BRING ON THE ELVES: TAKING ICELAND TO PARIS

5.11.2004
Words by Davíð Stefánsson
Ha? I didn’t even know about the Festival. How come? Rejection and self-doubt ran through my veins. Was I not artist enough?
I had to order myself a dwarfsize bottle of Breakfast-Chardonnay to drown the sorrows. I was able to clink my glass against that of my girlfriend, a painter by profession, and not invited to the festival either. We experienced a new kind of togetherness on the plane – it was we (the misunderstood but talented artists) against them (the inside-the-system-successful-and-hence-untalented-artists...).

A ministers´ tomboy eloquence
Sparks flew. The Chardonnay did the trick, so I was able to mingle a bit – free from resentment – with my co-passengers, a few of whom I incidentally knew. The events were diverse and fairly contemporary (meaning it was not all about Vikings and elves and ghosts), there were exciting exhibitions of paintings, photographs and installations, and above all, there were concerts including bands like Múm and Mugison, and the notorious piece Hrafnagaldur Óðins by Sigur Rós. On the other hand, all the poets representing Icelandic literature were between 50 and 80 years old. I wonder why that is? Would we send Brimkló or Rúnar Júlíusson to represent the Icelandic music scene in the year 2004?
We arrived in Paris at noon and went straight to my girlfriends cousins house. Within a minute the welcoming warm cousin (pure Icelandic hospitality) had invited us to attend the Grand Opening of Islande, de glace et de feu – Iceland, Ice and Fire Culture Festival that same night. Of course. .
To cut it short: It was great fun! We can’t afford to pay our kids’ teachers decent salary, but what the moo. My talent for mass-counting is not great, but I would guess that 500 people attended the ceremony.
It went on roughly like this: Halldór Ásgrímsson, our new Prime Minister, held a speech. His speech was then translated into French. The French Prime Minister followed with his speech, which was then translated into Icelandic. Our Minister of Culture, Þorgerður Katrín Gunnarsdóttir, held a speech with her unique tomboy eloquence. Her speech was then translated into French. And the French Minister of Culture (of course) held his mandatory speech, which was (of course) translated into Icelandic.

But is it Björk?
Luckily, someone had provided ample champagne for 500 thirsty faces. The golden bubbly lasted all night long, even though the night was to get quite long.
So, when I heard our Prime Minister utter the following statement: “What the French and the Icelandic have in common is that both nations are proud of their history and culture...” I was able to shake my head in a friendly manner, sip the gold and think to myself that I was at least lucky to have a distraction from this verbal violence.
So, inebriated on free champagne, mingling amongst The Icelandic Culture Elite (which was not mingling with me, but with The Icelandic Banking, Telephoning, Decoding, Drug-Producing and Funding Elite) I got the opportunity to watch a world preview of Björk’s latest video on a giant screen. It’s the one with all the silver bells fastened to her and the kids hopping on the black beaches of Iceland with the blue horizon in the background. It was great, and everyone was in genuine awe, and when the video ended some lights started flickering on the other side of the room, the audience turned, and then some
abstract movement, and...oh...someone started singing, and for a moment I thought: “Is she here, is she really here?”
I think everyone else thought something similar. Björk is not a novelty to the Icelandic people. We bump into her on the sidewalk or in the nail-department at BYKO or we share hot water with her at the swimming-pool and actually think nothing of it. Yet, there I was, heart bouncing, palms sweating, just from the thought that maybe she would make a surprise appearance. Special circumstances change our perceptions and expectations. I was starstruck. But it was not Björk. It was a prominent, Icelandic female dancer. She was great. But she was not Björk.

Bring on the elves
When our nations rhyming-master, Steindór Anderson, had uttered a few of his rhymes, the actual show on Icelandic nature was opened to the attending crowd. The show was everything we should never try to put into a show. It was artificial Icelandic landscape, trying to capture the softness of Icelandic moss, the hardness of Icelandic lava, the mystic feeling of Icelandic fog, and the stinging brightness of the stars above on an extra dark, Icelandic winter night. All this was cramped into one large hall, and there were televised images of the crazy-orange of actual volcanoes erupting. And in this hall I found the ever so inevitable appearance of elves! They had to be somewhere, hadn’t they? The elves were very capable French actors dressed in thin, white, elf-like rags using television and dramatic vocal expression to explain the wonders of Iceland to the locals.
I didn’t want to be associated with this presentation of my country. Would the French present France with an artificial reconstruction of its typical country-side morning fog? Would the Italians present Italy by reproducing the feel of Tuscany hillsides?
What do we need to prove? That our nature is unique? Everyone knows this. That’s why I love the ads from the clothing company 66 degrees North. They represent grim faces of normal Icelandic people in natural, dark, grey, weathery backgrounds. Iceland is grey. But the Icelandic grey is deep, mystical and beautiful.

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