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.
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.
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!
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 …
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.
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…
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?
It 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…
I 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!
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 …
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!
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 …
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…
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…
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?
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.
Today, a meditation on lines, and the art and society that sprout from them, as a branch to this…
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:
Icelandic 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.