Iceland Hopping

Mark Sladen on the Reykjavik Arts Festival


 Left: Boarding the Air Iceland plane. Middle: Ragnar Kjartansson. Right: Visitors attempt to orient themselves.

Ever fancied having a Lawrence Weiner tattooed on your bottom? The young Roman artist Micol Assaël has done just that, and it reads “sink or swim / your ass gets wet / there is no excuse.” I know this because both Assaël and Weiner were in Iceland for the opening of the Reykjavík Arts Festival and she asked him to authenticate the work—which he duly did with a kiss. This marriage of trendy young artist and gray-bearded conceptualist reflects the festival as a whole, which contains a major exhibition of the late Swiss-German artist Dieter Roth and, complementing it, an extensive program of new works by Icelandic and international artists.

The festival has an impeccable pedigree. The Roth exhibit was curated by Björn Roth, Dieter’s son and an authentic Icelander (the artist lived in the country in the late '50s and early '60s), while Jessica Morgan, Tate Modern’s It-girl and the curator of shows such as “Time Zones,” put together the contemporary portion. Morgan was herself recommended by the Iceland-born art star Ólafur Elíasson, who features prominently in the festival. Other projects include a collaboration between Björk’s hubby Matthew Barney and Gabríela Fridriksdóttir (who represents Iceland in Venice this summer) alongside new commissions from the likes of Thomas Hirschhorn, John Bock, and the soaring young duo Allora and Calzadilla.

The New York PR firm Blue Medium is publicizing the event, and the opening was attended by a small but high-powered group of international art types, with the likes of Eva Presenhuber and Beatrix Ruf from Zurich alongside Vicente Todoli and Gregor Muir from London. Even before it opened, the festival had drawn Francesca von Habsburg, the socialite and art collector, who chose to use it as a platform for a performance she has commissioned from Christoph Schlingensief. This German impresario, responsible for the controversial staging of Parsifal at Bayreuth last year, mounted a piece of total theatre involving a lot of Teutonic shouting and a dwarf.

Many in Iceland credit Elíasson for creating the high profile that contemporary art currently enjoys in the country, and the result is a thriving culture of corporate sponsorship from which the festival is clearly benefiting. For example, a gallery run by the city’s power company, Reykjavík Energy, hosts part of the Roth exhibition. Meanwhile, a state-owned power company is in the news for its proposal to flood twenty-two square miles of virgin wilderness above Vatnajokull, Europe’s largest glacier, in order to create a hydroelectric plant to service an American aluminium factory. Björk’s mum recently went on a three-week hunger strike in protest, and one of Elíasson’s contributions to the festival is a photographic series depicting the disputed territory.

Another of the exhibition’s sponsors is Air Iceland, which made two planes available the day after the opening to ferry artists, curators, and media folk around the island. The festival is taking over not only Reykjavík art venues, but many others around the country, and this was clearly seen as the only way that time-starved VIPs would get a sense of the whole program. This approach was sensible, as some very good projects are being staged outside the city—including one by young Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson involving a delicious live tableau in a derelict house. But it was also, of course, an outrageous extravagance (matched only by von Habsburg, who apparently hired another plane the next day to fly around twenty of her own special guests).

The last stop for the festival planes was Heimaey, a small island that was the scene of a violent volcanic eruption in 1973. This was the location chosen for a work by the aforementioned Assaël, whose art is apocalyptic in tone, and who spent much of the flying tour trying to persuade her fellow travellers to eat from a bag of strange-looking mushrooms. Her work consisted of a daylight firework display above the volcano, during which she could be heard to shout: “Don’t be afraid! Look into the fire and see the devil and god kissing!” The jet-lagged VIPs could hardly have been more dazed if Assaël had been allowed to carry out her original proposal—which involved burying a ton of TNT in the crater and waiting for the next eruption.