Essay of Gregory Volk about Elemental

1. Of, relating to, or being an element.
2. • Fundamental or essential; basic.
    • Of or relating to fundamentals; elementary.
    • Constituting an integral part; inborn.
3. Of such character as to resemble a force of
nature in power or effect: elemental violence.
— The Free Online Dictionary


I’d like to begin this essay by reprising a section of a text I wrote way back in 2001, fresh off my first two visits to Iceland. Back then, Olafur Eliasson (whose parents are Icelandic, but who was born and raised in Copenhagen, and who is now participating in Elemental), learned of my passionate interest in Iceland. He invited me to contribute a text about the country for the book Olafur Eliasson: Surroundings Surrounded, Essays on Space and Science, which also includes diverse texts by many other writers. That book is not really about Eliasson’s work; instead it addresses many of the issues surrounding his work, including Iceland. Here is how my text starts:

“Iceland, famously, is the world’s oldest democracy, dating back to 930 AD when the ancient parliament —the Althingi— was established at Thingvellir. For two weeks every summer, people from all over Iceland gathered there to hash out disputes, make plans, make laws, and provide cohesion for a society scattered loosely about a particularly inhospitable part of the world. Uncommonly homogenous, Iceland is also a place where genealogies can be traced way, way back, and where the language itself, relatively unchanged through the ages, serves as a bridge to the distant time 1,000 plus years ago when intrepid Vikings (and some Celts) first settled there—as you often hear in Iceland, if one of those Vikings were to return right now he or she would have no trouble conversing with current residents. It is interesting to note that this old, intact society occurs in what is by far the youngest European country, and the last one to be settled, in 874. The landmass of Iceland, which largely took its present shape 13,000 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age, is bisected by the Mid-Atlantic Ridge which separates two huge tectonic plates, the Eurasian and North American. Half of Iceland is, in fact, on the North American side of these plates, and half on the European side, which gives it a peculiar in-between status. As an American, I grew up believing that the first European to “discover” my part of the world was Christopher Columbus. In fact, Icelanders had landed in what is now Canada some 500 years before.

I won’t pretend to be an expert about this country, place, and society, having visited there twice (recently) for a total of just about three weeks. I can say, however, that these were three enormously influential weeks. There is something about this youngest country that insinuates itself into one’s mind and even more into one’s blood stream, almost as soon as you get off the airplane, when you drive from Keflavik to Reykjavik through bleak yet riveting lava fields that seem altogether otherworldly. There is something that scrambles one’s perspective, that rejuvenates one, that baffles one, that makes one unsteady, and that ultimately persuades one to reexamine just how one proceeds through the world. This can happen culturally, but it can also happen physically, and especially in one’s relationship with the land and all its forces, which, incidentally, can also happen in the capital city of Reykjavik. I remember going swimming in one of the many warm geothermal pools in the city (there is always an outdoors pool nearby, you go swimming year round) and then taking a sauna, and then lounging around in the hot tubs. After this session, I felt wonderful, and then proceeded to walk down some bleak streets on a gray day in a West Reykjavik residential neighborhood and across the park toward the old town. There was a slanted rain like cold needles, and an impossible, freezing wind that seemed to be occurring on some other planet, on one of Jupiter’s moons, perhaps. I remember shaking uncontrollably and thinking I was going to die. Hypothermia in the city park. I also remember thinking, oddly, as I leaned into the wind, how lovely Reykjavik seemed in the distance, like a small harbor town, with the downtown houses blue or russet (they’re covered with sheets of colored tin) and the soaring church Hallgrímskirkja rising on the highest hill. It was raining sideways. Sometimes the rain was raining up, or straight, and the wind seemed to be coming from all directions simultaneously. I remember feeling lonely, but really less in a psychological than in a bone-deep physical way: skin and bones in a raw place. I also remember feeling ridiculously happy, keyed up, exquisitely alive. It was early afternoon and twilight and it was possible, inside Reykjavik, to be connected to, and affected by, the kind of rampant forces that are routine in the interior, or along the windswept coasts.”


I have since been back to Iceland many times and have nurtured an abiding interest in Icelandic artists, including those exhibiting in Elemental. I have curated an exhibition at the wonderful i8 Gallery in Reykjavik, Icelandic artists have participated in numerous other exhibitions I’ve curated that didn’t focus on Iceland at all, and I have written quite a lot about Icelandic artists. I have often been astonished how such a small country (population: 321,857 as of January 1, 2013: there are far more people living in Malmö than in all of Iceland) manages to generate such compelling artists, especially when you consider that visual art is a very recent development in Iceland, basically dating, for a variety of complex reasons, including centuries of crushing poverty and the Danish occupation, to around the turn of the 20th century. I’d also like to stress how comprehensively influential and invigorating Iceland has been for me, not just its artists, but also its culture, literature, music, and remarkable landscape. Traveling way out to the volcanoes; hiking at Landmannalaugar where the mountains are blue, yellow, pink, green, black, purple, and white; camping among the rugged and looming lava formations at Berserkjahraun on Snaefellsnes, as well as in remote and spectacular Hornstrandir, at the northwest tip of Iceland—these have all been formative experiences. In such places you are often alone with powerful elements: with lava and the weather, magnificent cliffs and rivers, heaths and the sea, glaciers and primal geology. Once I was talking with Swiss artist Roman Signer, who is in Elemental and also a frequent visitor to Iceland, and I asked him why he often makes his temporary sculptures, or sculptural actions, far out in nature. He thought for a bit and then replied, in German, that he simply feels best and most free outdoors, and that this is where, for him, “poetry” happens. Iceland is an excellent place for such outdoor poetry.

There is something very elemental about Iceland, and also about Icelandic art, certainly the art included in this exhibition. While this art may, at times, look minimal, it is also important to understand the context. While Minimalism began in the U.S. and Europe in the early 1960s, in Iceland it began as a comprehensive attitude in 874, when Ingólfur Arnarsson, the first settler, arrived in what now is Reykjavik, and chose to make his future in that particular, remote, and especially elemental location: sky, sea, mountains, lava fields stretching in all directions. He had a brother-in-law named Hjörleifur Hródmarsson, his de facto neighbor, who settled a hundred or so miles down the coast at Myrdalssandur (and was, alas, murdered by his Irish slaves, who felt mistreated). At Myrdalssandur there is a huge black beach, the ocean, a high plateau surrounded by cliffs and, nearby, the Myrdalsjökull glacier, which you can see from the beach and which sometimes releases tons of glacial debris in an instant downhill flood that obliterates everything in its path: this is a profoundly elemental site. Living close to and with the elements has characterized Icelandic culture since its inception, and has deeply influenced Icelandic art. Moreover, while this art may not be “about” Iceland, Iceland in some measure is in the work, and in the consciousness that produced the work: a homeland on the mind that informs and energizes each artist’s deep inquiry.

With the Icelandic artists in the exhibition, you see how this elemental approach plays out, in fascinating ways. Ragna Róbertsdóttir’s two wall works are made from lava and red earth; Kristjän Gudmundsson’s drawings-as-sculptures, mounted on the wall, are made from pure graphite, or pencil lead; Tumi Magnússon’s video monochromes are made by the simple action of pouring paint, while Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir’s colorful sculpture is made almost solely from artificial hair. Margrét Blöndal typically uses scraps and pieces of plastic, cloth, string, rubber, and other sundry materials in her sculptures, while three of Ívar Valgardsson’s sculptures are made from nothing more than hand-painted paper crumpled into big balls, but in a way that also suggests boulders and lava chunks. Birgir Andrésson’s two wall works, with their interplay between colors and words, include these amazingly short texts: “pouring rain” and “blackest night,” which succinctly suggest the powerful weather, environment, and history of Iceland. Hildur Bjarnadóttir’s works, which resemble minimal paintings, are made from hand-woven Icelandic wool, hand-dyed with pigments from Icelandic plants by the artist herself.

Elemental also recognizes the impact Iceland has had on important international artists, who have been visiting, and at times residing in, the country for years. Roni Horn has been involved with Iceland for basically her whole career, including living in the country part time and exhibiting her work there, as has Olafur Eliasson. Roman Signer, who is especially attuned to the volcanic environment, has made numerous of his signature temporary sculptures, or sculptures-as-events, far out in the landscape. Lawrence Weiner has also visited numerous times, and has exhibited in Reykjavik as well as up north in Akureyri. Karin Sander has also exhibited in Reykjavik and has travelled throughout the country. Joan Jonas’s involvement dates back to her Volcano Saga (1985-1989), filmed in Iceland and based in part on the famous 13th century Laxdaela Saga, while Swedish photographer Maria Friberg counts her experience studying for one year in Reykjavik at the Iceland Academy of the Arts as an important influence.

The works in the exhibition are diverse, including sculptures, photographs, conceptual paintings, videos, text-based pieces, textiles, sound and performance. All are elemental, in the multiple meanings of the word; they are involved with essences as well as forces of nature. Throughout the exhibition, Iceland, that volcanic island nation in the North Atlantic, is a powerful and presiding influence, both on Icelandic artists and those from elsewhere who have experienced and reveled in the country’s magnetic allure.

I would like to acknowledge the profound contribution of Birta Gudjonsdottir, an Icelandic curator and artist, and assistant curator of Elemental. She brings her own broad and acute knowledge of both Icelandic and international art to this exhibition, as well as her deep feeling for and knowledge of her home country. She is a major figure when it comes to understanding contemporary Icelandic art and its relationship to the world, and her involvement with Elemental has been invaluable.