Hveragerði is a discrete sort of town. Tucked away just over the dramatic Hellisheiði pass, many southbound travellers pass by its steam plumes and glowing greenhouses all too quickly, stopping only to pick up some snacks or fuel with their minds set on glaciers and iceberg-strewn lagoons.
But for those with keen eyes and a little time to spare, Hveragerði has some secrets of its own to offer. One of them is Listasafn Árnesinga, an art museum funded by the eight municipalities that make up the southern county of Árnesýssla, offering an intriguing year-round programme of exhibitions by local and international artists.
Inga Jónsdóttir is the curator and manager of the gallery. “This building was built in 1996, by an artist,” she says, as she shows us around the surprisingly airy gallery spaces. “It was a studio and exhibition space, and there was a fancy restaurant here as well. But the space became available—Listasafn Árnesinga was in Selfoss at the time, where it had been since 1963. It was decided in 2001 to buy this space, and move the museum here.”
The show on display brings together four female Icelandic artists who work with paper as a medium, whether by painting, sculpting, dying, drawing or shredding it. The exhibition is named “Mörk”—a word that can mean many things in the Icelandic language, making for an open-ended concept.
“’Mörk’ can mean a ‘limit’ or a ‘boundary’,” explains Inga, “or it can mean ‘forest’—which is where paper starts out, of course. It can also mean ‘mark,’ like you’d mark a new sheep. But it also means ‘threshold’. All of these are relevant, because the show is about trying to limits—of how the artists see paperwork, and how the viewer sees artwork made from paper. Although this work is made out of paper, it might not be what people expect.”
The four artists in ‘Mörk’ are based in Reykjavík, but Inga says she tries to mix up the variety in the programme. “This year I’ve had many artists with connections to the local area,” she explains. “The museum is driven by the local community, but I don’t want the programme to be narrow-minded. It’s good to have a broad spectrum of art here, and for people to come in with fresh ideas, and have some influence. So the shows we put up here are very different from each other. That’s what we like.”
Inga investigates the work of different artists and keeps her eyes open, but it’s two way traffic when it comes to designing the programme. “Sometimes I get ideas, or others get ideas and propose them to me,” she explains. “Sometimes artists invite me to come and visit their studio to see work. Coincidence is also a factor, sometimes, when you see something that fits into a show at that moment or not.”
As the tourist traffic increases through Hveragerði, more overseas visitors have been dropping by the museum for a look. But the majority of the gallery’s foot-traffic is still Icelandic. “Our local audience is coming along,” smiles Inga, “but in the beginning we had more visitors from Reykjavík. Quite often when people come for the first time, they’re so surprised to find a gallery of this size outside of Reykjavík. But when this museum was founded, it was the first permanent public art exhibition outside of Reykjavík.”
In fact, both the museum and the town of Hveragerði have interesting back stories. One small room in the museum is dedicated to a historical display that reveals how the town was populated by artists fleeing Allied troops when England staged a friendly occupation of Iceland during WWII.
“This town is the only town is Iceland that could truly be called an artist colony,” says Inga. “Many artists moved here when the allied army arrived, and lived here between 40s and the 70s. A big part of population was made up of artists. It became an artists’ society here. I want to promote this part of the town’s history, and keep it alive.”
With that in mind, Inga has plans to reveal the archive of pictorial and audio material taken during this rich period of the town’s history. “We want to allow people access to old recordings via their phones,” she says, “and also to have an exhibition of all the artists who have lived here over the years, or have connections to this town.”
And with some artists still left living in the town, the future remains bright for Listasafn Arnesinga. “There are still artists living here today,” says Inga. “We have some young musicians living here, a writer, and the actress who played Silvia Nótt in Eurovision. So even after all this time, there’s still a good culture of creative people here in Hveragerði.”
Find out more at www.listasafnarnesinga.is, and see ‘Mörk’ until February 21st.