I had the chance to spend a few days in Reykjavik before the Ovinir: Enemies Project event at the Iðnó theatre. A privilege, and all the more so because I was fundamentally not needed. Valgerður Þóroddsdóttir, my co-curator of Ovinir, has the gift of being as organised as she is talented. I stayed right in the centre of the city, in a plush hotel, thanks to the support from UNESCO Reykjavik city of literature and had the chance to meet old friends like Bryndís Björgvinsdóttir and Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl, and make firm new ones in Ásta Fanney Sigurðardóttir and Matthías Tryggvi Haraldsson. A strange few days in many respects, Reykjavik’s creative output so well known and fetishised by the hordes of tourists, so much more conspicuous than London being as it is a small place, that a certain pressure for beauty and inspiration sits on a city which can be stunning in its starkness and idiosyncrasy but is also quite brutal in its architecture and self-aware in its culture. I’ve always felt a little alienated when visiting. What perhaps is best about this is the juxtaposition the city itself provides to its inhabitants, those I have got to know at least, who, once known, are uniformly hospitable, generous, down to earth and funny.
The event itself was a huge success, and quite rightly this fell on Valgerður's shoulders. Way over a hundred people crammed into the Iðnó theatre, a hall that must be one of the grandest places the Enemies project has visited. Poets, writers, artists, performers and rappers were invited to collaborate, twenty of us in ten pairs, as ever with a design to mix communities, inculcate a closeness of exchange through collaboration and speed. I cannot speak Icelandic so I was lost to the content, but all the more aware then of how engaged the audience was, and how so many of the pairs took risks in experimenting with theatre and concept in their literary works. Such a range, the accentuation of difference improved each new work. Valgerður and I read a poem we had fed to the other eighteen performers in bits, so their voices popped up from the audience, synchronising with ours as the poem grew, creating a chorus. A nice way to mediate our roles as organisers, though once again, this was a rare night where I had almost nothing to do but watch and offer my congratulations to her and the other 18 poets who performed.
Part Two: Vatnasafn / The Library of Water, Stykkishólmur - January 23rd 2016
The inarguably oppressive architecture and social posture of Reykjavik was left behind as we drove out of the city, following the west coast of Iceland, Valgerður having rented a car to take myself, Asta and Matthias on a roadtrip to Stykkishólmur, to the Library of Water, Vatnasafn, where we would perform with Bryndís Björgvinsdóttir and the musician Marteinn Sindri Jónsson.
The stunning terrain of Iceland, it’s scale and shocking beauty were apparent within minutes of leaving the city. Mountains rising out of the bay, wild horses, volcanic scrub. Matthias, Valgerður and Asta could not have been better company, witty, generous and energetic. Everything good about the country is in these people. It became apparent that leaving the city with my new friends was the best thing I could've done, knowing of course my experience of any place, so briefly, is purely subjective and shallow, and that I was completely foreign to the place. But the energy between us, and the curiously affecting atmosphere of a roadtrip offered me a really inspiring experience. About an hour of Asta’s cockney accent and my explanations of English idioms, and why red headed people are derided in the UK, passed the time before we stopped off at Borgenes, where the wind was so strong coming into the inlet that the water seemed to snake across bay and you had to lean into the gale to walk.
The occasional piece of brutalist concrete, a plant or works or factory, or the occasional abandoned house dotted the landscape as we cut across land to Stykkishólmur, away from the sea, stopping to briefly stare into a volcanic valley. We arrived in Stykkishólmur about four hours after we left Reykjavik, but I would’ve had it go on twice as long if I could. We immediately went to the Vatnasafn, an art installation as a permanent gallery, obscurely (and wonderfully) situated in a fishing village, albeit a particularly beautiful one. Roni Horn founded it and it has housed many writers, living in the apartment below the gallery, as residents. The space has numerous lighted tubes, filled with water from local glaciers, known as hotspots for psychic energy, as the town is known for ghosts. Lots to draw from for the performances.
The evening’s events in Vatnasafn was really remarkable and it'll stay long in my memory. Our crowd were less than double figures, just us, the six of us sharing work, and a handful of people from the town. The light of the water tubes, a few white chairs, a reading followed by music followed by performance, it felt natural and bracketed, a closed world for a small group of people, who were able to engage directly with each other. Bryndis talked about her children’s literature, Marteinn played beautiful, gentle songs with his guitar, Asta provoked the smattering of locals with pointed questions about her dislike of cucumber water and disputed, to herself, how much of her own constitution was liquid, Valgerður and Matthias circled their warped reflections in the water tubes while reciting. I tore up my book, shared it with the audience, burnt the pages, doused them in a tub of water and then submerged myself in that water, reading as I had to emerge, breathless. I pasted the wet pages of my destroyed books to the tubes and Asta and Marteinn finished the evening, their enviable musical talent picking between the charred paper and puddles of water I had left. I watched them play, from behind the small crowd, watched my friends, most of whom I had not know two days before, entranced as a whole, as Marteinn and Asta sang.
Everyone helped clearup the mess I had made and the local restaurant Valgerður had worked in as a teenager, Sjávarpakkhúsið, stayed open late to cook for us. The food, like the hotel, were free, an act of amazing hospitality. The six of us talked and ate, as naturally as old friends, before a group of slightly drunk (friendly) local men entered. One emplored Marteinn to play the piano we were sitting beside. Marteinn, a classically trained pianist, gently, reluctantly, turned to play, and soon had the entire room singing in Icelandic. I took this video. It’ll seem cloy to describe how beautiful a moment it was, an impossible series of events had to happen for it to take place, and Marteinn’s talent, so generously shared with us on that evening, displayed in such improvised circumstance, when in flow, was like witnessing the room slowly filling with water. A beautiful moment to close my time in the country.