“Guð er til?” Translated, the question becomes, “Does God exist?”
It’s a thought many face at one point or another, but not one you’d expect to find hanging on the walls of a church. But stop by Hellnakirkja church in the tiny Snæfellsnes hamlet of Hellnar, and you’ll find that sentence carved in silver on a circular emblem presented starkly on the southern wall of the church. Created by Ragnar Kjartansson—arguably Iceland’s most famous visual artist, who is currently on exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum Of Art in New York City—the provocative work is one of the hundreds of pieces you’ll find scattered around the Snæfellsnes peninsula this summer as part of the ‘Nr. 3 Umhverfing’ exhibition.
Starting small, ending big
“We started with a small exhibition in 2017,” co-curator Ragnhildur Stefánsdóttir explains, sitting back in the Breiðablik Community Centre, which is more or less the beginning of the ‘Nr. 3 Umhverfing’ exhibition trail. The Centre is filled with posters—71 in all—representing each of the artists involved.
“See, we thought we’d travel around Iceland with small exhibitions, one every year, and make a small book about it. Everything was small,” she continues, smiling. “We had 14 artists the first year, then we moved to Egilsstaðir the second year and had 37 artists.”
They’ve almost doubled that number this year, and transformed what was a small exhibition into a road trip that spans an entire peninsula, outside and inside. Almost every area of Snæfellsnes—from barns to restaurants to swimming pools—contains an exhibition. There are 17 technical centres, usually towns, but each centre contains up to seven individual locations—many of them alternative spaces—for exhibitions that contain more than one artists’ work. It’s a doozy of an undertaking.
Connecting the countryside
Along with presenting a wide range of works in unusual spaces, ‘Nr. 3 Umhverfing’ seeks wholeheartedly to feature artists that have a connection to the area. Currently, every artist featured in this series of exhibitions is tied to Snæfellsnes in some way, whether it’s through residence, ancestry, or even just past work.
“They have roots here,” Ragnhildur explains. “They have been raised here or maybe their ancestors were. In fact, two of the artists’ fathers were priests in Snæfellsnes.”
The only artists featured that are not directly tied to the region are the curators themselves: Ragnhildur, Anna Eyjólfsdóttir, and Þórdís Alda Sigurðardóttir. “But, you know,” she jokes. “I am from the Westfjords, so maybe some of my ancestors are from here.”
All forms present
Another tenet of ‘Nr. 3 Umhverfing’ is variety. “We have people from very different backgrounds, some are unknown, and some are world famous,” she says proudly. “And Umhverfing spans all the art forms: paintings, drawings, sculptures, videos, and even sound.”
By sound, she’s referring to Megas’ contribution to the series, which involves radio station FM 105.1 perpetually broadcasting a sound mixture combined with spoken word. “What is so important here is that Megas has his piece in the air,” Ragnhildur enthuses. “You can listen to it, and you are always experiencing art. The exhibition is in the air. It’s everywhere.”
A barn of wonder
Staðarstaður, a tiny village in the south of Snæfellsnes, is one of the closest centres of ‘Nr. 3 Umhverfing’ to Breiðablik. Turning onto a small dirt road, the unassuming town is but a few buildings and a cemetery. In front of the largest structure, a paper sign reads, “Art exhibition.” Inside, a dilapidated barn, complete with a smattering of chickens bumbling away in the corner greets you, but once you climb into a side room, the exhibition ‘Slitvindar’ hits you in full force.
Soundtracked by the delicate notes of a piano, ‘Slitvindar’ is composed of one installation—a glittering shower of white feather-like beings suspended from the ceiling—as well as a series of drawings delicately adorning the battered walls. One displays a red chair, while a work next to it reads, “Þessi stóll var víst blár,” meaning, “This chair was once blue.” The overall effect is heart-stopping. Who could have known that inside this crumbling edifice lies world-class art?
The room, Ragnhildur explains, is a family effort, with the installation created by Jón Sigurpálsson, the drawings by his son, Gunnar Jónsson, and a video installation by his daughter, Rannveig Jónsdóttir. The piano is actually played by his wife too, though she’s uncredited in the exhibition.
Vestiges of prayer
Outside, the Staðarstaður cemetery holds the next piece of ‘Nr. 3 Umhverfing.’ Blink and you could miss it, but a short ways into the grassy bumps lies a sculpture only a few centimetres above the ground. It vaguely resembles a sigil or rune, at first view, but it’s actually a combination of Icelandic letters created by priest of Staðarstaður, Arnaldur Máni.
“Arnaldur puts this sculpture in places where churches, prayer houses, or just places where people used to meet to pray used to be,” Ragnhildur says, motioning to the surrounding cemetery. “Now, maybe nothing is there anymore, but he’s researched and even sometimes knows where the altar was.”
Arnaldur’s sculptures now dot the Snæfellsnes peninsula, marking the vestiges of Iceland’s once widespread religion. The pieces manage at once to be both chilling and heartwarming. In some locations, only grass remains of what was once the most important centres of society
But Staðarstaður is but one centre out of 17, and these artists just a few out of 71. Each is as complicated, intriguing, and wrenching as the Staðarstaður pieces and one could easily spend a weekend driving around to see them all. “Everybody is very positive to have this big exhibition here,” Raghhildur concludes with a smile, getting back into the car to hurry along to the next centre. “Snæfellsnes is very happy right now.”
Info: Nr. 3 Umhverfing will be open until the end of the summer, though the exact end date is TBA. It is located at 17 centres around Snæfellsnes with the first opening location being the Breiðablik Community Centre. To see all the centres, check out this map.
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