It is impossible to upstage the spectacular beauty of the Icelandic landscape. Yet perhaps in no inhabited place does the earth narrate geological history more eloquently, as it continually coughs up magma and expands underfoot. The island’s inhabitants have an exceptionally intimate relationship with the vagaries of the volatile climate and savage terrain: precipitous fjords and dramatic gorges, steam-spewing fissures and roiling geysers, gloppy lava fields and icy lagoons, which is impossible to articulate in mere words. But two recent art exhibitions and a new museum offer poetic meditations on the country’s profoundly magical nature.
The exhibition Alas Nature, at the National Gallery of Iceland in Reykjavik, aimed to expand the definition of landscape—constructed and natural, emotional and objective, harnessed and untamed, animistic and scientific—through a survey of more than 50 artists, including Ólafur Elíasson and Roni Horn. While reflecting the trajectory of society’s increasing mechanisation and urbanisation, works ranged from landscape paintings and serial photographs to humorous faux-scientific dioramas and human orifice-scapes.
The centerpiece of the show, Katrin Sigurdardottir’s installation ‘High Plane’, (displayed until 10 February), plays with scale to create a mind-blowing perspective of a glacial landscape; ascend a ladder and your head emerges into a bright lofty space lit by skylights and populated by crystalline candy blue islands scattered on a flat white surface, becoming one of the continents. Merging the constructed and the conceptual, the immersive environment depicts nature as both monumental and intimate by viscerally heightening its perception as an all-encompassing projection—inner versus outer, subjective versus concrete. Its fantastical cartoon quality, conveyed through the fluorescent colours and miniature playground scale, highlights both our alienation from and our soaring oneness with the earth. But, farther east along the southern coast at the Jökulsárlón lagoon, you find it resembles a real place, with floating icebergs of luminescent blue variegated with streaks of ancient black crust. Imagination is fused with reality.
American-born Roni Horn’s Vatnasafn/Library of Water, a unique space dedicated to her ongoing concerns, opened this spring in Stykkishólmur—the gateway to the remote and wild Westfjords—in a former public library, a striking modernist building set on a bluff overlooking the quaint harbour town. Filling the luminous interior, a permanent installation captures and compacts a wild element of nature as if to discover its essence, producing an outside-in sensation. The artist and her team melted ice from 24 Icelandic glaciers and encased it in floor-to-ceiling translucent columns, like time capsules, containing the uncontainable, each liquid displaying its own colour based on the glacier’s geological history. You can read them like the trunks of trees or examine them as giant test tubes preserving a substance fast becoming extinct as global warming takes hold.
The panoramic view of the landscape appears distorted through the limpid pillars, seemingly folded into the room. Inscribed in yellow lettering on the soft latex floor are blustery words that describe different characteristics of weather in both Icelandic and English—terms that also apply to the moods that rise inside us like the sea. Most of all it is a calm, contemplative space (you are required to take off your shoes), and now also serves as a community center, hosting yoga classes, AA meetings, a woman’s chess club and a writer-in-residence programme.
An accompanying book, Weather Reports You, Steidl, 2007, records local residents’ accounts of their relationship and experiences with the weather, along with a snapshot of the place they come from. Described as a collective self-portrait, the texts are taken from interviews conducted by an intrepid brother and sister team, assisted by their father, a former broadcast journalist, as part of an expanding archive of ‘weather reports’ to be collected on the website, www.libraryofwater.is. Horn writes, ‘Some say talking about the weather is talking about oneself’. These touching personal memories, tender and tragic by turns, comprise a universal expression of our interdependence with the environment.
Horn has visited Iceland regularly since 1975, and its wilderness and isolation have inspired many of her best-known works. This summer the Reykjavik Art Museum mounted a major exhibition dedicated to her work, entitled My Oz, referring to the transformative effect the country has had on her. Four succulently sensuous cast-glass sculptures evoke its captivating nature: the enormous candy red squares and honey-hued disks appear more or less liquid and quivering depending on the quality of light emanating from the windows. Here and there ephemeral aluminum-and-plastic wands hung on or set against the walls are inscribed with suggestive quotations such as ‘Her eyes, intimate but untouchable were the blue of great distances after sunset’, 1999-2005, and ‘To shut our eyes is to travel’, 2006, by Horn’s muse Emily Dickinson. The painting ‘Gurgles, Sucks, Echoes’, 1993, simply containing those three words in yellow on black, could refer to a geyser or the stages of human life from birth to death.
Returning to the weather, a series of 100 photos entitled ‘You Are the Weather’, 1994-95, focus on the face of a woman emerging from a pool of water, portraying her subtly changing moods, reminiscent of the anthropomorphic moon and its tidal emotions. ‘Cabinet of’, 2001, is an installation of 36 photographs of a clown’s face, a blurry white cloud with red lips mutating through a lexicon of climatic expressions that seem to be taking shape in response to an imperceptible wind. Fifteen large close-ups of water— ‘Still Water (The River Thames, For Example)’, 1999, display various qualities of turbidity and rippling effects, and are underscored with footnotes that explore the essence of the river through the artist’s personal reflections and stories about disturbing things happening in that water. Horn is particularly inspired by the element of water: it is inside and outside of us, essential to us, mirroring, calming, sustaining, and threatening us with its overabundance or scarcity.
With its sublime solitude, Iceland seems to embody the fusion of spirit and matter, providing the ideal medium through which to portray nature as our existential mirror. And these Icelandic exhibitions evocatively confound interior and exterior dimensions to illustrate our inextricable link with the earth, so palpable in this place of extremes—where hot water is piped into your house rather than cold. It is easy to feel that there is a kindred—but often angry—spirit inhabiting the landscape, manifested in trolls born from quivering knolls and other unruly features.
Cathryn Drake is a writer based in Rome