Iceland Cubed

2.7.2012
Words by Valgerður Þóroddsdóttir
The question of how best to package Iceland for international consumption has long been a contentious issue, one that has no doubt been on the minds and lips of private and public citizens alike since well before the economic downturn officially hit. But following the dramatic halt to Iceland’s financial golden age, when we were called out as the emperor with a hole in his pocket, Iceland was forced to scramble a bit for a new script and, in the process, discovered we still had a few things left to hold on to. For one: we had our rich cultural past and present. And second: we still had our looks—our splendid and celebrated natural beauty.

It was in January of 2008 that the government of Iceland made the decision to take part in the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai—a festival of sorts held every five years as an opportunity for the countries of the world to showcase, in individual pavilions, their unique features of choice. In December of that same year, months into the economic collapse, the government of Iceland granted 140 million ISK to the project.

The following January, as part of an open competition held by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs regarding the contract to the pavilion’s concept and planning, project proposals were evaluated and a collaborative venture by Páll Hjaltason, a partner in +Arkitektar who would come to curate the exhibit, and Sagafilm was chosen for the task of bringing a piece of Iceland to Shanghai.

One component of that project, a cube strewn with canvas, projecting a video of Icelandic nature on each side and above the viewer, is now available for the first time to the Icelandic public, for a fee, at Harpa.

The fifteen-minute film was recorded at five angles, four of the RED cameras recording simultaneously, hooked onto planes and helicopters flying over the Icelandic wilderness.

INEVITABLE NATURE

Halldór Guðmundsson, the new Managing Director of Harpa who has seen the film, hundreds of times in his capacity as Director of Iceland’s contribution to the Frankfurt Book Festival last year—where a similar version of the Shanghai Expo was on display—says that the exhibit’s focus on Icelandic nature was inevitable.

“That which marks our unique position with regard to other European countries,” he says, “is literature and nature.”

“You can probably see in this all sorts of clichés, but the fact remains that when you walk into a cube, and the image surrounds you on all sides and above you, you get a stronger experience than even if you had on 3D glasses at the movies,” Halldór says. “It creates some sort of whole, which leaves quite a strong impression.”

“A RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE”

Kjartan Þór Þórðarson, CEO of Sagafilm, says that the idea of bringing the display to Iceland had been “on the drawing board” since the first signs of the exhibit’s success were visible in Shanghai. When Harpa came into the negotiations, Kjartan says, the idea of bringing the exposition home became a real possibility for the first time, particularly because of the “considerable” cost of setting it up.

Halldór was instrumental in bringing the exhibit to Harpa, as well as to the Book Fair in Frankfurt, where Iceland was the Guest of Honour and thus in particular focus. He says that in Frankfurt he observed the impact of the display first-hand.

“I was seeing, for example, German visitors just laying on the floor,” says Halldór, “watching this thing as though it were a religious experience.”

“The wilderness is what puts Iceland in a totally unique position,” Halldór says. “I think you can make a lit theory argument for this connection between nature and literature. The Icelandic sagas have to do with the genesis of Icelandic civilization. This society begins with settlement, when man in a sense conquers heretofore unutilised areas. And if you come here as a visitor, one of the most interesting things about Iceland is that 90% of the country is uninhabited.”

“A UNIQUE EXPERIENCE FOR ANYONE”

The cost for the original expo project—including design, set-up and operation—is estimated at around 210 million ISK, according to the project’s website.

The project’s creative team included architect Páll Hjaltason, artist Finnbogi Pétursson, graphic designer Ámundi Sigurðsson, fashion designer Steinunn Sigurðardóttir, photographer Ragnar Axelsson and composer Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, who composed the film’s original soundtrack.

Magnús Viðar Sigurðsson headed production and the film was directed and edited by Sævar Guðmundsson.

The idea was always to allow people the experience of being able to “walk into the country” says Halldór, but even in Iceland the concept is not entirely redundant.

“The Icelanders who have seen it have not been any less impressed,” says Halldór, “it is a unique experience for anyone. But certainly not least of all for tourists who come to Iceland when it happens to be pouring rain the whole time. They can at least see the nature in Harpa.”

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