Creators of cool
At a solitary edge of the world, artists reach, project, search, question, in forms old and new and newer still
REYKJAVÍK - The Thursday before last, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, president of Iceland, welcomed artists, organizers, and others to his tidy residence on a narrow peninsula to shake hands and sip wine. Outdoors, terns darted above a calm bay and the tilting headstones of a cemetery. Inside, the white-haired head of state stood in a salon beneath a large canvas in a gilded frame: Dark swabs of paint depicted a three-masted schooner surging past snow-capped peaks.
Grimsson spoke not about the past, but about the contemporary creations of dozens of artists - from Iceland, but also Brazil, Croatia, and elsewhere - gathered for the Reykjavík Arts Festival, a 38-year-old event on this island near the Arctic Circle that has again filled museums, galleries, and public spaces with new work that will remain for much of the summer.
"Now the daring . . .," Grimsson said, about the artists and their art. "Being in our face, giving us an experience that will transform our lives."
Back in the city center, at the harbor warehouse turned into a contemporary art museum, more than a dozen musicians framed by ivy played the soft tones of a song that sounded like love. Instruments included a harp and cello, xylophone, trumpets, and a computer.
At the center of the room, a long table was laden with stacks of crackers and swirls of licorice. Hans Ulrich Obrist and Olafur Eliasson, curators of an "experiment marathon" that the next day would unite dozens of artists and scientists discussing topics as diverse as sleep patterns, wind currents, and how we laugh, stepped to a small stage.
Later, one artist, Halldór Úlfarsson, would describe the wider world of artistic abstractionists like this:
"It's a kind of think pot where stuff happens. And once in a while, out of that, something grows that people connect with better."
Eliasson told the opening night crowd of several hundred he hoped passersby and curious visitors would use the festival to connect more deeply to experimental installations around Reykjavík.
"We don't see them going out of where they live and into the art. We see them going closer to where they live and into the art," Eliasson said. "The whole idea of the coming together is not necessarily about going away, but about coming home."
Experience inside the cavernous confines of the Reykjavík Art Museum depends on which way you turn.
In one room: white walls and fluorescent bulbs of red, blue, and green.
In another: blown-up photographs of icebergs with structural supports superimposed.
In a corridor: an overhead projector and a transparency of a layout of the museum. Each day, museum workers turn on the projector and trace their day's route onto the wall in bright colors. One drew a bed with an arrow leading from it into the building.
On the second floor, in another room: four models of houses, perhaps two feet by two, made of plaster and wood. Parts of walls and roofs are missing, and it is not clear whether they are building up, or breaking down.
Four small signs on the gallery wall note the origins of each house: the name of the owner, the address for which it was designed, and the architect who plotted it. Each was designed between 1925 and 1930 for a neighborhood in the capital. None of the houses was ever built.
Katrin Sigurdardóttir, the sculptor who made the models, dug the designs from museum archives and computerized them. She built the models out of plaster, then broke them. She threw one, for example, from the roof of a six-story building in Brooklyn. She patched the broken models with wooden supports.
"They oscillate between attempting to exist and ceasing to exist," Sigurdardóttir said. "There is constantly the question of: 'Do they exist?' "
Sigurdardóttir, who was raised in Reykjavík before moving to New York, stood before her model houses.
"It's the whole setting for a life," she said, "but the life isn't there."
The president said it that first night: "Perhaps nobody can explain how we have created a modern 21st-century society. But there is an important message for the world: If we can do it, everywhere else can too."
He was talking about Iceland. Humans arrived in the year 871, more or less. Today's population: 300,000. The capital, home to 130,000 of them, feels like a college town. Its residents are already enjoying near-endless daylight that, by August, will quickly turn toward darkness. Yet the nation, whether for its ethereal rock bands or wind-swept terrain, has a reputation for cool.
"I don't accept the idea," Grimsson said, "that we are so special that such a river of creativity can flow [only] through this country."
There is no getting around the physical intensity of Iceland. Two minutes from the airport terminal, more darting terns. Fields of lava rock. Little stacks of stones - beacons, perhaps, to lead the way. Bays are gray and green, really, but also as if colored by a brush, in swift strokes that will not last. Fog smothers it all easily.
People in Iceland talk of feeling as though the world is elsewhere, away. Such solitude can give even a city dweller the innovation of a farm kid left to create his own entertainment. Add to such isolation creative minds from afar. Vladimir Ashkenazy, the Russian-born pianist and conductor who mastered Rachmaninov's Concerto No. 3 and more, married an Icelander, and was a founder of the arts festival in 1970. It has since often featured music, theater, and other performance art. This year, while there are musical and dance performances, including an opera-monodrama based on the life of Anne Frank, visual arts are the main theme for curators from London as well as Iceland.
Neri Oxman, an architect and researcher from Israel now at MIT, presented ideas that challenged traditions of design as part of the experiment marathon. After leaving the festival, she noted that in past decades international artists tended to associate with a certain movement or school. The Reykjavík gathering, said Oxman, who follows algorithms to molecular roots, had less certain structure.
For an outsider visiting Iceland, even the festival's opening weekend is a subdued thing, as though art exists as parallel reality to regular city life. A few prominent pieces, including hundreds of portraits of Icelandic children displayed on a central street corner, are set in plain view. A rich array of others, whether sculptures or video installations, concerts, or performance art, are sheltered in museums and galleries, most open for free, but all seen only by those who seek the encounter.
It is possible, then, to surf easily between art and existence: Down the street from the Reykjavík Art Museum, the Baejarins Beztu stand serves hot dogs with a classic Icelandic combination of onions, cooked and raw, ketchup, mustard, and mayo. Package tourists pass by galleries en route to remote geysers. Retro Stefson, a teenage pop band with real rhythm, jams on a cramped balcony in a record shop on a Friday afternoon. A few doors down is Start Art, a gallery smack dab on the busiest stretch of Laugavegur Street, the social heart of Reykjavík that on weekend nights hosts a daunting display of between-pub public drunkenness.
Yet when the artist Ruri, who represented Iceland at the Venice Biennale in 2003, covers Start Art's windows, all inside is awash in uncertainty. On a large screen in a small room, a video close-up of a waterfall pounds ceaselessly. On three smaller screens, looping tape shows pink-footed geese at the edge of a rising shoreline. Eggs float off nests. Mothers poke with feet and beaks. They waddle in circles.
On another wall, a video scroll of statistics tells the story: A lake in the Icelandic highlands was dammed and 70 waterfalls were drowned, along with the breeding grounds of geese and so much more, to feed industry.
It took millions of years to create the natural world. Then, in only a few, as Ruri's video scroll notes: "Water in exchange for aluminum smelter."
Comments by artists during the festival's opening weekend:
"I focus on my own backyard. That is more honest. It is easy to point the finger somewhere else. Hey you!" - Ruri
"I think it's perverse to react by ignorance. It's not sane to stay ignorant. Or indifferent." - Tea Mäkipää
"I am a farmer." What do you farm? "Things that feed humans." Such as? "Poetry . . . films. I make films." - Jonas Mekas
"All of Iceland is like a gated community in the States. Bad stuff can happen, if you live in an unsustainable way." - Halldór Úlfarsson
"Art is often this balance between taking control and giving control away." - Katrin Sigurdardóttir
"It is not just about looking at history, but it is very much looking ahead. . . . What do we expect to take with us from Iceland?" - Olafur Eliasson
In the Reykjavík pond, by the four-lane road leading to the city center, waits the half-sunken house. It is trimmed out in Icelandic authenticity: red walls, white window frames. Tidy and sure. Yet it is sinking?
Three cars slow at a light. Inside one, a driver is cranking Pearl Jam's "Jeremy." A delivery truck lurches in the opposite direction. The day before drivers had blocked streets to protest $8-a-gallon gasoline.
Úlfarsson, who created the sunken house, called "Atlantis," with Tea Mäkipää, a colleague from Finland, asks for only a moment: He wants you to think about mortality.
"This is a one-image deal," Úlfarsson said. "You take it in immediately, and then you can start to work it out. To see it tilted like this, it is somehow disturbing."
We all choose what we want to consume. Television channels and wooded trails. Poetry and fast food. Baseball.
In stores along Laugavegur Street, T-shirts have images of Iceland, and of George W. Bush. A sign above one shop advertises well-marketed heritage: "Elves . . . Excursions . . . Trolls . . . Wool Shop . . . Northern Lights . . . Ghosts."
Meanwhile, new creations stir in the think pot of art.
In the i8 Gallery, a 17-year-old member of Retro Stefson - "just a poor student" - holds his drumsticks and lingers briefly by a hanging sculpture by Ernesto Neto. Neto is a star from Brazil, and at i8 has used metal mesh, rocks, and synthetic fiber to make a bulbous contraption.
What does the drummer think?
Or, the kids racing through the halls of the Reykjavík Art Museum, screeching to a halt in the doorway of the room with Sigurdardóttir's house models?
Or, the family in the minivan, slowing and staring as they pass Halldór Asgeirsson working in a small yard only a block from the 24-story spire of Hallgrims Church? Asgeirsson sparks a blow torch and melts chunks of volcanic rock hung from low branches: real-time sculpture. It is not yet 6 in the evening.
On a staircase inside the ASI Art Museum, which is hosting Asgeirsson's exhibition, a long-haired man with a north European accent speaks English to a friend as they descend.
"I think," he says, "it is an important question, this existential question."
On the second floor of the Reykjavík Art Museum, just past the four model houses, a sign on a door states that if the door is closed it will remain locked for five minutes.
The room beyond is white and bare, save for a concrete column. There is no explanation.
Enter the empty room? What do you think?
The door shuts with a click. Minutes pass. Lights dim. Solitude. A low rumble descends from above. Time stops in total darkness.
Tom Haines can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.