Iceland of Fire, Water and Light

Ruri and Johann Johannson, installation at the Reykjavik Art Museum, 2008. COurtesy the artists and Sequences.

This past week I was in Reykjavik, Iceland attending and participating in the Sequences Real Time Festival. Needless to say, it was a strange time to have come just days after the financial crisis blanketed the entire country. Friends from far and wide were emailing with comments such as “historical” and “unprecedented” to describe the predicament that by comparison, made Main Street look like a ticker tape parade.

The mood was somber, uncertain, and optimistic at the same time as the drinks went down and the show went on. A large contingent of friends and colleagues (from the Kling & Bang collective) who were going over to the Frieze Art Fair to re-create Reykjavik’s defunct but legendarily bacchanal Sirkus bar relayed feelings of reluctance but determination. How will the English react to such potential callous activity in times of turmoil? Apparently, everyone loves a good party, and by all accounts, the reception was just dandy.

At Sequences, related or not, some of the strongest works augured the crises and responded with messages about Nature reclaiming its own, in big and small ways. At the Reykjavik Art Museum, Rúrí, in collaboration with composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, created a visual and sound installation that invoked a quasi international summit on the environment, complete with choir barking texts from the former’s collected discussions on water. Rúrí, a 2003 Venice Biennale artist best known for her “archive of water” project, projected a massive, rushing waterfall on a large screen for the duration of the 45 minute performance, while musicians bearing gongs and flashlights rallied and mixed it up with the assembled mass. The water theme might also remind one of another project in Stykkishólmur, Iceland by Roni Horn, the Season 3 artist who last year created a Library of Water in the little western town.

At the opposite extreme of spectacle, Halldór Arnar Úlfarsson’s intimate Installation for Seven People at the tiny Útúrdúr bookstore was an escapist act. Taking off the mantle of collective social responsibility and in its stead donning a cap of personal meditation, the small performance was activated by the simple push of a button that revealed a private, poetic display of physics for the lucky viewer. As the title hints, the performance happened only once per day over seven days for seven people.

Elin Hansdottir and Úlfur Hansson, Helix (2008). Courtesy Sequences.

One of the most memorable performances at Sequences was the Helix collaboration between siblings Elin Hansdottir and Úlfur Hansson that took place in the evening at Grótta lighthouse. An American museum’s liability nightmare, one had to walk the rugged landscape in the darkness for a quarter mile, led only by a path of small candles. The foggy night at sea was inverted, whereby once inside the lighthouse, a smoky dense air filled the tower. A claustrophobic queue of people patiently walked up the circular stairway toward a blinding light while an invisible choir sung what is known as the “shepherd’s scale,” a tonal registry whose up and down movement is difficult to determine. As one got closer to the light… well, you had to be there.

Yoko Ono, Imagine Peace Tower (2007-08). Courtesy the artist.

Every evening one could also see from a distance Yoko Ono’s Imagine Peace Tower project. Located on nearby Viðey Island, the landscape installation honors the legacy of John Lennon, staying lit from his birth date October 9th to the anniversary of his death on December 8th. The single column of light is reminiscent of the September 11th Tribute in Light at Ground Zero. Like its visual counterpart in New York, Imagine Peace Tower’s infinite beam is a presence that is at once awing, ghostly, soothing, natural and manmade. In the barren Icelandic landscape, entwined with the Aurora Borealis, the limits of the impossible seemed within reach. And like the protagonist from John Berger’s novel G., I too felt like I was witnessing something oddly human scale and intimate, behind the scenes of history happening at that very moment.