A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to spend a whole week in the south of Iceland, from the capital Reykjavík to Jökulsárlón Vatnajokull (yoh-cull-sowr-lon vaht-na-yohcull). Iceland has fascinated me for a long time for its art, culture, and spectacular natural landscapes. Seeing it in person gave me a whole new perspective on that. As it was the peak of summer, the sun never set, instead making a continuous loop in the sky, hiding for a bit in twilight behind the hills in Hverageroi (kver-ah-ghe-roy). It was like one long day, where I never checked the clock and barely felt time tick. Not one star got to shine–I kind of missed them.
After spending a week staring with wide eyes at ice blocks the size of my house drifting across the glacier lake Jökulsárlón, meeting Icelandic people and digging my fingers into the black volcanic sand of the southern banks, I began to understand why Icelandic music, literature, and visual arts are the way they are. It’s such an ethereal, unreal, and beautiful place, with strange elements that make it feel like another planet. Everything about it was new and growing. All the water is crystal clear. If you start comparing it, Texan water starts tasting like liquified aluminum cans and deflated birthday balloons. The air is thin, fresh, and dry. The black sand bumps right next to fields of green grass and beautiful summer flowers.
The Church Hallgrímskirkja (halk-greem-skirk-ya) is an example of artistic inspiration drawn from nature. It’s the largest church in Iceland, Lutheran, and designed by Guðjón Samúelsson (ghu-thyawn sam-wel-son) around 1937 to look like basalt lava flows. The walls are high with a patterned ripple. It was shocking to see after being around Italian Renaissance cathedrals for three months in Florence. The facade is white, simple, and tall. From the perspective of a person walking towards it, it literally looks like the end of the earth with nothing else behind it. Going inside I was still influenced by that feeling. The ceiling towered over in a simple, natural elegance, very similar to the architectural style of Rivendell in the Lord of the Rings films. It felt like what I imagine a world of ice would feel like, with infinitely empty windows and plain whiteness.
Much of Icelandic art has been influenced heavily by its history and culture, myth, and of course, landscape. Þórarinn B. Þorláksson (thor-ar-een thor-laok-son), one of Iceland’s first contemporary artists, focused mainly on landscape painting, such as Sumarkvold vid Rekjavík (or Summer Night With Rekjavík).
Iceland’s gorgeous landscapes also became part of several films. In the southern part of Iceland, the lake Jökulsárlón lies between Höfn and Skaftafell. Jökulsárlón has been featured in A View to a Kill(1985), Die Another Day (2002), Tomb Raider (2001) and even Batman Begins (2005)(when you think you’re seeing and Asian landscape dotted with ninja warriors, you’re really seeing Iceland and probably some glacier tour guides popping up in the background). One of the most visually striking moments I’ve ever had was staring at that lake in the endless dusk–it was around ten at night, and we could see a golden circle in the sky–so finely carved through the clouds and so easy to see, I thought it was the moon. It was the sun, its light drowned behind layers of clouds. I sat by the lake just as the sun had its last glowing moments before the clouds swallowed it up. The ice still burned blue while the lake water simmered, gilded and rippling.
The landscape of Iceland, although seemingly timeless and unreal, is ever-changing and a sullen reminder of something coming in the future. That’s one thing nearly every one of the (few) Icelanders I met never failed to mention. When going on a tour across the Jökulsárlón, our tour guide reminded us how quickly the lake was expanding. Already it’s grown four times its size since the 1970s.
These changes mean so much more to them because they can see it every day. Some can remember back twenty years and tell you the difference, and it’s undeniable to them. It’s fact, tangible, and depressing. You can’t pretend or ignore it, because it’s something right in front of your eyes. It’s clear this precious source of artistic inspiration is being lost.
Some artists, including Iceland’s most famous musical exports, Sigur Rós and Björk, have already given us some hints:
Artwork and image by Sabrina Bedford