From Iceland — The Long Walk To Hjalteyri

The Long Walk To Hjalteyri

Published July 26, 2023

The Long Walk To Hjalteyri
Photo by
Art Bicnick

Being creative while reducing consumption

In Hjalteyri is an old herring processing plant. Touted as the best in class during its years of operation from 1937 to 1966, the 1500 m2 space was given a new purpose in 2007 when it was occupied by the Verksmiðjan á Hjalteyri art collective. “It’s a magical place and also kind of isolated,” says French artist Joseph Marzolla, who was invited by Verksmiðjan to participate in an exhibition in August. “It’s a huge playground for artists to do things like this. That’s a nice way to experiment with art. It’s nice for more people to know about it.”

At the time he spoke with the Grapevine, Joseph was on his way to Hjalteyri to meet up with nine other artists participating in the exhibition. Google maps pegs the small village of Hjalteyri on the western shore of Eyjafjörður, a quick 20-minute drive north of Akureyri – or a four and a half hour walk. It’s the latter calculation that Joseph takes into account. It’s just one leg of a longer walk that has delivered him from Amsterdam to Iceland on foot.

“I walked two months through the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and to Iceland,” he explains while resting in Reykjavík. He took the ferry from Denmark to Seyðisfjörður on Iceland’s east coast before walking to the capital. “I took a short path through Iceland, though. In Iceland, it’s very complicated to walk long distances. When I walk, I go from one point to another point. In Iceland, I had to take the road and it had no food supply or water, because it’s more of a place where you drive from one base to the next.”

The slow return

Joseph, 51, called Iceland home some 23 years ago. At that time he worked in a fish factory, attended Iceland University of the Arts and spent time as a mountain guide.

I’m not really into measuring what I’m doing. The walk for me is the deepest meditation and a kind of a spiritual experience.

Though he grew up in the French Alps and worked among Iceland’s own slopes, he insists he’s “not an adventurer.”

“I walk more as a statement or a philosophy, a way of thinking and a practice,” he says. “This time I walked with a sign that read ‘I walk for peace, love and kindness.’ I know it’s a bit naive, but I wanted to have this message and to carry with me as a statement for this exhibition. It helped me move forward and have interactions with people that I met along the road.”

While some may consider it extreme, Joseph’s walking art practice and lifestyle is what feels right for him. He estimates he has covered 16,000 km by foot over the course of his practice, walking for a few months and then stopping to participate in installations, work or just be for a couple more.

“When you take a car from A to B, like going to work, it’s clear how far you’ve travelled,” he says. “But when you walk, it’s a very different situation. You have to do more. I’m not really into measuring what I’m doing. The walk for me is the deepest meditation and a kind of a spiritual experience.”

“Everything in this life is about going really slow,” he continues. “It’s all about reducing speed, going slow, being connected to the Earth and having this low impact. It’s a practice that brings me a lot of feelings and a lot of material that I can work with.”

Slow Art

Joseph has been living an entirely nomadic life and engaging in walking as an expression of his art for roughly 10 years. “This is my life and my art, combining these elements,” he says. “So I’m fully living this moment.”

This is my life and my art, combining these elements. So I’m fully living this moment.

While he admits that his lifestyle is not something that all people can emulate, Joseph is hopeful that his message of reduced consumption and increased focus on ecology – what he calls a “soft approach” – is something that resonates with others.

“It’s a message maybe to inspire people,” he says. “For example, during this walk, I had people coming up to me in the road and thanking me for what I’m doing. I’m not purely an activist. I take a soft approach to give my message. I’m also not some sporty guy, I’m not this person who is strong, but I manage to do these things.”

A slow and less consumer-focused approach is something Joseph particularly hopes to see resonate with the art community. “The art world has a problem with consumption – it’s consuming more and more and it’s something we have to change,” he says. “New technologies and other new things that are coming can sometimes help. We are living in a world of change and that’s what I want to embrace.”

Finding an installation

Once Joseph arrives in Hjalteyri, he and the collective of other international and Icelandic artists will spend nine days collecting materials to make art together.

A slow and less consumer-focused approach is something Joseph particularly hopes to see resonate with the art community.

“We’re going to be creating – it’s all about the process of being there,” Joseph explains. “People invite me to places and we take some days to gather items and create something out of what we found. It’s going to be maybe a video installation or painting, or something else with what we find. So at the moment we don’t really know what we’re going to find, but it’s also about being together and talking about community and changes in this world and these subjects.”

“The concept of the show is for the artists to spend time in the space and the area of Hjalteyri and make work, have talks, performances, perform music and more during their stay there,” explains Verksmiðjan board member Þorbjörg Jónsdóttir of the event she’s co-curating with Joseph.

Once open on August 5, 2023, the exhibition will remain in place until September. There is a loose plan in the works to extend the feeling created in Hjalteyri all the way back to Reykjavík in the form of a one-time event, though Joseph was unsure at the time of writing precisely when or where that would take place.

Make the journey to Hjalteyri to experience the sense of community that will be brought to life in Verksmiðjan. Walking there is not a requirement.

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