THESE DAYS, most flights from New York to Iceland’s main airport are red-eyes that land just before dawn. The benefit, until the darkness lingers longer, is that you’re forced to reckon with the rocky landscape through an astonishing sunrise. Last weekend I watched that crimson blaze lift over mountains and slowly illuminate the treeless, moss-covered terrain as my bus puttered along a winding and empty highway to Reykjavik’s eighth edition of Sequences, a ten-day biennial spread out across the city. It was shocking.
Not so shocking: The show’s “honorary artist” was Joan Jonas, whose recent work is inspired by Halldór Laxness’s 1972 novel Under the Glacier. The mercurial environment of Iceland has long haunted Jonas’s output. “I’m so happy to be here,” she told me. “I love Iceland. It’s a place where you always feel closer to the center of the earth because it’s bubbling up through the cracks. It’s so bare, stark, and awe-inspiring.”
One of her early 16-mm pieces, Volcano Film, 1976, stood out in her minisurvey at the Living Art Museum, expertly organized by the biennial’s curator, Margot Norton. The black-and-white film is a compilation of eruptions, which are, of course, not infrequent in Iceland. Across the city at the Culture House (not part of the biennial), a wall text in an excellent show about Icelandic art advised me how “in the middle ages, the country’s main claim to fame in Europe was the volcano Mt. Hekla, which was reputed to be the gate to Hell and spewed massive ash clouds that could even cause crop failure in mainland Europe.”
I had wanted to ask Anne Carson, who happened to be in town, for her thoughts on volcanoes as an apt (if inadequate) symbol of our volatile times, since she has a thing for painting them. (I had also just edited a smart 500 Words interview with Cauleen Smith on volcanoes as noncolonized land: “So, really, the only place you can arrive at and settle in without doing harm is at a lava berg.”) But those images of molten earth too easily slipped my mind as we entered an intimate performance by Ragnar Helgi Ólafsson and Ásta Fanney Sigurðardóttir at the project space Harbinger on Saturday evening. Here, a viewer (in this case, Carson) selects a drawing of a calendar page made by Ólafsson, and then both artists improvise a witchy song.
So much of Sequences invoked serendipitous alliances, usually with the artists attempting to conspire with natural forces. Eduardo Navarro’s performance at Kling & Bang was conceived as a collaboration with the sun, but when his partner didn’t oblige, each performer, dressed in gold from head to toe, popped a squat on the floor. During David Horvitz’s Watering a Glass Flower, a sound bath he performed at Mengi with the emerging Icelandic musician JFDR, they discovered a ghost shrimp in the resonating hourglasses. (Horvitz had accidentally scooped it up in the ocean water he poured into the vessels.) And in (From) Memory, Helena Aõalsteinsdóttier’s video in the basement of Ekkisens, a hand interacts with a stone as if it were a smartphone. The work was shot in an area of northern Iceland known for its magnetic energy that emits high-frequency sounds. During a cozy panel discussion one afternoon, the artists discussed these material aspects of their work while Björk waxed eloquently from the audience about the new kind of magic needed to get through these dark days. “We went from atoms to the cloud and now we need something else.” NBD.
At the theater Tjarnarbíó on my last night in town, Jonas performed Moving Off the Land, a by turns uplifting and depressing lecture-demonstration on mythmaking and the oceanic realm. By uplifting I mean that she deals in the miraculous, and by depressing I mean climate change, though she never uses that phrase in the piece. “I’m not proselytizing,” she told me. “I don’t have to talk to my audience that way. I don’t want to make Channel 13, you know?” Moving Off the Land revolves around recent works she’s performed in Venice, Vienna, and Kochi, and for this version she teamed up with Icelandic composer and violinist María Huld Markan.
“We all come from the sea and we have memories of it in our minds and bodies,” Jonas began, slipping in quotes from Italo Calvino, Rachel Carson, Herman Melville, and Emily Dickinson, among others. In my favorite section, she stood before a video projection of sea life and went full mystic, her body convulsing with the divine love of some invisible entity, which seemed to be vigorously shaking the bells she held in each hand. In a flash on stage I was sure that Björk’s something else appeared, then left. Bless bless.