Tag Archives: Sculpture

The Bones of Petroleum as an Art Form in Iceland

Once there were fuel stations for travellers. They were built on farms and were the modern equivalent of a service economy that had sustained wealthy farms for many hundreds of years. Some even had garage and tire services and predated the Ring Road of Dutch Camper Company fame. Many of the country hotels in Iceland still follow this old model of serving travellers on farms. The fuel stations are gone now as working centres, though. The more remote of them have been replaced with a lone pump, an automatic card reader, a light, and the bright sign of a national chain in a corner of a field. Not at Starmyri, though!

This translation of a bustling service centre on a rich farm is a bitter story. Once on the gravel road north along the East Coast from Höfn, with valuable shore rights at the mouth of the Seal River…

The Road of the Speeding Camper Vans Crosses the Seal River and Hurtles On

… and a good, sheltered landing, it was isolated by the sea by black sand drifting south by rivers re-engineered in the North during the diversion to create the hydroelectric power for the aluminum smelter in Reyðarfjörður.

The oldest stone house in Iceland, rebuilt by Alcoa, and now a National Historic Site, stranded from the sea by the smelter behind it.

The result was a new East Coast built from lagoons and long, black sand beaches…

Your average coastal farm is a long way from the Atlantic now!

…beloved of tourists and useless for farms that live in 1100 years of time, not the continually re-occurring present and fictional pasts and futures of 21st century time.

Reykjavik after the economic crisis.

Still, as you can see…

… the whale bones of an older past keep it company now, as if they were the busts of roman senators on their plinths. This is beautiful art-making. You can see 1100 years of life at once.

Whatever Siberian forest this tree grew in before washing west and south and landing on the Starymyri shore, I bet it never expected to achieve eternity like this! And, yes, at Starmyri, where the sheep pastures have eroded away in the wind…

What passes for a sheep pasture today in Starmyrí, as the winds of a changing petroclimate take all the soil away.

… the shore is blocked by industrial sand, shore rights are extinguished and the road has been moved away from the farmyard, the farm still manages to draw sustenance from travellers.

Each cabin offers an ideal Iceland, framed as a work of art.

Like many important things in Iceland, you have to find the history yourself, on the principle that you only need to know what you need to know and if you find something else, then you know and don’t need to be told, in this country that dresses up as pristine nature, her newest artistic dress.

An old farmer built this artwork in his retirement. The family keeps it in his memory. What a clever man!

Maria of the Elves

Women were put to death for visiting elves here on Viðey in Reykjavik Old Harbour. Now there is a shrine to Maria made out of cut glass in their honour and in honour of birth and motherhood in general.

On the other side of the island is the John Lennon Peace Tower, which beams light up into the winter darkness.

Iceland. Giving Peace and Light a chance since 870.

Plus picnics.

Art for the Eye in Reykjavik

Ásmundar Sveinsson sculpted things for the eye, to give it delight as it sorted light and form before sending information on to the brain for further massaging. A trip to Reykjavik is just a pub crawl if you don’t get to the Ásmundarsafn, the gallery set up to show his stunning work.

It was a concept that has not yet seen its day. Perhaps you will be the one to expand on it?

These weren’t intellectual interpretations of human forms, human work and human engineering. These were delights made for the eye. Go on, don’t you think your eyes deserve some glee?

Note that the quality of the light is part of the effect that he was sculpting. I’m afraid that moving these away from their native environment just wouldn’t work. Off you go, now. Treat yourself!

Constructing Iceland

For the last month, I have devoted almost my entire time to completing my Iceland project about Gunnar in World War II. The whole effort is like fitting together a puzzle, or the way in which on my last day in Reykjavik, I witnessed some Icelanders attempting to build a forest in the middle of the city …P1590085

A Forest in Process

Sometimes words just won’t do.

Canada is not a country in which art is so closely combined with public and private life, and that’s too bad for Canada. It speaks to the kind of wealth that comes from a colonial history of buying things, rather than building them. Iceland has a good dose of the same colonial disease, but, the outcome of the election this project was designed to influence aside, has a better chance, I think, of coming out the other side into the earth and greater human richness than does Canada.

P1590078 Danish Post-Colonial Dining Room Furniture Taken Outside for Some Fresh Air

Over time, this forest construction effort brought many thoughtful and happy onlookers. The whole process filled people with delight. And why not. Look at how trees and scrap wood are brought together to make a model (a kind of 3D map) of Iceland itself, right in the middle of the city…

P1590027 Look as well how the effort requires fashionista colour coordination between man and tool, and the union of hiking footwear with workman’s gloves. Reykjavik mornings can be like that in the spring time! In fact, isn’t that an image of the Icelandic economy as a whole?

P1590015It is also the work of a community, of which there appeared to me to be no leader. It was as if the sculpture itself, the new forest, was directing the humans…
P1590016I had to get on a plane and leave, but these are the images I took away with me, and which I continue to expand in the work. I believe that the images show something uniquely Icelandic. It is a kind of creative energy, with very specific roots deep in Nordic culture, on the one hand, and in the Icelandic settlement experience on the other, which is ongoing, and not historical. “History” is just a word. This is a living thing. In the next few weeks, I plan to show some other examples of this energy at work in modern Iceland, and by then I think it’ll be time to show you how I have been fitting them together, like a delightful jigsaw puzzle, into my story about Gunnar. Bless bless!


A Vision for Writers from a Sculptor

There is a line that makes a story. It’s the path any person can walk along to get from one place to another, or the one my dog used to always find in the weeds, because the edges of the gravel are where everything happens, or maybe it’s just because it’s just where someone has passed by. This is a problem that doesn’t even bother sheep.


Sheep Tracks, Hengifossá Canyon

If you leave enough tracks they don’t make a trail. They make a net. A net’s a great thing, but if you catch the world with one, what then? Where are you going to drag your catch? 

Maybe it’s not so hard. Maybe sometimes writers just need to be dragged out of their words and given a new pasture to run in.


Icelandic Writer Staying Close to Home at Feeding Time

Or maybe not. Maybe it depends. A couple days ago the sculptor Ken Blackburn asked me to go out and make a line in Iceland. Everything in the world, he said, starts with a line. So, I made a line. I liked this idea. I could feel what the very beginning of something looked like, and not a story already made which I stub my toe against, which is usually the case. Gunnar’s story (whose house I haunt here) is certainly like that. And would you just look at what found me in its first moment, as I set it into the world …

littlelinecloserA Line of Volcanic Stones

In this case, the edge is in the midst of the ice. It leads from itself to itself, and quivers there, while the ice could just as well extend to the edges of the universe. Maybe it does. Maybe it’s only humans who say, “Look! There’s an edge to this stuff.”

Imagine what a story would look like if it were written like that. The beginning and end would lie side to side, cuddling up close in the centre, and all the rest of the story would stretch out in folds of sheets and kicked off blankets to the sides. You might have to pick up the book, and read it any way you wanted. The edge would always find you. Maybe I didn’t stub my toe against Gunnar’s story. Maybe, as a man largely of the 20th century (so far), I was always in it and by walking far enough stubbed into the line that was always there — maybe at the centre, maybe way off to the side … who’s to know in a spherical world? But you see, that’s a writer thinking. What did Ken say? Make a circle, he said. A sculpture, he said, is just a line, too. A circle! Aha!

P1430091Well, Sort of a Circle

And, this right on the sight of that original line, too, which looked like this when I showed up today …



A most unwriterly art form. Writers are always thinking about making a mark that stays. This one, though, is gone … it’s finished. 

Still, a circle, eh. A story that was a circle and not a line, that might have a swan feather in its belly, that might at any time be blown off by the wind … what a book that would make: a book that would mean anything at all, depending on who you are. But wait… I know some books like that. They were the books that Gunnar wrote in the 1930s, especially his “Advent in the Highlands.”


Advent in the Highlands

The Approved by the 1936 German Propaganda Ministry Version

Don’t jump to straight lines. That book, that Gunnar wrote to promote peace, was used to send German boys to Czechoslovakia, but 4 years later it was used to generate an American desire to go to war, in this edition:


Advent for Americans

A message of peace for both sides — that circle was Gunnar’s intention. That it was used for other purposes was not. 

So, circles. I thought, well, what if a circle is not alone? What then? So I tried to find out …


Two Circles

 Well, that felt good, you know. Look how they turn the space between them into a … well, not a line exactly, but a space that could be a line, or anything… a space of possibility. Not a No-Man’s Land, but an All-Man’s Land. So, I wanted to see how far this would go…

P1430114Three Circles!

Now there’s a line and no line, and the middle circle is within the position of possibility.

What would a story put together like that look like? It wouldn’t be a story, for one thing, so much as a bunch of stones and ice on a beach that the writer and readers could all walk around in together and stub their toes against … but would that be a bad thing? Is that what Gunnar was missing? A third circle? I mean, his stories were all about this…

iceringThe Shore of Life

It separates the island from the sea, or the colony from the colonizer, in Iceland’s case, and is deadly and life giving at the same time. Death and life are inseparable in Gunnar’s world. He does not means this as an easy sentiment.

But what if in all his haste to tell a story, to try to save Iceland from colonization and other invasion, through the admittedly ridiculous medium of words, he missed this?

P1430151They Float on Light!

Maybe novels and their traditional structures were the net that caught Gunnar. Maybe that’s an important lesson in literary form, learned from sculpture. I think it is.

The Sculptural Path to Story: an Icelandic Saga

Today, a meditation on lines, and the art and society that sprout from them, as a branch to this…

rowan2Gunnar Gunnarsson’s Rowan Tree, Skriðuklaustur, Iceland

Bending to the earth and throwing her branches into the sky. To say that these branches and twigs were hair, or a mane, or arms and fingers would be a kenning, or a skaldic pun. She has her own dignity, though, I’d say. After all, rowans are sacred to the Goddess. Their red berries glow like drops of blood in the snow, or, if you wish, the strawberry coloured lips of the Goddess of the English celts, or, if your mind wanders so far, to the lips of your first love, or your deepest. They are also a symbol of Icelandic nationalism.

Yesterday I started this meditation by talking about elves, to suggest that the earth is very much alive with human imagination, and not in a fantastical way, either. If you missed that, it’s here. Today, I’d like to talk about lines, to show how story rises from that same imagination. A couple weeks ago, I introduced this thought on my Canadian blog, Okanaganokanogan.com, with a thought from the sculptor and painter Ken Blackburn, that all writing and imagery, indeed all artistic culture, begins with a line. Here’s that post, if you’d like to see Ken and his strawberry-coloured raven. I’ve had many joyful arguments with Ken. He represented lines with panache. I argued for knots, deep wells, pools and other points of intersection between worlds. Well, look, maybe we were both right:

bubbleline1Icelandic Pool with Line, Skutustaðir

If you take the line away, you have a field, but no story.

I learned the skills for that kind of erasure by pruning fruit trees by starlight (I do not exaggerate) in the German Nordic Canadian dream that was my childhood, and learned to adapt it to the crafting of objects made out of words, which I thought for decades was writing, although it was really a form of sculpture. The addition of a line to a field, however complex, creates a tension, which human minds, structured to track game across grass and sand and to recognize the nuance and significance of the tiniest of plant forms and deviations, naturally follow. In terms of the craft which I track as a sculptor and many others lay down somewhat differently as trail makers, or writers, this is the root of story.


Footsteps on Lake Mývatn, Iceland

With the late afternoon sun rolling around on the horizon, like an eye. A writer looks forward here, into empty snow. A sculptor looks back into its story.

Before the line, there is indeed a pool (or a lake, a pond, a puddle, a sky, a moon, a well, a field, a face, or a room, and so on). It is endlessly fascinating but engages only one half of the split human mind. In storytelling, this is called a situation. To create story out of a situation, there must be two characters, who exchange powers at a point of transfer. That point of interchange transforms them.


Lines of Cosmic Energy Entering and Departing a Vortex …

… or rising from it. Driveway Puddle in the Early Morning, Skutustaðir

This kind of tension (and this unresolvable paradox), will continue to generate story as long as humans last on earth. This ability to read story into the earth’s processes is the signature of humans. It is the same tension that creates a poem within the boundaries of metre, or the balance that humans call beauty, which is a coming together in complex relationship to lines…



Driveway Puddle at 9:30 a.m. on a March Morning, Skutustaðir

Lines, of course, don’t always have to be simple. The one above, for instance, was taken while men with orange vests were fussing over the lone gas pump a few metres away, a woman was driving around crouching me on her way to take her kids to school, and the hotel cook was banging the snow off his boots after sucking the fire out of his morning cigarette before work. Lines, or story, shall we say, can be as complex as this…


… or this …


… or this …


… or this (you can probably surmise that a number of people had to drive around excited me) …


… or this…


Icelandic Horse Held in Its Field by a Line of Human Will …

… and continually at tension, between running free and being led (and fed). Notice the line in the foreground that humans have built in order to move past at speed, without stopping.

Sculptors stop. They get out of their narratives and find their stories telling themselves. The imagination that reads the human body into the sculptural forms of the land, also reads, and indeed creates, story, not as narrative but as something complete and whole in the world, that one can follow without moving at all. Pretty beautiful, I’d say. What does all this have to do with Gunnar Gunnarsson? Ah, I was getting to that. That is where you’ll find me tomorrow: in that story.

Elves and Men in Iceland

In his Book Livet’s Strand (The Shore of Life), written in 1915 during the height of the Great War that destroyed Western Civilization and left us all trying to make sense of the ruins, Gunnar Gunnarsson explored the idea (to heartbreaking length) that the earth is a shore on which life crashes again and again and again. On this shore, life is rescued and lost, celebrated and lost again, and in the end only endured. Today, 98 years later, I’d like to rescue that earth from this apocalyptic image — without denying its truth and the very real anguish which gave birth to it. To set the scene, two posts ago I gave this image of the living sea in the Skaga Fjord, in which I suggested that the sea was life itself and all other life is only a replication of it …

aliveThe Greenland Sea

Very much alive in Skagafjörður

Today I’d like to modify Gunnar’s rather black and white statement with the observation that the land has its own life. For evidence of it, a journey to Skudustaðir on Myvatn (The Lake of the Midges), is well advised. There is life within the stone there — life intimately connected with human consciousness, too. Here, for example …

P1320873House and Barn

That’s Elf House and Human Barn, actually, and the road going north and south. Folk wisdom holds that elves are more beautiful than people and reveal themselves only when they wish. No argument there.

Sure, Tolkein dreamed of his elves and so did the Victorian fabulists, but these are not those elves. Those ones are social and linguistic constructs and physical animations rising from the literalism of Christian civilization. I have deep respect for Christian tradition, but would like to show that in the North it has a very specific and illuminating context. These “elves” or “other people” are bodily perceptions that humans brought here from older continental traditions stretching back into the deep stone age. Here’s some charmed rock …


The Other World

Or, to give life to an old phrase that now is a name for bedrock: the living rock. It is not a metaphor, but neither is it one of Tolkein’s stories.

There is, for one thing, a world within the rock, with faces frozen into stone. Now, I will be following up on those faces in the next few days, but today I’m laying down words about the rock as the sculpture that it is …


Rock Entrails in Skutustaðir

Open up a human body and you get much the same thing.

In the 18th Century, the German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder wrote a vital book on aesthetics that shows light on this kind of art. It has been impeccably translated in a new edition from the University of Chicago.


The Publisher’s Page on this Book is Here.

In this book, Herder argues that sculpture is a representation of the human body, seen at the intersection of time and space — that three-dimensionality is just this intersection. Intriguingly, to observe this form of mirror, a human must walk around the sculpture, to see it unfold in time. It is a way of movement that anyone knows who has gone walking in the hills and seen their story unfold with each footstep, and sensed them moving behind one’s back. And what does a human see when his or her body is glimpsed within the earth, rather than within the sea, or on Gunnar’s shore?

elfin4Elves in the Their Kingdom

One also sees their sheep…

elfinElvin Ram

These effects are not just observable in the intestines of the stone, mind you. Even the surface stone, it’s skin, the shape it takes on exposure to the sun and human sight, is alive …

elfin6Elvin Sheep Skull with A Halo of LIchen

What do I mean by “alive” in this context? I mean that the stone has the power to cast forth shapes within the observing mind. It is a kind of template. The mind I’m talking about is a point of intersection between humans, earth …

lakeelves1 Lake Elf in the Spring Sun

Skutustaðir, Iceland

 … and with other wanderers from the sea, like these lichens …

head2Lake Elf with Jewels of Lichen

The orange lichen blooms in the faeces of birds. Cool!

Even more dramatically …

elfsnow2Lake Elf Replicated in Lichen

Sometimes the patterns laid down by the stone allow for these type of human readings to rise directly from the lichens themselves, as the stone is read in time …

elflichen3Lichen Elf

Skutustaðir, Iceland

This is the way the human mind reads the earth. In contemporary terms, ‘reading’ refers to decoding marks on paper, which spell out words, which encapsulate ideas and signify the things of the world, all coloured by human “spells”, traditions, conventions, and cognitive biases. Reading the earth operates on the same principle, with the difference that it came long before spells and words, and is a way of “reading” or participating in the earth with the body, rather than with the mind. Gunnar’s anguish during the Great War was that the link to God had been lost, and that God cared nothing for his people, and was remorseless — as remorseless as nature. That is, in itself, a very modern reading, but in no way does it negate the physical context in which it stands, in which humans stand upon and within the earth, bring forth children upon it, and tell this most ancient story, not of earth as a shore of death on which life, or God, shall we say, crashes and breaks again and again like waves of untrained and disastrously led soldiers marching into the machine guns of the Somme, but is alive. Who are the other people? The question is absurd. They are our selves, built upon the forms of the earth, continually springing to life, indominatable, and enduring.


Tomorrow I will continue this discussion by extending it into the forms of human sight, the line, and the basics of art. Now, I’m going out to walk among the horses of Iceland. Bless bless!