Cairns: Follow your own path at the University of Hull

Published: Monday 8th May 2017 by Courtney Farrow

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Some distinctive figures have popped up on the University of Hull’s campus.

They bear a striking resemblance to the Voyage statue, which looks out across the joining of the River Hull and Humber Estuary. This is because they have been created by the same Icelandic artist, Steinunn Thórarinsdóttir.

“I am so excited to be back in Hull. It’s a very special place for me,” Steinunn enthuses. “The Voyage project was so unique and became such a big collaboration and a wonderful experience.”

The sculptures at the university, called Cairns, celebrate Hull’s connection with Iceland. Steinunn tells us that cairns are piles of stones that are a common sight in the Icelandic landscape.

“In the old days they were used as way-finders, leading people from one far away place to another,” she explains. “There was no GPS then! The symbolic meaning of the Cairns sculpture trail reflects this old idea of way-finding.”


Steinunn hopes that each human trail marker will guide people around the campus, bringing a new experience to those visiting the university.

“We all need to find our place in the world,” she tells us. “The campus is such a beautiful frame for the work, so it feels like they have always been there. As if they have found a home and place in the world.”

The ten sculptures represent a journey. Some of the figures emerge out of weathered steel boxes, suggesting that they have the opportunity to move onto their next destination.

Others look frozen, as if they are having a moment of contemplation and considering the next steps that they need to take.

“All the figures are based on my older son’s body,” Steinunn points out. “The making of each sculpture is a long process. so the end result may not look like him. Still, this brings the works closer to me and makes them a family.”

Steinunn starts by creating a plaster bandage mould of her son. She then casts plaster into it and begins adding and taking away from the original shape.

Once she is happy with how it looks, the original is taken to a foundry, which will create a sand mould of the shape. Hot metal liquid is then poured into the sand mould.


“Once the metal cools down, the sand mould is broken open and the metal figure is revealed. It’s almost like a birth!”

Steinunn has been making figurative work for over four decades. She is clearly fascinated by the human form and its beauty:

“The human being in all its complexity and strangeness is a constant inspiration.”

Whilst the statues are based on her son’s body, the figures remain androgynous:

“Their neutrality encourages discourse and interaction, but at the same time leaves room for interpretation. Each and every one of us can find our own meaning.”

The sculptor is already thinking about her next project, Trophies. This will be on display as part of the Targeted Interventions exhibition in Dresden’s Military Museum in September.

“The show coincides with a special exhibition in the museum called Gender and Violence,” she explains. “Trophies is a 14-figure aluminium installation placed on columns of the old armoury building, where there used to be trophies and emblems celebrating war and victory.”

Her figures will replace those old trophies: “They celebrate humanity in its vulnerability but also its strength.”

You can view the Cairns sculptures around the University of Hull until Sunday 8 October 2017. Make sure to take a selfie with them all!


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Published: Monday 8th May 2017 by Courtney Farrow

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