Poet and painter Bjarni Bernharður Bjarnason is a unique presence in the Icelandic art world. He has endured a life of hardship, marked by poverty, negligent parents, acid, insanity, domestic violence, murder and incarceration. He is also a prolific artist.
Since his mid-twenties, Bjarni has suffered from schizophrenia, which for a long period shaped his life. His mental illness eventually led Bjarni to nine years in a criminal psychiatric ward after killing a man, in what became one of the most talked-about criminal cases in Iceland’s history.
Having fallen through the wide cracks of our society’s grid, Bjarni made his way back from the margins with determination and vigour. Through poetry, painting and a never-ending search for the self, he has carved out a place for himself. Now, Bjarni steps forth with an account of his life journey, detailing his venture from innocent youth into the darkness of adult life and beyond in a new book, ‘Hin hálu þrep’ (“Those Slippery Steps”), which had just gone to print on the very day I rang his doorbell for an interview.
Bjarni Bernharður resides in a basement in a beautiful apartment complex on Hverfisgata, coincidentally known as Bjarnaborgin. His habitat is a small but cosy bohemian bachelor pad, chock-full of books and his vibrantly colured paintings. He shows me around his studio, where he keeps endless racks of CDs, largely consisting of 60s and 70s rock, but also featuring a lot of jazz and classical music. “I listen to music a lot to get riled up before I get to painting or writing,” he tells me, “but not so much while I’m working.” He also has a big-screen TV, where he watches movies to help him unwind and clear his head. They come from all over the globe, both new and old. “I have this 1931 adaptation of ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ I’ve been waiting to watch,” he notes.
He offers me coffee and a seat. After reassuring myself that my recorder is properly functioning, I ask why he chose to tell his story at this particular time.
“No exact reason,” he muses. “This book has been on my desktop for quite some time. I’ve been working on it since 2010, with pauses. For the last year I’ve been putting extra work into finishing it.” Bjarni notes that he did release another autobiographical tome a few years back, ‘Kaleikurinn’ (“The Grail”), which forms the basis for this book. He tells me that he wasn’t yet ready to draw conclusions from his life story back then, as he does in the last chapter of the new one.
Building your own box
“The first part of the book is a realistic description of my life,” explains Bjarni, “mostly in a linear time frame. But I wasn’t sure how to handle the rest. I decided to scrutinize my inner self, let my mind flow over time and space, circling around my centre. That was the basis for the last part, where the topic at hand was myself. Who are you, Bjarni Bernharður? I asked myself. When asking a question like that, you probably won’t get a clear answer, but it forces you to think. And it got me writing.
He adds that the book is about topics that have been discussed in the media recently, and could perhaps help people people who find themselves on the wrong side of the tracks. “The book is about matters of great importance in the here and now,” he states. “Mental illness; a child that falls through the cracks of society; mind-expanding drugs, domestic violence, manslaughter, nine years in a criminal psychiatric ward. He who lands outside the box doesn’t need to wind up in the wasteland. He is not without his territory. There can be a box outside the box—you just have to build it yourself. We might not choose our place in the system, our family or society. Most people accept where they’re placed. But, those who wind up in the wasteland… they find that they’re not welcome in society. My story could help those who are pushed outside the box to find a way back.”
The village idiot
Bjarni Bernharður was born in the south of Iceland, in the small town of Selfoss, a product of an unhappy marriage, the third of eleven siblings. His parents were working class, and providing for eleven children wasn’t easy. There wasn’t much love to go around in the household, Bjarni tells me, and he had a hard time adapting to the school system. He was different from his siblings and the other children, he says, and had a hard time growing up. He said he survived by taking on the role he was given: the outcast and village idiot. “I was attacked from all sides,” he says. “In my home by my parents. By the other children in the village—and the grown-ups. By the teachers at school. I had to react somehow. Society told me, ‘We want you to be our village idiot!’ And I said, ‘ok,’ and assumed that role. Through doing that, people didn’t really get to me. It was pure self-preservation. I was just a baby, and I couldn’t fight back.”
During his youth and adolescence, Bjarni lived with his parents, but also in a variety of foster homes. After he left home at seventeen to work as a fisherman, he hardly had any contact with his parents or siblings. “My siblings don’t have any interest in me,” he says. “They are on a very different path in life. There was an emotional coldness and shortage of love in the household. There were too many children for anybody to love. To them, I am still the village idiot.”
Bjarni lived in Reykjavík, moving around the country to work on fishing boats. He got acquainted with the newfangled hippie lifestyle, and eventually decided to move to Copenhagen along with some acquaintances. He visited, and then moved into, the free state of Christiania, a former military base inside Copenhagen that has been “occupied” as a hippie commune since 1971, and where the cannabis trade is largely tolerated by the authorities.
It was there that he began experimenting with LSD. Bjarni’s claim is that the psychedelic drug both saved his life, and was a factor in triggering his mental illness. “When I tried it I found something sublime,” he says. “After my first experience, I began to use it differently. I tried to harness its power. Because, you can use acid in a lot of different ways. You can use it to have fun, going to discotheques and seeing bright colors and the city life splay out. But there’s a different side to it, if you aim its powers inward.”
From that point on, Bjarni was always alone on his acid trips. “I closed the doors to the outside world when I saw that this was a substance that could help me break off the chains,” he says, “to get me out of the darkness of childhood. It was the beginning of a long chapter in my life—the long journey to regaining myself. I’m a terrific artist, but no one knew. I never had the opportunity to develop my artistic abilities.
But the acid screamed at me, and also set off a fury in me. And gave me a power to regain myself from the darkness.”
“Man is a spiritual cripple”
Bjarni’s foray into acid wasn’t without consequence. “The way home for me was a long one,” says Bjarni. “The schizophrenia episodes, nine of them in all, were the only way for me to get back after the acid trips. I was alone in my apartment in the bleakest paranoia. But in them, there was an artist being born. I became a better painter, and a better poet. I didn’t paint during the episodes, but afterwards I felt like I’d gained something new. It was a painful birth, but today the acid remains the undertone of my whole creative process. It’s always here, but now it’s serene and quiet, with endless dimensions.”
So would he recommend dropping acid to other people? “Not at all!” he exclaims. “Most people have nothing to gain from it. But I had no other choice than to try it. Acid is hugely misunderstood. Mankind has to face a lot of obstacles. In the future I think LSD will help humankind overcome these difficulties. Man is technologically advanced, but a spiritual cripple.”
Radical politics of the mind
At the end of the acid trips, the schizophrenia took over. “Those two are glued together,” he explains. “I had a lot of political delusions in those episodes, and started believing I wielded great power in the field of international politics. Although it was only in my mind, I was happy with that at the time. That was my reality.”
During his episodes, Bjarni believed himself to be deeply immersed in the radical politics of the 70s. He was obsessed with the Red Army brigades, fascists, counter-revolutionaries and imperialist spies. He moved back and forth between Iceland and Denmark in that period, and self-published seven books of poetry, which he describes in his autobiography as “acid ramblings.” He also fathered his first two children, and lived with their mother for a while in an unstable relationship marked by drug use and domestic violence.
Shockingly wonderful world
In the mid-80s Bjarni rented an apartment in west Reykjavík. During one of his paranoid-schizophrenic episodes, he became convinced that his landlord was a spy for the world’s greater fascist forces, transmitting his every move to the enemy through radio technology. This fantasy would later lead to the most drastic event of his life, when—in the grip of a schizophrenic episode—he knocked on his former landlord’s door, and invited himself in for a talk.
n ‘Those Slippery Steps’, Bjarni describes the moment of madness that struck him. As the sound of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” began to fill the apartment, he stabbed his landlord to death. “There are stories about how I mutilated the body,” he says, “and most of them are true. But you know what? There was no other way out for me. I had to shock myself by this horrible act, when I shredded the man apart like a wild animal. I shocked myself so hard…”
His voice trembles at this, and he pauses for a few seconds. “So hard, that I got myself out of the darkness. There was now another way. It was a subconscious reaction to how I had become.“
Bjarni describes how he afterwards proceeded to write with the blood of his victim on the wall: “Baader Meinhof” and “PLO.”
He was picked up by the police three days later. “The police that attended the crime scene had to get psychiatric help,” he recalls. “It was horrible. I remember all the details from the night, it’s stored right here.” He points to his head. “My memory works like a hard drive, filing everything into storage.”
However, as soon as the door to his cell was shut, Bjarni decided he wasn’t going to give up on life. He spent the next eight and a half years in a criminal psychiatric ward, first in Sweden and then in Iceland. While locked up, he says he hardly wrote or painted, rather using his time for self-examination, preparing for his rebirth.
Standing his ground
Since 2004 Bjarni Bernharður has put out a dozen books of poetry and three books of prose, painted countless paintings—and now, he’s released his marvelous memoir.
Bjarni has self-published all of his books, noting that no publisher has the nerve to touch him because of his past. “I heard from an inside source at Forlagið [Iceland’s biggest publisher] that the superiors said: “’Bjarni Bernharður? Nobody would give his grandmother a book by Bjarni Bernharður for Christmas…’”
For the past twelve years Bjarni has quite literally stood by his works, on most days assuming a post on the corner of Austurstræti and Pósthússtræti, often for hours at a time, shouting, “Poems” and selling his books to passersby. For the English-speaking bunch, he is also selling a translated collection of his poems, called “Poems and Paintings.” “I’ve asked young writers to come and stand with me on the corner to sell their books, but they’re too ashamed to do it,” he chuckles. “I’ve been to so many dark places that standing on a street corner for a few hours is easy to me.”
Past and future battles
Bjarni lives by a few rules, to keep his existence stable and creative, saying: “I don’t use drugs or alcohol, I think about my diet, I sleep well, and I choose wisely the people I keep company with.”
He also feels at peace with himself. “Freedom is a state of mind,” he says. “When I learned to accept the past, I earned my freedom from it. To me, the past is like a book of fiction on a shelf that I can occasionally pick up and flip through. I am maybe the only man in Iceland that has freed myself from the manslaughter I committed. Everybody else can’t stop thinking about it, and is unable to see me except through that lens. However. I’m not a prisoner to that horrible event. I can talk about it without sentimentality. That may sound cold and nonhuman, and who knows, maybe it makes me some kind of a monster.”
He beliEves that all of his painful experiences were necessary to form the artist he is today. “There was no other way for me to go,” he says. “I had to suffer as a child, and perform the horrible deeds of the acid trips and psychotic episodes. When you combine everything together it’s like pieces of a puzzle that form a picture…” He pauses. “… of Dorian Gray maybe,” he finishes, through bellowing laughter.
Bjarni believes the new book will pack more punch than anything else in his artistic career, and refuses to back down or be silenced. “I am a warrior,” he says. “When you’re a warrior, you always have to prepare for the next battle.”
And what is his next battle? He laughs at the question. “Well, I’ve just finished the battle with this book,” he smiles. “It was sent to the printing press this morning. So I might give myself a day’s rest and then begin to plan the next battle tomorrow morning.”
By the time this interview is out, ‘Those Slippery Steps’ will be, too. Bjarni will be battling it out on his chosen front line, down on the corner of Austurstræti and Pósthússtræti. And that’s where you can buy your copy and read his whole story yourself.
3 POEMS BY BJARNI
I am a warrior of the light
my archenemy is the darkness.
displeased the serpent
that had dug itself
into people’s consciousnesses
who had been taught to despise
been taught to mock me.
who sent me into this world
knew what awaited me
and gave me strong bones
— I do not fear at all.
In my heart
I know my role
I was summoned here
to slay the serpent of darkness
my strength grows
it will not be long before
the snake writhes in my grasp.
I feel the wingbeat of my poems
in my soul.
It is whispered
to me – from out in the void
fly higher, fly higher…
Kiss of the Bat
in a dark cave
of my youth
when the bat
that warm kiss
determined my destiny
to tread the path
of cold nights
to the border
between light and darkness
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