Iceland tends to be a magnet for the artistically melancholy, all those evocative mountains and empty spaces suggesting a landscape of the brooding mind. This promised sublimity is what motivated me to travel to the country in 2013 to spend three months as part of the SÍM artist residency in Reykjavik – that and my romantic obsession with mountains and land masses of all kinds.
I expected a time spent hunkering down from vicious winds, a time devoted to answering life’s and art’s weighty questions, what I didn’t expect was the light- headedness and effulgence I actually felt when I arrived. This sensation began from the moment I stepped off the plane in Keflavik into its crisp, golden afternoon air and continued unabated during the residency. To my surprise I didn’t feel like channelling Halldór Laxness and writing epic novels about mankind’s futility against a larger force, I didn’t feel grave or ponderous, I felt like having fun and laughing at the sky.
One afternoon sitting in a café on Laugavegur, Reykjavik’s main shopping strip, with my head blissfully empty, gazing at the pedestrians as they passed by the window, I wrote in my journal, ‘I feel as I get older I understand less and laugh more’. In Iceland I got stupider and I got happier.
If there was a defining feature of my time there it wasn’t rumination but instead, a certain offbeat symbolism. Whilst interning at The Living Art Museum, a contemporary art gallery and archive, my colleague Dan began eating popcorn everyday. He would arrive in the afternoon, make some tea, pour his popcorn into a bowl and pass it around the office. This repetition became a sort of ritual and in turn I began to notice this object – popcorn. What a strange food, how it turns from small and nuggety to larger and multiform, whenever it appeared in my life it winked like a mute clue.
Popcorn was not the only symbol. I would note the bright colours of the supermarket shopping bags, the American style service stations and fast food joints, the ubiquitous city cats. The relative abundance of prophets and astrologers in this small country may have encouraged this apophenic state of mind, as I would see these things not merely as innocent items in an unfamiliar place but as sparkling points in a constellation of meaning.
At the Reykjavik artist run gallery ‘Kling & Bang’ I saw an exhibition Nacho Cheese by artists Hildigunner Birgirsdóttir and Anna Hrund Másdóttir, which echoed this bowerbird-like understanding of items. This mixed media installation included sculptures made of perfume labels, discarded toy packaging, the frames of sticker sheets, lolly wrappers; the surplus of consumer miscellany, re-discovered and arranged lovingly so that they glimmered like treasures. In the accompanying catalogue essay Ingibjörg Sigurjónsdóttir wrote, ‘We are concerned about our planet. Everything deserves beauty. So terribly complex and ludicrously simple’.1
These found objects – essentially trash destined for land-fill, were reclaimed by the artists and placed within the leveraging space of the gallery. Hildigunner and Anna: archaeologists of the contemporary trash bin picked the pieces out of a mass, combined them with intention and made the potentially insignificant significant. One could equate my state of mind with that of the gallery space, in that I was curating my own mental ‘Wunderkammer’ of meaning. But like the exhibition ‘Nacho Cheese’ a healthy absurdity remained, because there’s no need to solve the puzzle if you let the puzzle become the meaning itself, ‘So terribly complex and ludicrously simple’.
Later Dan and I visited a sweat lodge run from a suburban Reykjavik home. This ramshackle house sat by the side of a highway, its lawn covered in makeshift sculptures constructed from driftwood and rocks amongst which hundreds of rabbits hopped to and fro. These were pets of the couple, Nonni and Heiðar who have been running the lodge on weekends for the past 20 years. A group of 15 of us were taken through the lodge experience, which began with ‘spirit dancing’ to Madonna and Lady Gaga in the lounge room adorned with psychedelic murals. Then a gruelling 4 hours sweating in a cave built in the backyard, after which we were taken back inside to have our fortunes told. When it was my turn Nonni told me in hurried, broken English that;
You are a silver thing, your energy is up in the sky, you need to come down, you need to connect your spirit and your body. The sky. Energy up there. Much energy.
When the fortune telling was completed Heiðar emerged from the kitchen with a bowl of popcorn and passed it around the group. Dan and I looked at each other as if to ask in the tone of Yosemitebear looking at his triple rainbow, ‘What does it mean?’
Nonni was right, my spirit was up in the sky with the sky energy. I remember the first time I saw the Aurora from the residency kitchen window overlooking the ocean and the volcanic mountain range Esja. Myself and the two other girls home that night started making irrepressible squeals of delight. We threw on winter coats, tumbled down the stairs, ran out to the ocean. We were screaming and laughing like teenagers at a pop concert, throwing our arms wide, heads back, watching the green and purple ghostly apparitions spread out across the sky, filling it, making it seem bigger. We ran most of the way down the ocean path towards the light house in order to get the best view, trying to expend all the energy we were brimming with. There was a weightlessness to our pleasure. Excited like children. Marta said ‘This must be why Icelandic people are so,’ then she made a wobbly arm gesture and giggled… ‘They’re just excited by nature all the time.’
Most myths of the northern lights describe them as representing an animated spirit. Their liveliness is often associated with dancing ghosts. The phenomenon is caused by electromagnetic radiation from the sun, so it is in essence a visual manifestation of an enormous amount of energy. It’s possible that my moods were affected by meteorological factors.
What hit me whilst feeling stupid and high in that Reykjavik café was that with the experience of happiness comes a weightlessness and freedom and one is more able to let things be as they are in the world without questioning them. My relationship to meaning changed from a subterranean search, complete with headlamp and canary in a cage to a gentle observation of recurring factors.
In 2011 the artist Pae White created an installation of ceramic popcorn. Tiny gold and white objects suspended from the ceiling like a constellation of stars. Glenn Adamson writing in Afterall journal described the work as having a fresh sense of optimism, when he saw the work he:
Giggled and wanted to linger – The jaded, seen-it-all frame of mind that sets in so easily at art fairs drained away for a little while. In its place was the joy of finding something trivial made into something wondrous2.
Iceland gave me an opportunity to swap understanding for wonder, it also redefined my relationship to snack food, and if popcorn become a mascot for a newfound happiness perhaps it’s not as absurd as it first seems – popcorn is after all transformative, it is something you eat in the company of others, it’s a party food.
1. Ingibjörg Sigurjónsdóttir ‘Nacho Cheese’, Kling go Bang Archive, accessed 06/03/14, http://this.is/klingogbang/archive_view.php?id=297.
2. Glenn Adamson, ‘Summer work: The Art of Pae White’, After all Journal, Issue 32, Spring 2013, accessed 06/03/14, http://www.afterall.org/journal/issue.32/summer-work-the-art-of-pae-white.
Alanna Lorenzon is an artist and writer based in Melbourne whose art practice spans drawing, installation, sound and sculpture. Her work concentrates on relationships to...