Iceland Residency

This blog about my ten week Listhus residency in Ólafsfjörður, northwest Iceland.  14 artists from an international callout have come to Listhus to make work responding to deepest darkest winter.  

Our work  becomes the Skammdegi Festival at the end of the residency, installed across three towns in the region: Akureyri, Ólafsfjörður and Siglufjörður.

It’s about my experience of the Listhus residency, the work I make, my research and reflection, and includes photos of this magnificent location, the work, and other incidental treats!

This Silent Grace.

I am held in the white eternity of a moment …

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SNOW

By now, half way through this ten week residency, it has snowed several times and we have experienced snow in several variations. The first snowfall sparked gleeful joy and a sense of relief. I’d been expecting snow and whiteness, yet my first glimpse of Iceland, from the plane as it landed in Reykjavik, was of brown tinged with green. Disappointment … however a 40 minute flight north and whiteness was predominant.

The snow melted, became icy and treacherous, revealing the blackness of the rock faced mountains, for weeks it seemed. Then one evening tiny icy snowflakes began to waft down. In the morning a flurry of bigger flakes started a thick covering of soft whiteness on horizontal surfaces. The next day a strong fast wind had sprung up and hurled the snow, making anyone who stepped out gasp. Actually I love that clean icy frisson of cold air in nostrils and chest! Soon the snow was half a metre deep, and snowploughs came every hour or so to keep the roads clear, even pushing a path from road to our front door.

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Sometimes a book takes on some kind of connection with the readers intuition so that when one picks it up it opens at exactly the right page. That first morning of snow this happened with Becoming Animal*, which I have been devouring slowly, savouring every phrase. Here’s the serendipitous passage I found that morning, written on a particularly stressful day for writer David Abram:

Something catches my peripheral vision, and I turn toward the window. I feel my eyes widen in surprise: snowflakes! A great crowd of snowflakes floating down, a deep thicket of slowly tumbling white. … step out the door into a landscape transformed as if by a spell. My steps make no sound - the white blanket already plush upon the ground … flakes drift down like loosened stars … swerve against my face, melting cold against my skin as I walk slowly through a world utterly transfigured by this silent grace cascading through every part of the space around me. … try to call those concerns back to mind, I simply cannot find them behind the teeming multitude of slowly falling flakes. Past and future have dissolved, and I am held in the white eternity of a moment so beautiful it melts all my words. … not silence as an absence of sound, but as a fullness … thick silence.

WIND

The variety of wind here is impressive. A day may start with a soft gentle breeze, swirling snowflakes gently in a dreamlike whimsy, inviting playfulness. Then it appears to have become a wildly whirling maelstrom with no particular direction, whipping round corners in sporadic thrusts of speed, with capriciously insistent life. An hour later it has become a hard flat whistling force stinging skin and blowing anything not attached … where? To the ocean? It blows the snow from the mountains, makes sculptural patterns in newly fallen snow, and turns surfaces slick and hard and tricky to walk on. Every step requires total focus. One unthinking step on a patch of icy ground ends in a thudding landing. The hardest part of this is not looking up at the mountains and the sky, calling always for attention.

The wind is moodiness personified, altering on a whim, recklessly transgressing the boundaries between places, between beings, between inner and outer worlds. The unruly poltergeist of our collective mental climate, wind, after all, is the ancient and ever-present source of the words “spirit” and “psyche.” … A wild wind can return us to our own vitality more than any other element. The wind is haunted, alive … the wild psyche of the land with the uncanny depths of the sensuous.

Most of the landscape is frozen the only scent on the wind is the local fish processing facility as the most exquisite smoked salmon I’ve ever tasted is smoked in birch with herbs and spices. Sometimes the smell of the beach comes; salty, sea-weedy and wet. The essential tangy aromas of winter in Ólafsfjörður.

WEATHER

The earth’s surface here, seemingly vast for such a tiny island, lends itself enthusiastically to mythology. And the weather backs up this alliance with mythology. I have yet to hear the thunderous roar of Thor … hope I do though! And on gentler days one can sense the contented sighs of the Goddesses and Gods of the Vikings as they sip mead in Asgard. The weather is ever changing, even more than Melbourne, and yet somehow the gentle light and limited colour palette gives the constant changes a sense of subtlety.

Icelandic time keeping and even character seems interrelated with the weather. Schools close and buses stop running if the wind is too strong, or if it’s snowing enough. Icelanders have a way of laughingly referring to this unpredictability, unwilling to tie themselves down to any concrete plans. Clearly human life here has evolved in accord with the weather.

One of the artists on the Listhus Skammdegi residency is Lara Stefansdottir, Principal of the Menntaskólinn á Tröllaskaga or Upper-Secondary School. She is a seriously accomplished woman with three Masters degrees in Education, Computer Science and Photography, and the school is her brainchild. Only nine years old, it is completely contemporary in terms of technology, even having a ‘robot’ which runs around the school independently with the smiling face of a teacher on the screen. Some of the teachers live in other countries! Students work independently, seeking help from a teacher when required. The school runs without a schedule - weather friendly! Most of the students are online.

And the weather is a common language for humans the world over it seems.

… the weather holds a curious position in the civilized world of modernity. We refer to it constantly; inquiring about or commenting upon the weather establishes the most basic ground upon which any social communication can proceed. Although it rarely occupies our full attention, the weather is always evident on the periphery of that attention, an ever-present reminder that the reality we inhabit is ultimately beyond our human control.

I don’t think I’d ever grow tired of drawing these mountains, no matter the weather.

In my last blog I mentioned a special story about Trolls I’d heard about. I am meeting up with the woman whose story that is, so will write about it after that.

*I’ve quoted David Abram so much in this blog that rather than say that every time I’ve put those quotes in italics.

Annie Edney