapes beyond the imagination, mingle into one unified experience, cut off from the sight of buildings of the surrounding town, invoking and enhancing an in-ness, a state of being a part of the place.

Pic. 5. Summer at the bench.

Picture 5. Summer at the bench.

However as the seasons change, the hues fade, and ‘leaf subsides to leaf‘, as American poet Robert Frost wrote, winter leaves the trees naked and the stems of the flowers broken, and to complete Frostʼs poem, ‘so Eden sank to grief, so dawn goes down to day, nothing gold can stay.‘ And this is the story that the place of the bench tell. Even on a summer day, you know that nothing gold can stay. But of course, who thinks about that on a warm summer day? Not many I guess. But everybody knows it is there, though they also know, that summer will return. It might be said that sitting on the bench, in the place offers an opportunity to create a sacred ritual space and enter van Gennep’s and Turnerʼs liminal or liminoid phase, in which you might be able to get a deeper understanding of life allowing the place and its experience to transform you.

But there is more to the bench. A small black metal plate with white letters reveals that this is not just any bench. Alongside the life-affirming experience of life and decay described above, the bench, and the place, also tell the story of Svanlaug Björnsdóttir. The metal plate on the bench unveils that this bench is a memorial for the first chairman of the Húsavík chapter of the Icelandic Horticultural Society, Svanlaug Björnsdóttir, who passed away at the age of 54. The bench is similar to the Larch tree in that this is a place where her friends in the horticultural society and her family can come to create a space of communitas with her and her work. It was Svanlaug who planned the horseshoe shaped bed and planted the flowers. The way the bench combine these two opportunities for experiences shows the characteristic and possibilities for a place to perform memories and simultaneously a deeper understanding of life and death. As a man-made structure this place is created solely for indulgence and to convey stories of life and death. Other structures in the garden were made for more applicable and practical purposes, and existed even before the garden was a garden.

Three man-made constructions in the garden reflect the earlier use of the land as farm land. Close to the river there are the ruins of a sheep house and barn that have been preserved, and further up the river the rebuilding of an old homestead (see Pic. 6) has been conducted in recent years. These structures serve new different purposes today and tell stories of ways of life in a distant past. None of these constructions are marked with signs telling their history, so in order to be able to listen to the story of the place you need once again to interact with people who know. Through such communication an extended communitas can be created in the space not only by the performance of the place between the living provider of knowledge of history and the audience, but also with the now dead human ancestors and their livestock, as well as to the living nature of past days which took the form of hay, rocks and soil. These places are not only memorials for ancestors and past ways of living, but are, as was pointed out by Borsay, Hopkins and Dixon in the paragraph about places and spaces above, active players, which have central role building rooted identities for the people living in Húsavík today, as Húsvíkingar and Icelanders.

Picture 6. The rebuilding of the homestead in process.

Picture 6. The rebuilding of the homestead in process.


In this article I have tried to connect various performance studies theories with theories of space and place, and tried to linked these theories to the Húsavík Gardens. Essential to many of my interpretations is Vivian Patraka’s idea that places can become interactive spaces due to the audienceʼs own personal histories, stressing that the personal encounter is of importance. Applying de Certeau’s idea that places can become spaces and vice versa enables us to recognise the dynamic involved in personally defined places which are created by the ritualistic spaces which people create in their search for a place. I believe I have shown the possibility of such an interpretation, not least with regard to the Larch tree which only becomes a place for those knowing the story, and can become a ritual space for interacting with the tree, and possibly the deceased. In other cases the place is of the stable nature, suggested by de Certeau, as in the case of the pond even though the spaces within the places change according to who interacts with the place as with the bread feeding families or the stone throwing children. I believe I have shown that the personal dynamic of place, space and audience is of the outmost importance when place performances are assessed.

By applying concepts of ritual, liminality and communitas I have tried to assess and explain how interactions between people and places affect people on a personal level and can heal them. I believe I have shown, that in time the garden will also be able to offer healing to the stone throwing children: If they are prepared and willing to follow Thoreau, and their hearts, then they will be ready for the walk, and to be healed.

Post scriptum.

After having worked as a gardener in the Húsavík Gardens for nearly 15 years, I ended my service there last year and moved on to new challenges. So this article is also a goodbye to the garden I care so much about. Last summer I married the love of my life in the sheep-house ruins in the garden with all of the guests being situated in the krær and on the garður. This garden thus carries many personal memories for me and in that way this article is performing a memorial for my service and life in the garden.

Picture 7. The „sýslumaður´s“ substitute, my wife and I performing at our wedding in the sheep-house ruin last summer.

Picture 7.
The „sýslumaður´s“ substitute, my wife and I performing
at our wedding in the sheep-house ruin last summer.

Post post scriptum.
The summer of 2013 a journalist from the TV station N4 asked me for an interview about the garden and I am glad I got the opportunity to show as many people as possible the garden, its secrets, its beauty, its possibilities even on a rainy day, and to tell some of the stories that the Húsavík Gardens perform.

Feel free to watch:


Books and articles

Bial, Henry. Ritual. In The Performance Studies Reader. Ed. Henry Bial. London and New York: Routledge, 2007. Pp. 87-88.

Bial, Henry. What is Performance? In The Performance Studies Reader. Ed. Henry Bial. London and New York: Routledge, 2007. Pp. 59-60.

Borsay, Peter. New Approaches to Social History: Myth, memory, and place: Monmouth and Bath 1750-1900, Journal of Social History, 39, no. 3, 2006, Pp. 867-889.

de Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Trans. Steven F. Rendall. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

van Gennep, Arnold. The Rites of Passage. Trans. Monika B. Vizedom and Gabrielle L. Caffee. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1960.

Hopkins, Nick and John Dixon. Space, Place and Identity: Issues for Political Psychology, Political Psychology, 27, 2006, Pp. 173-185.

Lippard, Lucy. Looking Around: Where we are, Where we could be. In Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art. Ed. Suzanne Lacy. Seattle: Bay Press, 1995. Pp. 114-130.

Parker, Andrew and Eve K. Sedgwick. Introduction to Performativity and Performance. In The Performance Studies Reader. Ed. Henry Bial. London and New York: Routledge, 2007. Pp. 200-207.

Patraka, Vivian M.. Spectacular Suffering: Performing Presence, Absence, and Witness at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. In Performance Studies. Ed. Erin Striff. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Pp. 82-96.

Relph, Edward. Place and Placelessness. London and New York: Academic Press, 1976.

Schechner, Richard. Performance Studies: An Introduction. (3rd ed.). London and New York: Routledge, 2013.

Sigurjón Jóhannesson. Gatan mín og gengin slóð. Húsavík: Skarpur ehf, 2010.

Sæmundur Rögnvaldsson and Björn H. Jónsson. Saga Húsavíkur. IV. Húsavík: Húsavíkurkaupstaður, 2001.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walking. 1862. Downloaded 24th of October 2015: http://thoreau.eserver.org/walking1.html

Turner, Victor. Liminality and Communitas. In The Performance Studies Reader. Ed. Henry Bial. London and New York: Routledge, 2007. Pp. 89-97.

Turner Victor. The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1967.

Turner, Victor. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-structure. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company, 1969.

Wright, Elizabethada A. Rhetorical Spaces in Memorial Places: The Cemetery as a Rhetorical Memory Place/Space, Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 35, 2005. Pp. 51-81.


Borgartréð 2010. Downloaded 24th of October 2015: http://gardurinn.is/Default.asp?Sid_Id=16322&tre_rod=002|&tId=2&FRE_ID=106126&Meira=1

Mayor Bob Filner Plants Peace Tree in San Diego. Downloaded 24th of October 2015: https://inspiringnews.wordpress.com/2013/07/06/mayor-bob-filner-plants-peace-tree-in-san-diego/

The Mayor Received an International Encouragement Award by the Home Peace Run. Downloaded 24th of October 2015: http://eldri.reykjavik.is/desktopdefault.aspx/tabid-4631/8023_read-36519

USA 16 March: Lake Mary. Downloaded 24th of October 2015: http://www.worldharmonyrun.org/usa/news/2013/florida/0316.html

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