Generally speaking, mountains and city culture tend to be mutually exclusive phenomena. Here nothing could be further from the truth. Standing on Mount Esja – the terrace in Reykjavík’s own back garden – it´s possible to look North and East towards the empty, peak-studded interior, and feel that you are the first person ever to set foot on its strange, tundra-like plateau. To turn around and see the town just a stone’s throw below ( a conurbation of little over 100,000 souls ), and to know that down there is a top-flight orchestra, opera, contemporary dance company, a number of fine theatres, and dozens of galleries and cinemas is an extraordinary thing.
And these two apparently repellent forces click together, in quintissentially Icelandic fashion, in happy but volatile fusion – the tension between the two providing a unique seam of raw material that permeates the culture of the island. Most Icelandic art never seems too far from the land. Its strangeness and raw primal energy are a permanent benchmark, either subliminally or overtly deployed. Much has been made of its dreamlike aspect – and with its singular quality of light and landform, and overwhelming sense of paradox, the surreal element seems to permeate even the most objective work. Painter Jon Stefánsson in coolly revealing the reality of the land, as he saw it, often came closer to the realm of dream and fantasy than his celebrated colleague Kjarval´s more deliberate flights of fancy – simply by bringing into hyper-focus what was already there. Sculptor Johann Eyfells, in by-passing the scenic altogether, has locked into the sheer volatility of the place, and shunts landscape somewhere into the realm of dance, heavy material forms flirting impossibly with their own imminent absence and a pervading sense of vaccuum. If landscape can be seen in this way, not as object but pure process, then perhaps Eyfells has come as close as anyone to connecting with the pulse of the place, here where the whole environment – urban as well as natural – is so visibly still in a state of extreme flux.
In Iceland physics always seem to touch on metaphysics, and the sense contradiction that jars and collides so vehemently in the wilderness is at least as keenly felt as the spectacle of the stacked layers of basalt and grit that bulk out its immense, contorted landforms. And this for me, as an artist, is what is most exciting about this country – its extraordinary ability to perpetually reinvent itself. It seems to carry with it an odd self-abstracting mechanism, that both concentrates and erases its own defining properties, at one and the same time.Add to this the restless and transforming vagaries of the weather; severe spatial contortions and ambiguities of scale; and the seemingly endless variations on the range of surface-grain and extreme tactile counterpoint, and the place simmers with a kind of dynamic ambiguity that slips in and out of focus in a million different ways. It´s perhaps ironic that in a land that has no large urban centres of its own, that the wilderness itself takes on many of the characteristics of a modern city: energy, thrust, change and transmutation – and above all an overwhelming sense of the transitory. Which brings us back to Reykjavík.
Returning to town from a recent fishing trip to Vopnafjörður, in the North-East, I called in to see the Goya exhibition at the Akureyri City Art Museum. A rewarding visit, made all the sharper and more vivid by the cultural and geographic polarities at play. An old master caught in the shadow of a mountain, in a small community up on the Arctic threshhold, has all the properties of a piece of volcanic glass. Like a chunk of obsidian, born of extreme contrasts in temperature and material states, it emerges from the collision diamond sharp – a gem of experience forged from the unlikeliest of unions. In the capital, Reykjavík, some six times the size of Akureyri, but hardly metropolitan, the disproportionately rich cultural life of Akureyri is amplified, of course, many times over. Reykjavík Culture Night gets under way this month, an annual eruption of event and street theatre, that will spice up an already eventful programme across the city.
In the meantime, the mist will continue to mass and disperse over Esja; the seasonal rebound into permanent darkness will be well under way, and the new generation of Arctic Terns that fledged on the village pond will have started their journey south to Antarctica. And the steam will just keep rising.