Art and the city

Abid Haque | Updated on January 22, 2018

Off the beaten path:Participants atEngram, an audio walkat the 29th edition ofthe Reykjavík ArtsFestival. Pic: Reykjavik Arts Festival

An artistefrom Guerrilla Girls, afeminist art group. Pic: Reykjavik Arts Festival

An annual festival in Reykjavík shows that Iceland has more than just geothermal baths, glaciers and volcanoes

Imagine the soft voice of a woman whispering in your ear. “I will soon take you along on a story. A story based on a few people who are no longer with us. And to do that, you must become me. You must follow my instructions. I want you to imagine that you only have 640 breaths left.

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

With each breath you take, you are closer to the last one.

…Now I want you to stop. Stand like you’re frozen. Around you everything goes on as usual. But for a second, you are invisible.

395 breaths left.”

This is part of Engram, an audio walk by the Osynliga Teatern (Invisible Theatre), a piece inspired by people left with a few weeks to live. Engram was one of the selected pieces at the 29th edition of the Reykjavík Arts Festival in June this year.

In the spirit of securing some great Instagram shots, I decided to capitalise on my short stay at the volcano-riddled nation and packed for what I called ‘an Arctic wilderness trip’. North Face jackets, Under Armour thermals, and boots were all unceremoniously shoved into my tiny suitcase alongside a variety of neon tees and tanks I had packed for Ibiza, and I mentally prepared myself to ‘rough it’ in freezing temperatures and community pools (read: Blue Lagoon).

What I saw at the outset was more women’s liberation than Blue Lagoon. A bright pink billboard with the question “National Film Quiz: Why has 87% of Icelandic Film Centre Funding Gone to Men?” The answer, circled in red, reads, “It’s discrimination. The film industry is way behind the rest of the country!” It was the work of the Guerrilla Girls (formed in 1985, it is a group of female artists fighting racism and sexism within the art world), and commissioned by the Festival.

Iceland first gained international attention when it was used to epitomise the 2008 global banking crisis. Since then it has dropped its bid to join the European Union, celebrated the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage (on June 19, 2015), and captured the headlines by installing a mosque at the 56th Venice Biennale in May this year. And it has found a spot on tourist maps — I knew all about the hot springs, and glaciers, the otherworldly landscape (used appropriately in futuristic movies like Prometheus). The last thing I expected to discover was the fascinating intersection of global art, feminism, and Icelandic history.

In the beginning of my trip, it seemed as though I was trapped in a tourist-only part of the city; souvenir shops and excursion companies peppering every corner of Reykjavík, and the people who walked alongside me were also dressed in North Face jackets and armed with DSLR cameras, which were used as point-and-shoots.

Driven by the fear of having an entirely touristy experience, I registered for the I Heart Reykjavík’s walking tour led by a local. It was from my guide Ásta that I learnt about the eye-catching pink billboard. Its unveiling had marked the opening of the three-week Festival and was also perhaps its most obvious marker. The bright pink was hard to miss against the dull grey skies.

Iceland is no stranger to feminism. Earlier this year, Icelandic women re-energised the #FreeTheNipple campaign across social media. They were the focus at this year’s Festival. Under its themes of gender, censorship, and rights struggles, the event exposed visitors to thought-provoking pieces such as artist Dorothy Iannone’s ‘The Next Great Moment in History is Ours’. On display at Gallery GAMMA, the sexual piece commands undivided attention from each visitor. Upon seeing my shocked face, a fellow viewer asked, “American?” I confirmed his guess with a nod. He smiled and reminded me “A prude country, no? But she is even appreciated there.” He was right. Compared to a culture where showering naked with strangers is the norm, I am prudish.

Other notable exhibits and performances included: Shantala Shivalingappa’s sold-out Kuchipudi show, Akasha, which was in collaboration with Vempati Ravi Shankar; and Karólína Eiríksdóttir’s opera MagnusMaria, which tells the centuries-old story of Maria Johansdotter, a woman who posed as a man for her own independence. The piece not only touches on women’s rights but also those of gay and transgender people — when Maria is asked (in the piece) if she is a man or woman, she answers ‘both’.

Once I left the formal settings of the Festival, I noticed more of Reykjavík’s street art: Sara Riel’s murals on the sides of buildings, small spray-painted animals on the sidewalk that pertained to recent legislation, and painted electrical boxes.

Trying to make the most of every minute, I ended my 48 hours in Iceland by walking the streets of Reykjavík late one evening; it was still bright outside and I wasn’t sleepy. I enjoyed the funny quotes and witty puns on the walls of homes and restaurants. Sample this: ‘Alcohol because no great story has ever started with someone eating a salad’.

Eventually, I found myself again at the iconic Hallgrímskirkja, the church which had served as the backdrop to Engram. I remembered I hadn’t gotten a clear photo of the structure during the piece; it was too cold to neatly line up the shot, and I was also in a rush to make my next stop. I was digging through my many layers, searching for my phone, when I decided to take a break from the self-inflicted body pat. I looked up at the landmark, blinked to make sure I wasn’t dreaming, and thought of Engram — reminding me that even after we take our last breath, the world moves on. I let my phone be and decided to appreciate the rare moment of peace and introspection I found myself in. Goodbye, Iceland; I hope to see you soon.

Zero breaths left.

(Abid Haque is a writer based in Washington DC)

Published on September 04, 2015

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