Elina Birkehag, D for Daughter

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by Spector Books (here). Softcover (17 x 24 cm), 304 pages, with 45 black and white and 112 color illustrations. Includes texts by the artist and contributions by Amelia Groom & M. Ty, Quinn Latimer, Meg Miller, Jungmyung Lee, Matilda Kenttä & Linnea Rutz, and Jennie Tiderman Österberg. Design by Laslo Strong. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The work of Elina Birkehag, a Stockholm-based artist, explores “writing and inscription in relation to its surface, time, and context.” Birkehag has a background in graphic design, and is particularly interested in writing as “both something we have historically formed over time and are constantly shaped by in return today.” The relationship between text and body is central to her work, particularly as texts play with the visual and performative, sound, rhythm, ambiguity, and trial and error. Her artistic practice is very much centered on people’s need to communicate, and she thinks it is exciting to consider what traces we will leave behind for future generations.

Birkehag’s new photobook, titled D for Daughter, is rooted in the natural landscape of her native Sweden and tells the rather obscure story of messages inscribed in centuries-old Scotch pines. The messages were left there by female shepherds, who would leave their villages in the summer months to live and work together on the fäbod (summer farm). The intention was to take animals to graze in remote areas, saving the land nearest to the village for agricultural purposes. While herding exists in many parts of the world, it is only in Nordic culture that shepherds were exclusively young women. To communicate with each other, the women would inscribe messages on the trees; the carvings were made with small axes and left deep cuts and tracks on the pines. These messages, carved between the 17th to the early 20th centuries, became both a coded language and an assertion of their existence. 

Birkehag has spent the past five years working on this project. She photographed these “living archives”, and the book connects us with the shepherds and enables us to “read” the trees. Birkehag also makes it clear that her intention is not to write their story in her words, but rather to “create a space for dialogue, wonder and imaginations, reflecting theirs.” The women used initials to mark the trees in their surroundings – the first initial refers to their first name, the second to their father’s surname, and the last, which is always D, means daughter. In a way, this letter “D” unites all the women shepherds, and this is where the title of the book comes from. 

D for Daughter has a snow white soft cover with flaps and a cut out archival photo of an ax used for carving appears on its front and back, while the title and the artist name are placed on the spine. In addition to Birkehag’s photographs, the book contains archival images, drawings, written notes, and other findings. Inside, all of the images are arranged vertically, with one per page, and occasionally the progression is interrupted by short texts or drawings. Supporting and explanatory texts by a number of contributors, printed on a lighter paper, appear in the middle of the book. 

As we open the photobook, a brief description of the project elegantly appears on the flap, with an image of a tree trunk with carvings on the right side. The images that follow all have a very similar format, with the tree trunk placed in the center, focusing on the messages the women carved on trees. Most of the photographs were taken during summer time, with the lush green forest in the background, slightly blurred. The continuous visual flow immerses us into the forest, inviting us to read it like a book, each carved tree like a page. The photographs of the trees are interspersed with the notes Birkehag wrote in her diary while working on this project, leaves she collected in the forest, and some other materials.

When Birkehag started working on her project, she also spent time in local archives to dig up more information about these women. However, details about the carvings – which were a big part of the fäbod culture – were frustratingly missing. For Birkehag, the carvings tell of “desire, fear, love, missing, loneliness, and boredom, as well as stories of “pleasure and friendship,” and D for Daughter represents a way to fill that gap in information. This documentation is particularly important as many trees have been cut down over the years. 

These young women carved dates, their initials, and notes to each other as well as to future shepherds. There is some drama (“we’ve lost three cows”), homesickness (“I long for home”), ugly and forbidden words (“god damn that’s bad”, “we feel damn good”), and statements of their presence (“here I draw my name in honor and shame”, AED, BED, AOD). In many case, Birkehag says, she can only “guess at the meanings behind some of the symbols, acronyms, and shortcuts,” and that “neither the history of these women nor the meaning of their carvings are neat, legible, or ordered.” 

Writings by various contributors offer other perspectives and layers to Birkehag’s research. In her essay “Wood for the Trees: and other things we cannot see”, Meg Miller writes about the function of secret languages and networked communication of trees, noting that “unofficial toil of memory” was often considered “women’s work”. Miller also outlines that secret languages are often overlooked; this is the case with the carvings left by the shepherds, and the primary reason they have not been better documented. A story “I was here” by Jungmyung Lee creatively draws parallels with scratches and marks often left in the public toilets, while “To Speak of Trees” by Amelia Groom and M. Ty talks about trees and the work of Laura Aguilar, Zoe Leonard, and others in the context of the Birkehag project. 

Birkehag says that she sees this book “a collective space, one that connects this local phenomenon with contemporary culture, both inside and outside of Sweden.” As an artist’s book, D for Daughter is also an admirable example of how the photobook can be used as a creative form to tell lesser known stories and to explore the possibilities of presenting messages through new mediums.

Collector’s POV: Elina Birkehag does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via her website and Instagram page (both linked in the sidebar).

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Read more about: Elina Birkehag, Spector Books

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