I have just returned from a trip of a lifetime, a 16-day transatlantic cruise, the highlight of which was a few days in Iceland. The Arctic nation has been on my bucket list for a long time and I eagerly awaited trips to the Blue Lagoon and Gullfoss Falls.
These natural wonders didn’t disappoint but what I was most surprised and impressed by was Reykjavík’s modern and contemporary art, much of which is displayed along the city’s scenic shore walk.
Not all of these gems are immediately apparent; a tour guide pointed out that the structure I had mistaken for a small silo in the idyllic landscape across from my balcony was actually the Imagine Peace Tower, which was dedicated by Yoko Ono in memory of John Lennon on October 9, 2007. The structure is lit each year on this date, the late singer’s birthday, and brightens the winter sky until the end of December.
The chance to see a sight like this is just one of the many reasons that I am already dreaming of returning to this amazing place!
After spending the previous day on a tour bus, I wanted nothing more than to stretch my legs and the hour-long walk into town along the waterfront provided an excellent opportunity to do so. But it also offered an excellent introduction to the art of Iceland. Not 10 minutes from the ship, I stumbled upon the Sigurjón Ólafsson Museum which houses much of the renowned Icelandic sculptor’s work in his former studio. While the artist was famous for his figural pieces, the abstract examples scattered throughout the grounds provide a striking contrast to the surrounding landscape.
Iceland’s landscape dominates the work of many native artists, including Johann Eyefells, who has lived in Florida since the 1950’s but whose work focuses on the effects of nature on materials; many of his sculptures evoke the lava formations found throughout the island.
Another common theme in Icelandic art is that of history; the Viking sagas are still an important part of the nation’s culture and were frequently mentioned during my short stay to the island. The Sun Voyager, the most famous sculpture on the shore walk, draws from this history while representing the ideas of hope, progress, and freedom.
The themes of landscape and history are the focus of several exhibitions at The Culture House in downtown Reykjavík. Medieval Manuscripts: Eddas and Sagas displays important 12th century Icelandic texts and traces the impact of their stories and legends to the present day.
Millennium currently focuses on modern and contemporary Icelandic art though, as the name suggests, the goal is eventually to include art and artifacts that represent the last millennium of the nation’s history. Several of the works currently on display explore concepts of Icelandic identity through historical and geographical frameworks. My favourite of these was Sigurð Guðmundsson’s Mountain, a photograph documenting one of the artist’s Fluxus-inspired “situations” in which he buried himself among boots, bread, and books as well as natural materials found on the island.
However, a short walk down the street from The Culture House reveals that not all Icelandic art is centered on the past or the natural environment. Walk in one direction and one comes across the Hafnarhús, one of three buildings that make up the Reykjavík Art Museums; Hafnarhús is dedicated to contemporary exhibitions and houses the permanent collection of Icelandic-born graphic artist Erró. And the installation above the door? An artist manifesto modeled on the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Walk in the other direction and one finds oneself in a hip area dominated by little galleries and rather derelict buildings completely covered in graffiti art.
One small section had been turned into a park/playground/skateboarding area, with artists busy at work at new creations while I watched. One of the more innovative paintings here incorporated a skate ramp into the tongue of a wolf.
My short time in Iceland proved that everything I had heard about the overwhelming beauty of the countryside is true but my even shorter time in Reykjavík made me realize that there is a lot more to explore in this cultural hot spot.
All images by Tracey Eckersley, except where indicated.