Mary Elizabeth Vance
Mary Elizabeth Vance
Reykjavik, Iceland 2015
I am spending three months in Reykjavik, Iceland, living and working at an artist residency with other artists from around the globe. At SIM, the Association of Icelandic Visual Artists, and Gullkistan in rural Iceland, I will develop a body of interactive artwork that responds to the culture and landscape of Iceland and promotes intercultural dialogue. Read More About Mary Elizabeth →

The Nature of History


Sometimes I feel like when you’re in another country working everything is research. Exploring the local supermarket? Research! Walking into town and guessing the significance of windowsill kitsch (all the houses here appear to have art on their walls and books everywhere)? Research. Trying not to offend anyone by attempts at broken Icelandic? Research.

I’ve mentioned that the weather here is as emotive as the landscape, and I feel that is an especially accurate way of describing spring in Iceland. The past few weeks have been characterized by days where the weather changes 20 times a day; during the seven minute walk to the supermarket or the harbor, I have seen the atmosphere alternate between blue skies, snow and rain multiple times in one trip. It fascinates me, but affects me physically also – as I came down with a pretty gruesome cold soon after moving in to the residency. After an initial few days of imagining death as any possibility, most of the lingering symptoms have been the usual marks of living in a cold climate. Though as tragic as being sick in another country can be, to reduce my experiences in Iceland so far to being sick would be a far greater tragedy.

The climate also has a huge affect on the way of life here, and I’ve come to find it as an integral force behind the creative culture here. The extreme weather patterns that are particularly prevalent from about August to April, in addition to long hours of darkness during winter, force most people here indoors for a significant portion of the year to create their own unique forms of entertainment. I’ve felt the weight of this, the country being enveloped in a late spring storm the majority of time here thus far. Yet this creates a tension, being surrounded by a beautiful country which is still mostly a mystery to me, and being limited in my ability to excavate these unknown things. However, I believe many of the sights here will remain mysterious to me, long as I could be in presence of them.

Definitive of the extent of creativity and the prolific nature of artistic output here is Iceland’s festival culture – which continues even into the darker months. I arrived here in the final days of Iceland’s annual design festival, and the beginnings of the Icelandic visual arts biennale called Sequences, which features a wide variety of local artists as well as many internationally esteemed in the field. Two of those days overlapped with an experimental music fest and next month will see the beginning of Reykjavik’s yearly ArtsFest. It seems I arrived at the perfect time of year to be introduced to the prime of Iceland’s arts scene, and bear witness to where all this inspiration comes from.

This and Iceland’s isolation – I’ve been impressed by the extent to which Iceland is very modern and progressive culturally and politically (the people of Iceland overthrew their own government a few years back on account of injustice done by bankers and politicians here, injustices similar to what we might see in America on a larger scale, and did so successfully) – and yet one does not get the feeling the country has become overly Americanized, instead that they have maintained a sense of identity. A remarkable feat considering that the country is general populated by more tourists than actual citizens. But Iceland is still a small, cold island near the top of the world, and in many ways this allows for an arts scene that is not entirely overcome by global design trends, and so retains a certain strain of the strange and sublime that could only be birthed here.

The physical world certainly plays a vital role in the shape of the designed world here – and I’ve been paying attention to the different ways this manifested through architecture. For example, the cathedral Hallgrimskirkja, one of the most well-known structures in Iceland, was designed so as to reflect the flood basalt columns particular to the volcanic landscape here. Harpa, Olafur Eliasson’s concert hall which I have mentioned before, utilizes a number of design concepts to create a space that reflects the natural world in multiple ways – its structure is based on a natural five-fold geometric pattern and evokes a glacial form in certain light, the heavy outline of the basalt in another, and the flow of the aurora borealis at night when its multicoloured glass panes are illuminated against the dark harbor. I cannot speak officially, but I imagine the brightly coloured roofs of most buildings in the city are so painted intentionally to contrast the darkest of winter days. Houses which also often make me uncertain that my life isn’t a Wes Anderson film.

A trip to the Settlement Exhibition, subtitled 871+/-2, gave more insight into the ways Icelander’s have used design in conversation to the natural world – this exhibit showcases one of the oldest remaining structures in Iceland built around the 9th century during what is known as the Settlement period, when the first Norse settlers began cultivating the island. Initially, homes were formed out of turf, durable against the elements for the time settlers would be inhabiting them, but due to their material – by nature inclined to sift back into the earth – not structures which could stand the test of time. The foundation of the home on display at this exhibition is then a unique find, especially since it was uncovered inside the city center only in the last few decades. The exhibition’s subtitle is associated with a sedimentary layer termed the “tephra,” a layer of volcanic material that covers much of the country as the result of a volcanic eruption just predating the settlement era, the layer around which the house on display was excavated.

The construction of the house with natural, non-invasive materials reflects Iceland’s history of environmental attentiveness, which can be traced through history to a collection of books called the Icelandic Sagas – which, luckily for me, were on temporary display at the Settlement Exhibition. These books are fundamental to Icelandic culture and understanding the way of life here – they contain laws, genealogies, mythologies of the land, alongside historical events important to Iceland since its beginnings (the original deed for the city of Reykjavik is included in these documents!). Within these texts is mention of the obligation to respect the land and keep the interior uncultivated, but free to be explored by the inhabitants of Iceland as long as they might wish without harming it. This excerpt is considered law, and still permeates the collective socio-political conscience. Indeed, one of the greatest gifts Iceland still offers is uncharted territory.

And so explains the exceptionally prolific nature of Iceland’s literary landscape. This is a literary culture, built on stories, stories which have survived history and remain for public consumptions. Stories that interweave the legendary and factual, and contribute an underlying sense of meaning to living and being here – creative meaning. Stories that identify Icelandic heritage as both creative and responsive, built so as not to assume its own worthiness over a natural world which will outlast it. In the Sagas, embedded in the tephra layer, history is measured against the land.

The sense of respect people have for the land here, a respect dating back to those “Sagas” remarking that in settling the land they would promise to keep the interior wild and free for all to explore as long as it remained uncultivated, suggests an awareness that even the people inhabiting this island are visitors, part of something that was here long before them, and which will surpass them as well. From the earthen huts in which Icelanders initially lived, to the tin corrugated houses painted in all colours that now spread across its coasts, to the famous Halgrimskirka cathedral designed to mimic the rise of basalt columns that decorate the landscape of Iceland, the philosophy of design aesthetics is one that ultimately pays attention to not only its place in geographical terms, but also in temporal ones – a philosophy that respects its location, which I believe permeates Icelandic society as a whole.

And here is where the most conflict arises when it happens – people angry about the construction of new industrial plants, threats towards development of Iceland’s interior. Geography is deeply connected to identity, even if not especially when that geography is so untouchable. Or when equality and personal freedom is threatened. Iceland is many things – and I try not to idealize or oversimplify in my perspective as an outsider – but I would say problematic is not really one of them.

Still I feel a bit like a tourist, unsettled, not only in space but what I am doing here – trying to contain an experience, a place, a world. How does the beautiful, natural, sublime exist in and of itself, and how do we begin to attribute meaning to it? How does one capture this, create, translate it into something else? Like how the light here is always somehow perfect, or how everything exists because of tectonics. Things like being able to stand at my window watch a sunset through a snowstorm due to the precise merging of climate, distance, and vantage points. Or more than that, how a person can live in a place like this, let alone a civilization emerge, and not grow to find beauty or strangeness or wonder too familiar. How culture begins and how it evolves, and I likewise.

In the words of Rothko, “Silence is so accurate.”

There are many layers in building an experience, a culture, an individual, an island. For me here, there are certain questions to wrestle with. How do I adapt to a new and strange place, however beautiful? What might I be able to relearn about my own creative process here? How is place a factor, and, what is more, how about the people I am in that place with?

I always find myself becoming very existential when travelling abroad, especially when those travels take me to such awe-inspiring grounds – dark hills and secluded waterfalls, tiny villages with their own dialects that have existed without expansion much longer than the United States. I feel just how small and insignificant I am – but the thought is positive, comforting, if not somewhat disorienting. I try to adopt that same philosophy I have sensed here of respecting where I am and succumbing to a need to understand it fully, change or overcome some sense of smallness, but instead let myself be overwhelmed and lost and find awe in relinquishing the illusion of control.



(Harpa appreciation post)

Reykjavik is pretty charming (especially when the sun’s out).




Temporary photos on display for Sequences.


Neighborhood architectural eye candy.


Icelandic Saga


Land sculptures around town.

Room with a view.

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