Land of Plenty

Dawn Chan at the 30th Reykjavik Arts Festival

Left: Artists Berlinde De Bruyckere and Bjorn Roth with curator Birta Guðjónsdóttir. Right: National Gallery of Iceland director Halldór Björn Runólfsson, Reykjavik mayor Dagur Bergþóruson Eggertsson, and American Ambassador to Iceland Robert Cushman Barber. (All photos: Dawn Chan)

WHEN IT COMES TO THE ARTS, Iceland has somehow figured out how to consistently punch above its weight. It may only have 323,000 residents. (Manhattan hasn’t been so small since 1820.) But it’s a country that, last year, managed to capture headlines and open international dialogue with its pavilion at the Venice Biennale, where Christoph Büchel set up a temporary mosque that was promptly shut down by Venetian authorities citing security concerns.

As it turns out, a good many high-profile artists have Icelandic connections hidden in plain sight. Büchel lives in Iceland. Artist Roni Horn has a long history with the place. The family of the late Dieter Roth is Icelandic. So was Steina Vasulka, who cofounded (with her husband) that beloved New York experimental arts venue known as the Kitchen.

As Icelanders geared up this year for the Reykjavik Arts Festival, Roth’s son and erstwhile collaborator, Bjorn Roth, hosted an intimate Friday night dinner in honor of Berlinde de Bruyckere, who was inaugurating a solo show at the National Gallery of Iceland. It was a low-key event at Slippbarinn, a harborside venue filled with retro furniture and mannequins. Before guests dug into cold cuts and seafood soup, Roth gave a toast that prompted laughter. It was pure gibberish, or so I was told. It sounded just like Icelandic to the uninitiated.

Among those gathered were festival director Hanna Styrmisdóttir and Iceland’s culture minister, Illugi Gunnarsson. The director of the National Gallery of Iceland, Halldór Björn Runólfsson, reminisced about discovering Olafur Eliasson’s work for the first time at a grad exhibition at the Royal Danish Academy. Meanwhile, talk at another corner of the table turned to the Marrakech Biennale. (Did you know argan oil comes from argan nuts that have first been excreted by goats?) And that’s the art world in a nutshell. You find yourself in one faraway land, talking about another faraway land. Some at the table had just returned from Art Wuzhen; others were heading to the Berlin Biennale. It’s all enough to give you the traveler’s version of impostor syndrome, if you’re like me: I dread the day when someone flips through my passport and discovers that it is shamefully devoid of stamps.

Left: Skuta Helgason of Distributed Art Publishers. Right: Reykjavik Arts Festival director Hanna Styrmisdóttir and Icelandic Art Center director Björg Stefánsdóttir.

None of this is meant to imply that the dinner for De Bruyckere was a bacchanal of jet-setting pretensions. On the contrary, the art scene on hand seemed refreshingly down-to-earth. As curator Birta Guðjónsdóttir noted, many young Icelandic artists make plans to leave the country and work elsewhere. “But people come back. There’s a different kind of access here. As an artist, you can meet curators in the proximity that a small city allows, that you can’t in London or Berlin.” And not just curators: The next day, at De Bruyckere’s opening, the Mayor of Reykjavik turned up, clearly on a first-name basis with many in attendance. The American ambassador turned up too, as did Skuta Helgason of Distributed Art Publishers.

One of the weekend’s biggest occasions was the opening of Berg Contemporary’s second show. Thanks to Berg, which launched earlier this year, Reykjavik now has a grand total of four galleries. Downstairs, visitors took in atmospheric acrylic and spray-painted canvases by Hulda Stefánsdóttir, while in the offices above, gallery owner Ingibjörg Jónsdóttir welcomed a crowd that included Kristján Guðmundsson (who represented Iceland at the Venice Biennale in 1982) and Finnbogi Pétursson (who represented the country nearly two decades later). I listened in as Berg director Margrét Áskelsdóttir told a strange tale of kismet: Back when the building was a glass factory, her grandfather had worked in an office upstairs. Later, when the venue was renovated and converted into its current white-cube state, she discovered that her desk turned out to be exactly where her forebear used to work. “Maybe the spirit of my grandfather had something to do with it,” she joked.

At a show out in the suburbs, the guidance of spirits gave way to the warnings of climatologists. There, the artist-run Living Art Museum’s bracing exhibition—which explored global warming and geologic time—included scribbled-on whiteboards, salvaged from science labs by artist Hildigunnur Birgisdóttir, and embroidered maps by Anna Líndal. Just south of Reykjavik, the Hafnarborg Center featured a project by Egill Sæbjörnsson. Bedecked in a baker’s hat and overalls, Sæbjörnsson welcomed visitors who were seated at several long tables, where they were invited to build architectural elements out of a Play-Doh-like mixture. The resulting brick walls, toilets, staircases, and armoirs will be baked, then enlarged, then assembled into a large-scale environment at the museum, in all their lopsided, dented glory.

Left: Curator Annabelle von Girsewald and artist Egill Sæbjörnsson, with dealer Börkur Arnarson. Right: Artist Katrín Sigurdardóttir and Hafnarborgar director Ágústa Kristófersdóttir.

According to his dealer, Börkur Arnarson, Egill’s work responds to the precision of products like AutoCAD. Arnarson—who owns I-8 gallery—himself was bent over a section of table, adding final touches to his doughy version of a weathervane. “It just goes to prove,” he said dryly, “that behind every gallerist is an artist.”

The festival was big enough to be expansive, but not so big that you had to sacrifice any one friend’s opening for another’s performance. There was dance and music and literature going in parallel too, but over the course of the weekend, fans of visual art collectively followed an orbit leading between Sæbjörnsson’s participatory piece, a show of fanciful figures by Gabríela Friðriksdóttir, and a two-person exhibition featuring John Zurier and Hreinn Friðfinnsson. That latter exhibition was a canny pairing, with both artists using landscape as a springboard for abstract painting and conceptual play.

Friðfinnsson may deserve more recognition in the US than he gets, but his star shines brightly in Iceland. Crowds mobbed him like pilgrims waiting for benediction. A smaller group—one that wanted to worship not only the artist but also the art—signed on to another pilgrimage into the outdoors. The destination: a Land art piece by Friðfinnsson, installed at an undisclosed, remote location somewhere in the far reaches of a lava field.

When the work was included in LA MoCA’s “Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974,” Friðfinnsson’s team did not even provide the show’s organizers with precise coordinates. “The GPS data we gave them is actually like a five-mile radius,” confessed Arnason, his art dealer as well. The reason behind the obfuscation? Hreinn wanted people to stumble on his work serendipitously rather than seek it out.

Left: Artists Ingibjörg Jónsdóttir and Hulda Stefánsdóttir. Right: Berg director Margrét Áskelsdóttir and Leifur Björnsson.

And so, instead of giving smartphone directions, Arnason led a caravan out of Reykjavik. It felt like the 1980s all over again: checking your rearview mirrors to make sure your friends were still in sight, seeing landscapes straight out of Björk music videos. We pulled over into a desolate, wind-whipped stretch of lava, dirt, wildflowers, and lichen, and piled on extra mittens and wool scarves. “I hope I can find the site,” said Arnason, as he led us past boulders toward the horizon.

After about fifteen minutes and no wrong turns, we reached the edge of a giant crater: a collapsed volcano. Down below, at the very middle, was a mound of pumice that was once the volcano’s cap. Upon it sat Friðfinnsson’s work. It was simple, straightforward: A minimal metal frame of a one-room abode. The work, titled Third House, is the most recent iteration of a project by Friðfinnsson that drew inspiration from an aristocratic character in an Icelandic novel who decides to build his house inside-out, with wallpaper as its façade, to welcome the outside as indoors.

Six people were needed to move Friðfinnsson’s frame across that expanse of lava and down into the crater. Friðfinnsson is seventy-three and wheelchair-bound. He obviously couldn’t join for the hike. Nonetheless, he was so committed to his practice that, the very next day, he flew in on a helicopter to the site, so that he could hover over his artwork and check up on its installation.

Land art artists are the real deal. They’re poets, bodybuilders, naturalists, and survivors. They’re the characters in Herzog films and Hemingway novels. After a good dose of Land art, everything else seems puny in comparison.

Left: Hreinn Friðfinnsson's Third House. Right: Artist Hreinn Friðfinnsson.