Iceland is a burgeoning tourist location, with two million visitors each year heading to this small island primarily for the otherworldly landscapes and to road trip around the famous Highway 1. Yet over the past years, Iceland has also become a major player in the creative world; with world-renowned musicians like Björk, Sigur Rós and Of Monsters and Men, writers like Halldór Laxness, Arnaldur Indriðason, and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, and artists such as Olafur Eliasson and Ragnar Kjartansson. A cultural, creative hub, Reykjavík is home to a multitude of galleries, museums and theatres, along with over forty annual festivals and events – the most famous of which is Iceland Airwaves taking place at the beginning of November, an alternative-pop music festival that sees Fleet Foxes headline this year.
Indeed, the creative industries in Iceland employ more than 5% of the workforce, being the second biggest contributor to the GDP and producing a larger share than the fishing industry. It’s well worth spending time in Reykjavík to explore the creative arts scene in the city – discovering the distinct multidisciplinary nature of Icelandic art, the focus on light, colour and sound and becoming acquainted with some of Iceland’s main galleries, museums and artists.
There was something I kept hearing on my recent trip to Iceland; something that each Icelandic person I met kept telling me – the word for home, world and stupid are all derived from the same stem in the Icelandic language: heima, heimur and heimskur. What does that fact tell you about this country? To me, it says that they are a population who love to travel to gain knowledge and experience, to avoid stupidity, and then to return home with a greater perspective of the world, home to a country that they love.
I was in Iceland exploring the new creative scene in Reykjavík, something about which I knew little. But through meeting artists, visiting galleries and discovering the art scene in Iceland, this idea of ‘home’ kept cropping up. It is something I think many Icelandic artists bring into their work, either consciously or subconsciously – be it through the use of light, which is so predominant in the Icelandic landscape; through colour, that seemed to reflect the number of rainbows we saw when we were there; or in the way art in Iceland was so multi-disciplinary, with artists mixing art, music and other creative mediums in a way that is very unique, and which is reflective of the small population of this little island.
Indeed, with a population of just over 300,000, it’s clear to see why. There is a common joke in Iceland that everyone is related somehow. If you hear someone refer to their ‘uncle’ or ‘aunt’, most likely they are just some sort of relative that’s impossible to explain – perhaps their grandpa’s cousin’s son or something similar… In the Icelandic art world, what this means is that painters will often be in the same circles as sculptors, musicians, writers and photographers, and the result is an exploration into other creative mediums. Unlike in the U.K. where artists often need to define themselves as one thing or another, in Iceland there seemed to be no restraints in painters delving into music, in artists mixing visual and audio to create a more interactive piece of work.
In this feature, we’ll explore some of Iceland’s creative hubs in the city of Reykjavik and the way they’re showcasing Icelandic and international artwork in a way that is so special and unique to this small Nordic island.
What was once an abandoned Herring Factory at the port of Reykjavík has now been transformed into a creative, artistic space housing some of Iceland’s most distinguished and interesting artists and their work. With high ceilings and large windows looking out onto the docks of the city, architects, Ási Sturluson and Steinþór Kárason resolved to retain the distinct charm of the building, with original iron staircases and stone walls, while adding stylish, modern touches to create a unique space. Marshall House is home to the Kling & Bang Gallery – established by ten artists back in 2004 – whose aim is to introduce emerging and established national and international artistic talent, challenging the context and content of creative thinking. The building also houses the I8 Gallery, the Living Art Museum and Olafur Eliasson’s studio space. Marshall House is also home to an exceptional restaurant on the ground floor, which is certainly worth checking out for dinner or a drink after visiting the gallery spaces in the building.
Situated in an old harbour warehouse just across the road from Reykjavik’s port, the Hafnarhus building of Reykjavík Art Museum houses an array of international and local contemporary art exhibitions across six different galleries. At the time of visiting, the Museum was taken over by the works of renowned Icelandic artist, Ragnar Kjartansson, and his most popular exhibition to date, ‘God, I Feel So Bad.’ It is an exhibition that celebrates art in all its forms; from music to theatre, film to literature. While youths play guitars and sing softly in a gallery that resembles a teenager’s bedroom (complete with sofas, mattresses and a beer-filled fridge), upstairs a room is filled with video clips of alternative modern leisure life. The exhibition encompasses a multi-layered visual and audio world that Kjartansson has envisioned, another example of the multi-disciplinary nature of Icelandic art. The Art Museum regularly alternates exhibitions, changing every three to four months. It is not uncommon to see the museum taken over completely by one artist, featuring national and international artists alike. You can find details on upcoming exhibitions here: artmuseum.is/exhibitions.
BERG Contemporary is a new commercial art gallery opened in the heart of Reykjavík, run by Ingibjörg Jónsdóttir and Margrét Áskelsdóttir. The gallery is currently exhibiting ‘Variations’ by young Icelandic artist, Dodda Magg´y. Another example of the exploration of combining audio and visual, the exhibition is “an attempt to externalize the internal dimensions of dreams, memories and imagination through installation, film, music, sound art and silent moving imagery.” Using colour, light and elements from nature, the exhibition is a mesmerising combination of disciplines. BERG Contemporary is open from 11am to 5pm from Tuesday to Friday, and 1pm to 5pm on Saturday.
Sprung out of a desire to create a platform for combining visual art with experimental music, the Cycle Music Festival is an annual event that allows artists to engage with different disciplines through audio-visual performance. The festival takes place in Kópavogur, a city on the outskirts of Reykjavík, and is curated by artist Gudný Gudmundsdóttir whose passions for experimenting with different artistic techniques are evident as soon as she begins speaking. She tells us that her aim is to be inclusive, to give space to things that may often be shunned in the artistic world. We are later invited to a workshop in the middle of the Icelandic countryside, to watch artists engaging in conversation about works, past and present, as they begin their preparations for the festival in the coming year. Cycle Music Festival will take place through the month of September in the coming year and is certainly worth attending when in Reykjavík to experience the unique nature of multi-disciplinary Icelandic art.
There were a few things that struck me about the art world in Iceland: firstly, how passionate the artists were; secondly, how much they engaged with their homeland in the creative work they produced; and thirdly, the way artistic disciplines were so fluidly combined by artists. Perhaps reflective of the way the weather changes from rain to wind to sun all in one day, and the landscapes evolve from mountains to glaciers to black sand beaches – so too do artists synchronise elements and senses in their creative work. It goes back again to the idea of ‘home’ and the way it infiltrates into creativity – in a country as dramatic and otherworldly as Iceland, it’s not surprising that it does so.
We would highly recommend taking time in Reykjavík to explore the nature of Icelandic art and the exceptional creative hubs in the city. We believe that understanding a country’s creativity is essential to understanding the culture of a country, to come away with the best overall vision of a population and its land. In a country as small and intimate as Iceland, you will find that landscape, food, the creative arts and a multitude of other disciplines all go hand-in-hand in an interwoven web of culture and life.
Thanks to Inspired by Iceland for sponsoring this trip and allowing us to experience a true sense of Iceland and its art.
*As usual, all opinions are our own.*
Athena Mellor is a writer, linguist and co-founder of ROAM Magazine. Her passion for travel lies in that which keeps you on the move – hiking, cycle-touring, road-tripping. After graduating from University College London with a degree in Modern Languages, Athena decided to spend 4 months solo cycle-touring around parts of the USA and New Zealand, before returning to the USA to explore more of California, Oregon and Washington. She shoots on a Pentax MX 35mm film camera and is constantly trying to learn new languages on her travels, also working as a freelance translator. She is based in Yorkshire, England.