Photographer Justin Levesque considers Maine’s relationship to its subarctic neighbors — and the lines across the sea that link us.
By Brian Kevin
If you’re cruising Congress Street in Portland during the first half of this month, you may wonder what that hulking 40-foot Eimskip shipping container is doing in the middle of Congress Square Park. Did the Icelandic cargo titan, which made Portland its American port of call in 2013, stash a giant box full of intercontinental loot in the middle of the arts district?
In a sense, it did. The giant steel box houses ICELANDx207: Container, a photography exhibit (with audio elements) by Portland photographer Justin Levesque, who spent nine days aboard an Icelandic container ship last September, traveling the shipping route between Portland and Reykjavik. The residency-at-sea — first proposed by Icelandophile Levesque — revived a dormant Eimskip tradition of allowing artists free passage in exchange for a piece of art (and has since spurred a formalized residency program that’s brought aboard a handful of Maine artists).
At the ICELANDx207: Container exhibit, formal portraits of the crew are paired with recordings Levesque made aboard the ship, telling their stories.
Levesque’s work is on view in conjunction with the Senior Arctic Officials Meeting of the Arctic Council, which welcomes diplomats from Iceland, Canada, Russia, the Scandinavian nations, and elsewhere to Portland from October 4 through 6. Like the exhibit itself, the intergovernmental forum on Arctic cooperation spotlights Maine’s positioning as an American gateway to the Arctic and subarctic — a role the state has increasingly laid claim to since Eimskip’s arrival on the Portland docks.
We caught up with Levesque to talk boats, Björk, and Maine’s nascent status as an Arctic player.
When did your interest in Iceland crop up?
I bought a Björk album in 1999, and my mind was totally blown. Of course, we’d all just gotten the Internet, so I could download Icelandic music and look at photos of the Blue Lagoon [a famed Icelandic hot spring], and my love for Iceland grew from there. Then I went with my friend in 2014 — first time I’d ever left the country or done any traveling.
So we fly home, and we’re driving up Commercial Street literally the next day, and we notice the same blue shipping containers with “Eimskip” written on them as we’d seen there — Iceland had followed us home. How weird that something I’ve been obsessed with for this long is now in my backyard? A lot of people I know left Maine or traveled abroad or moved away for jobs, and I never did that. So to have been here and then have the thing I love come to me was just mind-blowing.
What were you hoping to shoot aboard a container ship in the open ocean?
I knew there was a material culture I wanted to capture: What’s on the walls? How are the tools arranged? It reminds me of how my Pépé kept his barn. And then I kept those images very distinct from the straight-up portraiture. I did
11 formal portraits on film. Shooting on film, for me, is very much like being on a ship, in that it’s this liminal object, everything slows down, it’s a time-sensitive thing. I didn’t do any portraits until the last two days — I wanted to make sure the relationships were where they needed to be.
What themes tie these images together?
It’s about understanding a certain element of humanity found at sea. For me, even in inanimate objects, there’s this inherent humanity — the hand that has to touch something, the hand that’s not there. I think a lot too about making the invisible visible to the public again. It sort of clicked with me one day — it was actually while I was in New York to see Björk perform — how I bet there’s people down there at that terminal. So what does it look like? Rose George writes in Ninety Percent of Everything that we’ve forgotten the sea, that we sort of suffer from a thing called sea blindness. So how do we rediscover it?
Do you feel like you did?
In a lot of ways, I’m maybe rediscovering my own primal Maine identity and relationship to the sea through this process. I get excited now just about going on the ferry to Islesboro. Before, it was just this mode of transportation. Now, I have this sort of nostalgia whenever I’m on the water.
So how have you come to think about Maine’s burgeoning role in Arctic and subarctic affairs?
The question I have is what comes after this Arctic Council meeting. In many ways, while we are so grateful to have Eimskip here, I think it’s making us aware about what, as Mainers, we’re able to accomplish. The mindset is that we’ve transitioned from thinking that we’re at the end of something to being at the center of something.
Sept. 30–Oct. 12. Congress Square Park, Portland. Levesque has images of Maine’s shipping industry in two ongoing exhibits in October, at the Portland Public Library and University of Southern Maine. icelandx207.com
Visit maineandthearctic.com for a full list of events surrounding the Arctic Council meeting, from lectures and workshops to restaurants serving Arctic cuisine to Arctic-themed activities at the Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine.
Photographs courtesy of Justin Levesque.