Before the Iceland Airwaves Festival started, I spent a few days as a tourist in Reykjavík, mostly geeking out on saga and settlement history. But I did make a hurried stop at the Reykjavík Art Museum, which turned out to be one of many serendipitous epiphanies experienced in Iceland.
Even though the museum was minutes from closing, and I couldn’t find my Reykjavík Welcome Pass that would expire at the end of the day, the women at the front desk let me in. On my way out, I stopped to thank them and let them know how impressed I was, especially with the Rúrí exhibit. They kindly stood and chatted with me for several minutes about the exhibit, answering my questions without so much as a glance at the clock.
Rúrí is an Icelandic artist who was born in 1951 and is still actively creating new work. Diverse in form and media, her art has consistently targeted the most fundamental subjects. The exhibit I saw focused on water. Rúrí’s art mixes sculpture, photography, sound, and joy to my little bookish heart, words. But what is more impressive to me is the effect on the viewer (namely, me). Most modern art perplexes me. My usual response when I read the plaques is, “Oh, that’s what it’s about. If you say so.” But leaving the Reykjavík Art Museum, I found myself thinking about water, and the environment, and the quote, “Humans: Ugly bags of mostly water.” Rúrí’s unusual presentations of something so incredibly mundane and common as water actually made me thing about what a miracle our relationship to water really is.
The first piece I saw was a large, industrial-looking file structure. Up to five of the “files” could be pulled out at one time. Each contained an image of an endangered waterfall, and when the image was pulled out, a recording of the waterfall would play. Besides the deafening noise of the recordings, the heavy glass plates in their metal frames were hard to move – engaging with this piece was not just visceral, it was work. In an extension of the sculpture, a small room within the gallery contained photos, maps, and information about each of the waterfalls in the piece. Over thirty waterfalls were featured, each of which had been threatened or destroyed by development.
Another piece was about the famous Gulfoss waterfall, whose preservation story is the stuff of legend in Iceland. Two huge photos of Gulfoss were accompanied by two poems telling the story and two photos of the woman who saved Gulfoss – one in youth and one as an old woman. In large text on the wall was printed the famous line, “On that day I will throw myself into the waterfall.”
“Termining” was a vertically hung paper scroll printed with a water pattern passing through a shredder. “Transient” was a photography series featuring close-up photographs of rushing water juxtaposed with close-ups of parched earth, naturally raising the question of what happens when preservation efforts fail.
One piece I didn’t get at all. Four Lucite containers. One was empty, the other three were filled with liquid – clear, yellow, and black. Downstairs, the woman explained. Four things we can’t live without: oil, corn, water, and air.