From Iceland — The Singing Fish Circus Takes New York

The Singing Fish Circus Takes New York

Published May 27, 2023

The Singing Fish Circus Takes New York
Photo by
Patrik Ontkovic

Icelandic exceptionalism in the big apple

Big cars, bright lights. The apple that never sleeps. Taste of Iceland – a cultural festival produced by the marketing platform Inspired by Iceland – brought artists, poets and musicians from the Mengi collective and Tunglið publishing house to New York May 12 and 13, for a celebration of both organisations’ 10th anniversaries. Dubbed The Singing Fish Circus, the 12-man strong troupe of artists ventured from Reykjavík to New York. What followed was a celebration of experimental music, ephemeral literature and untethered creative expression.

Burning books

On a sticky New York afternoon, author and Moon Publishing organiser Ragnar Helgi Ólafsson sits on the deck of the artists’ Airbnb. “This is an idea that sort of sprung up. I had been chatting with the folks at Mengi about doing something like this for a while,” Ragnar says.

“It’s an art space, everything’s allowed.”

Moon Publishing is not your run-of-the-mill publishing company; authors and poets commence their work at the start of a lunar cycle and publish at the end of it. Copies are printed in limited numbers, for this night’s event there were 69. Those who don’t sell are discarded – burnt even. “The idea is not to aggravate. It’s a poetic act, not a political one,” says Ragnar.

Mengi is a firmly rooted art space in Reykjavík, operating on the juncture of visual art, music and performance art. A trusty hub of all things experimental, performances by musicians associated with the venue is often characterised by improvisational methods.

Luring would-be visitors with the promise of a night of wonder and artistic exploration, Mengi kicked off the Singing Fish Circus on Friday night. An empty Williamsburg storefront had been transformed into a gallery space; the contents of the Art Crate – a literal box full of art pieces set to travel the world – were displayed on both gallery floors. A massive sea of cables, cords, pedals and instruments of all shapes and sizes covered the innermost part of the space. The night opened with a DJ set consisting exclusively of 78 rpm vinyl records played by Ingi Garðar Erlendsson. Spooky voices of long-dead singers reverberated off the gallery walls.

A Mengi vibe in Brooklyn climate

The performing artists showcasing the Mengi talent were ASALAUS, Ásta Fanney, Bára Gísladóttir, Benni Hemm Hemm and the Melting Diamond Band, Guðmundur Ari Arnalds, Gyða Valtýsdóttir, Ingi Garðar, Kristín Valtýsdóttir and Páll Ivan Frá Eiðum. Each artist brought their unique style and setlists, but the happening was defined by the fluidity of collaboration. Benni Hemm Hemm assumed the role of a singer with double bassist Bára Gísladóttir; Ásta Fanney made throat noises on top of ASALAUS’ dispersed guitar playing.

“How serendipitous for a chapter about communicating with the dead to be interrupted by a funeral procession.”

This felt like the highlight of the show and, in a way, evocative of Icelandic music. People imbued their personal skills and talents into their friends’ performances, making for a wholly unique experience. The artists experimented and improvised. Nothing was wrong, everything was allowed. “It has a Mengi vibe,” remarked the Grapevine’s photographer.

One unexpected difficulty arose: the venue did not have a suitable bass amp. “It’s ok though,” said Guðmundur Ari, a Mengi curator and member of Final Boss Type Zero. “I’ll adjust my Ableton set.” Which he did, roughly 30 minutes before going onstage.

During Kristín Valtýsdóttir’s set, screeching feedback erupted from a guest’s phone. “It’s all right,” Kristín remarked behind her keyboard – still playing, “If you’ve been here tonight you should know it’s ok. It’s an art space, everything’s allowed.”

One highlight of the evening was Ásta Fanney’s performance. A poet and visual artist, Ásta Fanney improvised most of her set, which ranged from making strange rasping sounds to delivering a hauntingly beautiful ballad. “Everything surprised me. Everything was improvised, just done on the spot. No one knows what happens until it does,” said Ásta Fanney after her performance.

The crowd, which was comprised of both local New Yorkers and Icelanders, was enchanted. The artists were riding high after the show, but jet lag soon took over, commanding them to the refuge of their beds.

Temporary literature

On Saturday morning, the troupe met at their apartment to rehearse for the evening. Ásta Fanney brought matching grey flannel shirts for the artists, who started stretching and warming up for a rehearsal. There was no way of knowing what the evening had in store, neither for the audience nor the artists. It was Tunglið’s time to shine, debuting three new English-language literature pieces: “A Hyena Called Yesterday” by Ásta Fanney, “My Father’s Library” by Ragnar Helgi (an English translation of an earlier book), and “Raw Salon – Sitcom,” by Canadian-born Icelandic citizen Anne Carson.

Earlier on Saturday, both Ásta and Ragnar had participated in a panel discussion of their books and the Icelandic literature scene. It was at the panel the Icelandic authors mentioned the ephemeral nature of their work and of Tunglið’s entire operation: The books are not meant to be everlasting, catalogued and kept in a library for the end of days. They represent intense creative outbursts, which come and fade away. Ásta read an excerpt from her book, “Hyena Called Yesterday,” and the morning’s rehearsal started to make slightly more sense.

With a few welcoming sentiments and a note on the nature of Tunglið, Ásta was first to hit the stage. Capturing the audience’s undivided attention, Ásta’s set sprung to life. As she read, the flannel-clad ‘hyenas’ took turns walking around the room, shouting “I want what’s best for me,” while a blow-up globe was thrown around the pristinely white gallery. A book reading like no other, it brought a deep dimension to an otherwise routine format.

It might have been right after a chapter reading of Ragnar Helgi’s book, or maybe before – everything seemed blurry – when faint singing could be heard from outside. Almost angelic, the singing grew and grew, reaching a peak when the sound’s source came into view.

The audience grew silent. The performers paused. Did Ragnar Helgi plan for this? Before anyone could voice their questions aloud, a long line of people dressed in white marched past the gallery space. Led by what presumably was a priest, four people carried a small white ark, while the ecclesiastical gathering sang hymns.

“How serendipitous for a chapter about communicating with the dead to be interrupted by a funeral procession,” remarked Ragnar after the show.

The weekend was a success, at least in the minds of the performers. “An artistic triumph; a commercial failure,” said Ragnar. Having conquered New York, The Singing Fish Circus plans on taking on other cities in the future.

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