Seemingly random, in front of wood paneling and amid shelves of books, an odd looking, torn, bright yellow dress hung in the Gerðuberg Library this month; almost like a phantom apparition. Made from stitched together rubber gloves, Ewa Marcinek’s art piece, ‘Second Skin,’ was accompanied by a music piece featuring voice recordings of a Polish woman named Anna who came to Iceland. But ‘Second Skin’ was not alone. In fact, Reykjavík has been peppered with similarly-themed public installations over the past month as part of the audio-visual exhibition ‘Vestur í bláinn,’ which aimed to tell the story of immigrants in Iceland through the lens of both foreign and Icelandic artists.
Vestur í bláinn comes together
The initial idea for the project came from the mind of musician Julius Rothlaender, known for his work in bands like BSÍ, Laura Secord and Vil. He was looking for an opportunity to develop his compositions while also tackling a topic that had been on his mind for a while: Immigration.
“[Vestur í bláinn] started as an experiment to bring together music I had written over the past year and spoken word,” Julius says. “More specifically, it would focus on the topic of immigration, which has been something I’ve personally been thinking about.”
Along with putting his own experiences into the budding project, the musician aimed to create a space for other voices to be heard, both musically and visually. Cue the arrival of French artist Claire Paugam, a board member of the Living Art Museum and the winner of the 2020 Icelandic Art Prize’s Motivational Award. Julius contacted her, she explains, and the idea for the project immediately resonated—particularly the emphasis on diversity.
“Those voices you hear in this music are not [often] heard in the Icelandic media, so we thought it would be cool to have them be present in public locations,” Claire explains. “So, that’s also how the concept of the exhibition came up. How can we have these voices accessible to everyone? Then later the idea came up to give sound pieces to local artists which they could then base their work on.”
The exhibition features works of such artists as Eva Bjarnadóttir, Hugo Llanes, Melanie Ubaldo and Bára Bjarnadóttir.
Julius’ sound pieces have now been compiled into a ‘Vestur í bláinn’ album..’The musician moulded his compositions around conversations he heard in different languages, ultimately creating a musical response to the everyday dialogue you might hear in Hlemmur or Vesturbæjarlaug.
“I thought a lot about letting people talk in their own language. People won’t understand the words maybe, but I relate to the sound of the human voice and language. It’s a connecting element,” he says.
“Do you hear me?”
Claire emphasises that the project was built on a foundation of empathy. After Julius finished the musical tracks, they were then given to the visual artists, whose job was to interpret the voices, find some creative and personal relationship to them and create the final product.
“There’s this art piece at Hlemmur by the artist ÚaVon who describes this very well,” she recalls. “In the music piece she worked with, you hear a bus driver. At one point, he asks ‘Do you hear me?’ That sentence really resonated with her … she says that the thing we all long for is to have someone to hear us and to connect with us. That’s what makes us human.”
What onlookers and listeners take away from the pieces is up to them. With the project exhibiting in public spaces, Julius likes the idea that people might just stumble upon the artwork without looking for it. He particularly hopes that people who maybe don’t often go to art galleries and venues get to experience the exhibition.
Into the blue
The namesake of the project is the 1975 RÚV documentary ‘Vestur í bláinn’. In fact, Julius’ track “Salomé & Björn,” and its connected art piece “Driftwood” directly reference the subject matter of the original documentary.
The film documents the late 19th century emigration of Icelanders, when almost a quarter of the nation resettled mostly in North America in search of a better life and hoping to escape the poverty and hunger that marked the time. The documentary featured interviews with people who had been part of the emigration wave, like the aforementioned Salomé and Björn, who discuss the journey and the difficulties of starting a new life in a new land. The interviews greatly influenced Julius’ work and the emotions behind it.
“There’s this poem by a man writing to his friend, who’s leaving Iceland, and he more or less asks him, ‘Are you leaving, my friend, out into the west, into the blue?’” he recalls. “I just think that no matter which country we’re talking about, there’s always a story of people, then and now, moving to other countries looking for a better life and … I felt including the Icelandic perspective could give a little twist on how we look at things from here and at the people coming here.”
Claire adds that with the testimonies of Icelandic immigrants as well, there’s an incitement to think about the cycle of migration.
Vestur í bláinn provokes
“Talking to other artists, we thought about how plants migrate, how objects can migrate, how everything is constantly moving. It’s really good to be reminded of that. Sometimes it’s too easy to be stuck in a state of things that you think will be true forever,” she points out.
But ‘Vestur í bláinn’ is not there to make any specific point about immigration, Claire and Julius emphasise. Instead, the exhibition aims to open doors and provoke conversation and introspection by presenting real narratives of people who live in Iceland. The take-away, the two collaborators conclude, can be as personal as each individual feels it to be.
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