Artist, musician, and author Ingimar Oddsson sits at a window table in a café in downtown Reykjavík, his hands folded calmly on his lap. There is a Sherlock Holmes-style deer-stalker on the table (a gift his sister bought for him in Scotland) and he’s wearing a high collar, olive-drab coat buttoned at the neck with a white aviator scarf folded like a cravat. Small silver wire-rim spectacles and a carefully groomed handlebar moustache complete the effect. He sits, gently twisting one end of his moustache, at once a part of his surroundings and separate from them.
We’re here to discuss his newest project, The Bildalian Chronicles, a multi-media, steam punk-inspired, adventure narrative/travel diary harkening back to Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Based in part on Ingimar’s experiences in the small Westfjords village of Bíldudalur, The Bildalian Chronicles blends reality and fiction, print narrative, video instalments and illustration to bring to life “one man’s journey to Bildalia in search of sea monsters and paranormal phenomena.”
The only steam punk in Iceland
Verisimilitude is key to Ingimar’s project: Bildalia has its own currency (called hlunkar, meaning “fat,” with one hlunkar being roughly equivalent to 10 ISK), its own newspaper (The Bildalian Post), crest, and even its own king (Peter) and royal heir (Lady Gu›run Louisa Ernst). Moreover, Ingimar himself is the story’s central character, a role that he finds easy to integrate into his daily life.
“The character is not that exaggerated from myself, so I don’t have to act a lot. I have been on stage several times and that is a harder thing—you have to put yourself into a different character,” he says. But when Ingimar puts on his “costume,” he’s not just doing so for the sake of his fictional alter ego. He’s just getting dressed for the day.
“When I discovered steam-punk, I thought: ‘so this is what I’m called—so there is a name for me.’ Twenty years ago, I had long hair and a long tail jacket and I walked about in a cloak. This is like coming home.”
Steam punk is an aesthetic which is, much like Ingimar himself, a little old world mixing with new: “Today you put plastic over everything,” he says. “[Steam punk] is like the world without plastic. It’s more eco-friendly in a sense—I have old clothes and I fix them up, I’m recycling all the time.” He has collected a fair number of “props”—from old trunks to the “parphenometre,” which he built for measuring levels of paranormal activity in Bildalia—but in each case, he’s very discriminating about what he acquires or repurposes. “You can’t just glue a gear on it and call it steam punk,” he says.
Discovering this aesthetic identity and ideology has certainly been fruitful for Ingimar’s creative life, but it hasn’t necessarily introduced him to a larger community here in Iceland. While steam punk has dedicated followings in other countries around the world—Ingimar mentioned Japan, Germany, Britain, and the US—it hasn’t so much caught on in Iceland.
“I’m the only, lonely one,” he laughed. “I know there are maybe some cartoonists making some [steam punk] drawings, but I don’t think anyone is dressing up like me, walking down Laugavegur with my top hat and goggles…” He shrugs.
In search of sea monsters
For three months last summer, Ingimar moved to Bíldudalur to work on his Bildalian Chronicles, guided by his own imagination and also integrating unplanned, everyday occurrences into his story as well. His computer started misbehaving when he first arrived, blinking out strange messages and patterns. He declared it “paranormal activity” and made a video diary instalment about it. He fell while rescuing a bird and got a black eye. This inspired a story twist in which he is kidnapped and abused by the nefarious “Grotters,” who want to know just what exactly Ingimar is investigating in Bildalia, and who he works for.
Ingimar integrates all sorts of real-life inspirations in his fictional world: characters in Bildalia frequently take their basis from real people and Bildalian history incorporates facts from Bíldudalur history. “Most readers, however, will just read the story as fiction,” he explains, “and you don’t have to know the truth to enjoy it.”
As a child and young man, Ingimar was a dedicated reader of adventure stories—Jules Verne was a favourite—and so while he didn’t get to travel much or go abroad, he developed an appreciation for everyday magic and a sense of wonder which he tries to infuse into his art. He has vivid memories of summers spent in Bíldudalur, of the merman that he recalls seeing on a beach when he was eight and of the town’s famous sea monsters, which boast their very own museum.
“It’s a mission for me,” Ingimar says. “I want to help others to experience the adventure I experienced as child.”
Moving to Bíldudalur
Ingimar’s own adventures in the real Bíldudalur are just beginning. He will be moving to the village permanently in early May (just after the publication of The Bildalian Chronicles) and will be working as a host (in character) at the Icelandic Sea Monster museum over the summer. Under his advisement, the museum has already made some aesthetic changes and will also be able to remain open until September, instead of closing in August as usual.
Bíldudalur, Ingimar notes, has nurtured “a very lively artistic life for many, many decades. People in the nearby fjords sometimes say that people in Bíldudalur are just artists sitting around and drinking red wine all the time. When my mother was growing up there, the theatre company went travelling all around the fjords to perform their shows. They have a lot of painters and actors and many, many good artists.”
It sounds like an ideal place for Ingimar to continue his artistic endeavours. He can envision expanding the Bildalia project to include an online component in which people can take up residence in Bildalia and become characters in the story. He is also continuing to compose music, and is already at work on another book about the origins of the Hidden People and entering the elfish world.
For Ingimar, each project, however disparate the media or the story, is connected and really part of the same larger artistic project. “It is all sort of the same for me. When I write, I hear music. And when I make music, I see pictures, and when I see pictures, I make stories.”