Today I’m walking through the social ecology of Iceland, by way of the popular artist Kjarval. Here’s a hint of what’s coming later in the post…
Beautiful Human Monster, Kjarvalstaðir
Recycled, too. With teeth!
In Iceland things are what they are. For the earth, this is a pretty standard state of affairs. Luckily for all humans, it can be pretty beautiful, too. Like this:
4×4 Jeep at Church, Hallgrímskirkja, Reykjavik
Great matching colours at Reykjavik’s showpiece church! I think this approach might clash at the Vatican if you tried it there, though.
In Iceland, things are usually a little different than they first look. That red vehicle above, for instance, is not a 4×4 in the sense that its Japanese designers intended it. It’s more like a cross between an American military runabout and an Icelandic horse…
Pre World War II 4×4 Vehicle Putting a Fence to Good Use
These specifically Icelandic rules of social sculpture are largely unvoiced. I find them liberating — as another creature awkwardly domesticated by a colonial legacy: a Canadian.
Second Hand Furniture Emporium with Droopy Flag, Vernon, Canada
In Canada as well as in Iceland, the remnants of past economies provide fertile ecological niches for new economies. The land (often talked about but always distant) is not the point.
The kind of social sculpture in the above image is found wherever humans settle down, of course. What makes it different in former colonies (such as Iceland and Canada) is that the technologies are all foreign. That might sound a bit obvious, but consider it this way: at installations like this …
Antique Store Window, Vesturgata
Selling the world’s junk back to the world.
…in France, French people get to largely root around in their own heads. In Iceland or Canada, people are largely rooting around in someone else’s head. Not the same thing.
Store Window, Reykjavik
Lures for humans looking for a new image for their bodies. Important note if you want to try this at home: the realization that the human is the body is not part of this aesthetic. You can only do that with impunity in colonial centres, not at their peripheries.
Canada has its own approaches to power and to its colonial legacy (Largely, Canada is a social rather than a geographical location. It has replaced social and economic growth in “geographical place” by luring immigrants from other former world colonies, whose comfort with living in dis-placed lines of force is more attractive to Canada’s elites than is the costly rootedness of former immigrants). Iceland, too…
Slot Machine Casino Window Advertisement, Reykjavik
Giant drugs? Concrete money? A clever nordic pun for “real money”, I’d say, and presented in a colourful larger-than-life artifice, too. Top marks for this dynamically-energized street art-political installation and its recycling of images of contemporary global colonialism. Note the pink paint — a kind of dog-like territorial marking made by humans partially resistant to the human entrapment technology called “advertising” and its tried-and-true sexual lures. Imagine: wild humans, among us, even now in 2013. One hardly dare breathe, lest one scare them away!
Just as in Canada, human political elites (the A-type power personalities that usually dominate human relationships) really like this kind of stuff. It supports their power structures well. There are variations on this model, though. In Canada, as I mentioned, they experiment with mass immigration as a means of forestalling change. In Iceland, however, they lure people foreign to the culture for temporary visits (tours), during which they are offered images of their own culture, such as this street-side bar offering English drinks for English visitors (seen here through its window) …
… and, still on the English theme, this other bar, up the street and down the hill towards the water…
England, Denmark, and the United States in One!, Reykjavik
(American beer slogan graffiti, English musical icons, and Danish Carlsberg beer.)
The key to colonial societies is the almost random recombination of multiple foreign influences, none of which are home-grown. It leads to exquisite and exciting (and beautiful) temporary art exhibits like this…
Construction Site, Reykjavik
Although only the most powerful of these sculptural objects is Icelandic (the rock holding up the corner of the palette), the combination of elements is pure Icelandic (in the sense of Iceland as a social space.) One learns to navigate one’s own colonization. One makes a home in it, so to speak.
This, the wisdom of urban people worldwide, finds its perfection in colonialism (including its new face, migration.) Intriguingly, in this art form mechanized reproduction is not an infringement on individuality. You can repeat the same Háspenna advertisement on all sides of the same building (and probably, if Coca Cola is any example, around the world) with impunity.
Aren’t you glad, though, you can’t hear the screaming?
As a part of global culture, this casino (and its copy writers) is relying on the concept that an individual human is a moment of emotional and biological energy — a wordless animal that delights in colour and scripts that it can move into, inhabit and ‘flesh out’. It is up to dominant social humans to write those scripts in such a way that when biological humans enter them, their accompanying social humans believe they have written them themselves. It is best to maintain such illusions of individual identity. Humans are a little touchy when it comes to identity issues.
To recap, I’ll try to simplify that into an image. It shows a couple biological humans in a piece of performance art directed on the fly by the social humans who fill them like spiritual water. Here it is:
Humans are Mightily Attracted to Work, Laugarvegur
Excellent colour work here, especially the inner hallway carpet’s lush mauve, pulled out to protect the concrete from paint spills. The bubble gum that already has used it as an abstract expressionist canvas shouldn’t be spoiled carelessly, should it. No, it should not. That’s deep respect, that’s what that is.
Now I’ll try to return that to words: because human identities are crafted by contemporary political elites to appear as attractive homes for social and biological humans alike, such art as the Háspenna advertisement above is a form of sculpture or building. If you think “stable”, you’re pretty much on the mark. Here is its physical corollary:
Biological Care Facility (Apartment or Stable), Reykjavik
Complete with climate control. No price is too great. After all, no social life forms are possible without the biological humans they carry around with them. Such complicated art works! So delightful!
Simply, you just can’t have social power, or a national state and the benefits of security it brings, without socialized (domesticated) humans. Wild ones are just trouble.
Wild Humans Causing Trouble in a Bankrupt Construction Site, Reykjavik
They missed the socialization that was supposed to teach them that domestication and culture are the same thing. Poor things.
For the purposes of nationalizing humans, art is absolutely essential. It is a kind of engineering much akin to the construction of bridge girders. Here, for example, are some temporary Icelandic residents (tourists) training themselves in this technology …
Skógafoss (Forest Falls), Iceland
This beautiful waterfall is in the process of successfully luring these humans to its lair. Don’t let the lack of a forest spoil your experience with that exquisite retro-art form, “nature”. There was a forest once. People got cold. They burnt it. Wouldn’t you do the same for your body? I know I would.
I’d like to introduce a term which describes this effect. It is this: Photographic Acclimatization. You use it in a sentence like this:
The people in the above image are training themselves in the contemporary art technique of Photographic Acclimatization.
Here are some more humans hard at work at just that …
World Humans Meet the Earth
And then stand there, far, far past where language can lead them, staring. Sometimes they meet their biological selves for the first time in this way. Being generous and merciful, Icelandic tour bus drivers bring them here by the busload. If you drive real fast, you can make it from Reykjavik to here and back in a day, which is, frankly, wayyyyyy too far and hard on the bus drivers, but, as I say, they are generous and merciful.
The popular art form of photographic acclimatization is an updated version of the 19th century science of butterfly collecting, something which I’ve been trying to make into a new science of late, although without a net.
This turkish forage plant was left behind in the faeces of some cattle, back when this part of Oregon Territory was an updated version of the Wild West. The alfalfa decided to stay. In the 19th century, I would have had to catch this beauty with a net and pin it on a card. It would then be usable by modern human art-makers, as an image of past human-earth interfaces. As a wild butterfly, it is relatively invisible, as is the undocumented weed ecosystem it now inhabits. It is like a brand new earth out there!
Photographic Acclimitization is based on the principle of traveling the country (or the world) to capture images of things that you have seen before in advertising material. It is absolutely essential to modern society. It allows socialization processes to ‘gel’ into the complex social sculptures without which the society could not exist in a stable form.
Look at how these poor beasts are chained up night and day. Poor things.
Plato, the Greek philosopher who pointed out that each chair is a projection of a perfect chair in Heaven, would turn over in his grave. This approach will not lead to nationalism. The following is a more appropriate photographic subject:
Icelandic Tourism Display: Endless Night Land
This will lead to nationalism. A year ago, tourists from around the world were asked to submit their photographs of Iceland and to coin a new term for the country which expressed their experience. The ones in keeping with the promotional goals of Iceland’s copywriters were chosen, lavishly photographed, and turned into a “new” (or at least re-cycled) promotional package. It’s the casino all over again!
After all, it’s not just horses, sheep and cattle who are domesticated in the process of creating a society out of farmers.
Teenage Art, Hallórmstadur
Tasked with the job of leading young children to exploration of art in a wooden hut in Iceland’s national forest, teenagers practice the social art instructions of their Walt Disney-style drawing pad.
Note the Arrows
They aid in the process of refining the complexity of the human body into simple, infinitely reproducible lines.
The goal is the sculpting of readily portable masks, called identities …
… which can be worn as display objects in public.
Checking for Traffic. Vesturgata
Individually sited, using a mass-produced stencil. Now that’s about as good a definition of colonialism and migration as I’ve ever heard.
Identity masks for human bodies come in many types, all attractive to social humans. They include clothing, hair styles, facial expressions, language, apartment furnishings, art and, of course, footwear. You don’t want your favourite human to wander the streets unshod. He or she might step on a nail, right? And, besides, they’d have a hard time getting into restaurants to be wined and dined, and then where would you, a social human, be with a cranky, hungry animal tethered to you?
A reason to keep your body shod.
The image above looks like the mass-produced, flippy-flappy Swedish flat-packed style shoe racks that can be found in houses, apartments and closets worldwide. It’s not. It’s Icelandic art.
Icelandic Shoe Choosing Rack for Two
A pair for each identity mask.
No doubt, the other millions of shoe racks worldwide are also completed with a sterling collection of globally-sourced, mass-produced shoes, but that’s not the point. The point is, of course, the flare, or gesture, with which one installs it. For example, construction sites are also part of artistic display worldwide …
This is a form of process art. It is, after all, called a “building”, not a “built.” In such subtle ways, a language directs the humans that it occupies.
… but turning them into playgrounds for children, complete with turf, tires, and repurposed fish boat tubs, well, now that takes flare. Lots of flare.
This Icelandic art form incorporates such a keen eye for the beauty of artistic line and colour that it makes the fantasy character creation materials window (art supplies store) above seem a lot like a visit to the dentist. I mean, don’t just gawk at all this beauty … walk around in it!
Reykjavik Harbour Construction Site
Children encouraged. Look at the magical rope boat anchor cross angel talisman, eh! Such an exquisite turquoise. There’s no way you could squeeze colour like that out of a tube.
If you walk around long enough, you might find the materials to build a sculptural representation of your body, like a ghost from long ago, and even move into it and sleep and dream…
A Good Place to Go on a Rainy Day
The children, however, are all in school. Poor things.
Neighbourhood School and Canadian-Style Child Socialization Device, Seljavegur
Like many play places in Iceland, the playground and its accompanying school (socialization device) are situated on a plot of land set aside for “the other people”. In most cases, this means elves. In this particular case, dwarves.
It is socially acceptable in Iceland to allow children to play and learn among the other people. This is a primary rule in Iceland, and why not. After 1100 years of crippling poverty, the Viking settlers of Iceland lost so much — almost everything, in fact. What remains are a few sturdy humans, horses, dogs, sheep and the other people. All are granted almost unbridled respect as the spiritual creatures that they are. Accordingly, a village of the other people is also a good place to build a church …
Elf Houses Among the Crocusses in front of Hallgrímskirkja, Reykjavik
That’s a statue of Leif the Lucky, donated by “The People of the United States of America” after World War II. Excellent playground! Sadly, the dutch crocuses and the elves, which have both gone native here, don’t get a plague.
… but you can never build a house on elf rock …
It’s tricky to decide who has the better deal.
A popular saying in Iceland is “You never know.” It’s used to describe the Icelandic love of slapdash construction and the lack of interest in cleaning up old junk. The reason for it is “you never know” whether elves exist or not, or even God, so you keep churches and elves around because it might prove useful some day. You also “never know” when the economy is going to collapse or a volcano is going to blow its top, so there’s no point in settling down too comfortably, either. One’s home is Iceland, not some particular private property within it, because “you never know.” Actually, you do…
Farm on the Snæfells Peninsula
Once very nearly wiped out by a) a lava flow, b) a cinder cone, and c) the ash that came along with them. In Iceland, this kind of thing happens all too often. Icelanders know this.
As a result, in Iceland one’s home is not in a ‘place’ but in a community. In the past, displacement was so rampant in Iceland that most people were less than indentured servants, continually on the move from one side of the country to the other, looking for some point of entrance into secure social structures (Hint: there were none.) Icelanders tell themselves (and the world) that they created their country for themselves by throwing off the yoke of Danish colonization. As the above examples of contemporary colonization should demonstrate, it wasn’t the Danes (or any other country) that was the real yoke. The yoke was separateness. It was broken when Icelanders gained enough perspective on their situation to realize that to be properly socialized they would have to participate in their own socialization, so they took to it with great enthusiasm and earnestness.
One Manager (Labouring) and Two Workers (Supervising) Spend Two Hours Fixing a Door to Nowhere Reykjavik Skate Park
One Canadian is most enchanted. No skaters, mind you. Lots of Italian graffiti art, though.
This basic rule of human socialization applies as much to individual as to group humans (families, communities, corporations and other social identities, not all of them friendly.) In capitalist societies, it takes the form of “economy”, a kind of language that attempts to profit from exchange and, indeed, makes an entire artistic language out of it, all the way from the Icelandic banking industry (a form of gambling) to the Icelandic gambling industry (a form of banking).
I Bet You Were Wondering Where That Gold Got To!
This would be tricky for iguanas, but fortunately it’s dead simple for humans. As you (a social sculpture) and your biological human (‘your’ body) explore this art form, do keep in mind that self sculpture is often built around sculpture designed to shape you, and if you’re anything like normal you’ll chafe a bit at that.
Abandoned Farmhouse, Suðurdalur
“What? Me stay poor in the middle of nowhere, while everyone else in Reykjavik has television and Wienerbrød (a Danish, colonial pastry)? No way, Jóni!
And what do half wild humans do in Reykjavik? They learn the ropes. And the half-wild children of domesticated humans, what do they do? Most of them live in places like this …
… and her people going to work. Later they’ll come back for some hamburgers with the family, while she, in her lovely Icelandic sweater, looks bovinely on.
… and then get restless, which looks like this …
Art, Open Air Gallery, Frakkastigur
These restless humans are intent on adding a touch of wildness to the contemporary city, using the very elements (imported technologies, concepts and rituals) which they appear to be rejecting. Such is the paradox of people whose cultures have grown in colonial situations.
Like the troll under the bridge in The Three Billy Goats Gruff. Note the excellent use of colour and the rather fraught respect given to the rowan trees — once a potent symbol of nationalism and now a no-less-potent symbol of ‘home’ and ‘place’.
For most Icelanders, the tension between the 19th century romantic story (the imported concepts of wild nature, wildflowers, waterfalls, beauty, landscapes, nationalism, and all that fine stuff, which enabled Icelanders to see their country as something larger than a net of social relationships, and which eventually led to the kind of post-colonial independence it has today) …
The invention of the colour blue. Pure 19th Century! Yes, it is possible to travel in time in Iceland. Wear sturdy shoes. A walking stick helps. Watch out for snow drifts (5 feet deep).
… is easily enough merged with newer imported technologies and old forms of social integration, into their communal village, contemporary Reykjavik…
Reykjavik, Old Town
A typical neighbourhood view. This is what time (1945-2013) looks like when viewed all at once.
Culture creates a form of time that doesn’t move. Instead, it sculpts it into a complex dynamic. In the Icelandic case, this dynamic is a series of modernized replacements for turf houses for biological humans.
Two Kinds of Modernized Turf House, Reykjavik
The social decisions of humans over time and the ways in which they choose to animate space with their bodies and minds, including what they retain and what they discard, is a form of art.
In this case, the genre might be called: Stairways to Heaven. Or even, Jacob’s Ladder:
New Edition of the Holy Bible, from the Period Before the Banking Collapse, Skúlagata
There’s so much to learn and celebrate, but, as I said, it’s not always what it seems. Take this older art form, for instance:
Nice waterfall, for sure. The raw power of nature. Pure beauty. Etcetera. We all know this romantic, 19th century story, and it’s worth telling and walking into. But there’s another story. About a century ago, there were five poles to North European culture: Nordic, Anglo-American, Middle European (including German and Jewish), Eastern European and French. Today, there is largely just a rump of the Anglo-American and a sliver of French. War will do that. In the forgotten Nordic version, though, the earth of men, or Middle Earth, was a point of balance between an earth of fire and an earth of ice. The waterfall above is just this balance. So is the one below: Detail of Waterforms by Kjarval
His friend, the writer Gunnar Gunnarsson, was also deeply attentive to Middle Earth.
Another way of looking at Middle Earth is to describe it as The Middle Way. For example, Iceland chooses to support certain of its artists, musicians and writers for life, as they are considered important parts of the national fabric, as essential for the support of the people as roads and electrical transmission lines and law courts.
Icelandic Artists Pointing the Way to to the Aluminum Plant
Make no mistake: this too is nature.
To support the arts in Iceland, sometimes you build an art gallery for a popular artist, such as Kjarval, which includes living quarters for both the man and his paintings. Such museums are scattered around Reykjavik. With the passing of the artist, they become full-fledged galleries … based around the achievements of an individual who serves as a model for citizens of the national state. If you were a poet, though, you’re more likely to get this:
Memorial to Jónas Hallgrímmson, Öxnadal
Long before Gunnar Gunnarsson, Jónas went to Denmark for an education. He came back with the idea of planting trees — an important contribution to Icelandic independence, as it helped Icelanders start to create their landscape, rather than just experience it. As a reward, Jónas has been planted among the trees. That’s his bust on the rock, there, within sight of the turf house of his childhood, high on the mountain in behind.
Artists have been a bit luckier. In the case of Kjarval, he got a museum. It is even called Kjarvalstaðir, or Kjarval City. In it, you will find this (waterless) waterfall…
Detail of Kjarval’s Technique
You get the idea: oil paint on canvas, brush strokes, and all the markings of modern art. Except, it’s not what it seems. It’s not really modern art at all. It’s folk painting that looks like modern art.
Now, before you read why I think this is an example of an old Nordic tradition living on into the present global art installation, let’s pull back a bit and look at the waterfall in its context.
Pardon my camera’s wonky understanding of light and colour. Luckily it’s the lines that are intriguing here. Look at them all. All kinds of squiggly this and that, eh.
Critically, Kjarval is an enigma. From the point of view of modern art, he was obviously a skilled practitioner (although it’s usually mentioned that he was self-taught — which is code-word for “Hunh? Whah? Why?”).
Church Bazaar Art Elevated to World Gallery Status
That’s Kjarvalstaðir for you! If you think this is a criticism, think again. It is, among other things, a form of deep respect. For another thing, there is no Platonic law that states that a work of art by an individual can’t find its fullest expression socially (such as in the social frame of an art gallery.)
Kjarval is also frequently described in the art world as an oddity, because he never settled on a personal style, nor developed all of his skilful interpretations of world art traditions and techniques into a language of his own, which is de rigeur for a modern-art-scientist-individual type, like, say, Klee or Picasso. Kjarval remained colonial to the end, as in this energy diagram resulting from a cross between Gaugin and a German woodcut (Without wood, the medium of choice became paint imitating wood’s recording of solar and water energy — very clever.)
In terms of the art world, these deviations from an elaborate intellectual language are the signs of an amateur, even a child or even, gasp, a non-artist. Now, that just can’t be. How are you going to have a national artist, when there’s no art? It does certainly leave the Icelanders with a bit of a problem: not only is Kjarval the most popular of all Icelandic artists, bar none, but there’s a whole architecturally beautiful museum plunked down in Reykjavik devoted largely to his work, and in a display as sophisticated as any small town display of amateur works by a local painting club, too…
Bit of an embarrassment, really. Ah, but it’s not what it seems. For one thing, you can serve food. That works. Keep the bodies fed and magic may follow. You never know! Actually, you do…
Viewing the Art is Not the Point.
Living with it, and within its display, is. Why, one can be as easily framed by the gallery as is the art. That is, actually, a pretty profound experience. Icelanders know this.
For another thing, take a look at some of those marks below and to the right of that waterfall I showed you above…
It’s like he set his cat onto it, with claws. Or let his pet raven wander over it, scritchy-scratching, or started playing x’s and o’s with his subconscious. I wonder who won.
Now we’re getting somewhere. In the world of individualistic, über-scientific modern art, child of the Enlightenment, god daughter of the intelligentsia, brush strokes, scratches, gouges, lines and other marks are part of a sophisticated texture … which somehow doesn’t include these. These look rather formless. They’re not, but the impression holds, nonetheless. That’s because, they’re really this:
Kjarval’s Trolls !
Poor art critics! The Icelandic people love looking for the faces within Kjarval’s paintings. The art critics just scratched their heads at the childishness of it all.
Well, one can forgive the art critics. For one thing, they didn’t go to school in an elf village, did they. For another, no one built them a playground in the harbour. For another, they might not have seen this:
Looking down over the World’s first parliament (965 AD).
So, let’s recap: a country that retains its folk animals and its folk beliefs because the land is unstable and “you never know” (although they do), does not build houses on fairyland but raises and educates and plays with its children on it instead — and not because they’re children; because they’re equally valued and are socialized by exposure to non-human energy. The country’s favourite artist interprets world artistic mark-making within this context and replaces sophisticated intellectual mark with sophisticated folk marks, in which the non-visible energies of the other people are everpresent and revealed …
… as if they were a language (a spiritual language, which is one step up the ladder from a. physical, b. individual, and c. social). The country responds by completing the art work in a social context and then proceeds to do a most amazing thing. It brings its children here, a place now as sacred and powerful as the elf houses themselves, and proceeds to educate them into sophisticated artistic responses. Method includes a room for parents and their children to make art together and post it into frames on the wall after viewing the galleries, in a process as capable of social completion and change as Miro, say, or Klee, within their non-colonial contexts (and which would function as colonizers here, if not released from that role by this truly Icelandic process, with its roots in the Middle Way of ancient Nordic culture) …
Icelandic Artist’s Collage
(Name with-held for privacy. Available on request.) Age 2 yrs, 11 months.
… sophisticated portraits …
… elaborate portraits of dwarves …
… a Coast Guard Ship …
… Diaper Day Mom …
… Enough ribs to make ribs fun again …
… and an elaborate, high-art contribution by parents and teachers, helping to stage the show …
Beautiful! It Almost Upstages the Kids…
… but not quite.
This is what the Canadian approach to a colonial past misses: a past before the colonial past that it can reach into and transform the colonial experience into merely a passing fancy. In Canada, cultures are continually replaced. In Iceland, children are brought to make art in the country’s national galleries, and the art they are asked to view there is of exactly the same kind of material, intent, and subject matter as what they produce in response to it. And so the cultural loop is closed — partly because “children” are viewed as equals to adults, if not superior to them, which is definitely not the Canadian way. In Canada, they are educated to be adults. In Iceland, they are already adults, just very special ones. Is Kjarval’s art “world class”. No, not in the way that is meant. But does “world class” art find fulfillment in the following image? (Hint: no, it does not. It might look like modernist Dutch art, but it is not.)
1000 years of clustering together in the Bath Hall (the only heated space) in their houses have made Icelanders eager to live very closely together. It also helps to keep out Nature, which is great retro stuff for attracting money from tourists who grew up within its 19th and 20th century images …
… but it can kill you. It is best to make something out of it.
Turf Barn, Landshús, Norðurdalur
So, Icelandic art and literature can sometimes appear childish and a bit awkward (Gunnar’s sure does, at times, and the contemporary situation is no different), but they work within a very specific social context, that is still in touch with the Nordic roots of contemporary Western life, roots which most of the literary and art worlds have completely lost. Next, I’ll explore those roots a little, but for now, thank you for spending some quality time with me among the elves.
Harold Among the Elves