Reykjavik Arts Festival Diary, Days 1–4

[ Wed. May. 14. 2008 ]

Descending through the clouds over Iceland, the land looks like cauliflower, or something growing in a giant petri dish. Driving from the airport, which is basically out in the wilderness a dozen or so miles from Reykjavik, the interminable rockiness of the earth becomes obvious: rock everywhere, volcanic black gnawed and gnarly masses smeared with a thin film of moss, stretching back to the horizon in incredible sliding perspective (as you drive by), before it's stopped short by a wall of squat, tempting mountains. I'm here for the Reykjavik Art Festival, which began last night, and my knee-jerk thought riding through the countryside was: how does culture, let alone a thriving triennial of visual art (this is the second after Bjorn Roth (son of Dieter) and Jessica Morgan's effort in 2005) get a toe-hold here in the midst of such overwhelming, isolating and intimidating nature?

Easy. At the packed opening reception for the festival, hosted by the Reykjavik Art Museum (a mixture of brutalist concrete and steel-and-glass elegance), Hans Urlich Obrist speculated that Iceland is possibly the only country in the world where the president and his wife would come to a performance by Emily Wardill, the emerging London-based film artist. President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson – a big supporter of the arts – was indeed one of those watching in the small auditorium as Wardill kicked off the crowning event of the festival, Obrist and Olafur Eliasson's Experiment Marathon. This is a new iteration of the exhilarating event – a series of presentations, performances and interactions – that was first tried out in the Serpentine pavilion during Frieze last year. (And Obrist revealed that this summer's marathon at the Serpentine will be a Manifesto Marathon – for an era without manifestos – inside Frank Gehry's pavilion.)...

..."Try saying your brain is a computer in the 1970s, and you'd get a lot of flak. Now it's old hat", said cultural entrepreneur and founder ofedge.orgJohn Brockman in an on-stage interview with Obrist. "Who we are is a changing game." Let's hope art can keep up. At the end of the short interview, Brockman quoted James Lee Byars, who is perhaps the father of this kind of polyphonous, multi-disciplinary thinking in the contemporary artworld with his World Question Center (1968): "It's Einstein, Gertrude Stein, Wittgenstein and Frankenstein" – you need all four in order to think; a man can't live on art alone.

Brian Eno, up next, demonstrated how man can't live alone either. Singing helps, and we don't do enough of it. Eno has been campaigning for a compulsory five minutes of singing in English schools every day, and it looks like he's succeeding. With a small group of volunteers leading us on stage, Eno soon got everyone in the audience (which was overflowing today) happily singing 'I can't help falling in love with you' a cappella. It was a joyous, silly, profound moment. ...

...

People Mentions: