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Marimo Balls, Midnight Sun, and the Water of Life

What the Tokyo 101 Festival means for Icelandic Art

Lately I’ve discovered the Japanese songwriter Shugo Tokumaru. I think I’ve listened to his song “Rum Hee” on MySpace at least fifty times now. It seems like it could well have been composed in Iceland by any number of alternative bands: Björk, Sigur Rós, Múm. It has this same tendency to experiment wildly, almost bordering on saccharine or kitsch, but somehow ending up with something, well—strikingly beautiful. You see it in the art, hear it in the music, feel it tickling under your ribs—it straddles the very edge of the ridiculous, but manages to covey emotions in an entirely new way. Oh, and strangely, it sells too.

It gets me thinking, what with the Tokyo 101 Arts Festival going on at the moment, that I might be able to get to the bottom of what appears to be an extremely unlikely synchronicity between possibly the two most divergent cultures in the world. Is it the landscape, the fact that both of them lie on opposite fringes of the North American tectonic plate, something to do with the myths and legends, or something else bubbling beneath the surface?

So What’s Reykjavik Really Like?

©Andreas Tille

Living in Iceland was always far from the madding crowd. When I tell friends in the US or Europe that I dwell here much of the year here, they tend to look at me as if I am absolutely off my rocker, probably imagining I spend half the time dodging Polar bears and the other half lighting candles in the pitch black.

Ask an average Brit and he will stare at you blankly, possibly icily, ask if you are referring to the frozen food chain (Iceland Stores are UK’s largest frozen food retailer). When you tell them that you are referring to the country where the sun never sets in the summer and never rises in the winter, he’ll say something like: ‘Oh, yeah, Reagan and Gorbachev met there in the late ‘80s just before the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Isn’t that like a dinky little island up near the Arctic Circle where there’s a total of three houses and no trees? Björk’s Icelandic, isn’t she? She’s completely barmy—she’s an Eskimo, right?’ Well, not Eskimo really, more elfin, actually. Now the whole Icelandic elves thing is an entirely different story, but there’s a series of books dedicated to that called the Sagas of the Icelanders.

Often Iceland barely figures on maps, depicted as far smaller than it actually is (I’ve been told that Google Earth’s Iceland is ten years out of date). And when you watch the BBC or CNN weather reports, the contours of Iceland—just a little above Scotland, to the left—never even figure; it’s almost as if it’s not there at all. So, what’s the weather like here? Well, who the hell knows? My mother asked me the other day when I was discussing renewing my passport: ‘Is there a British Embassy there?’ Course there bloody well is. In Reykjavik you can pretty much find most of everything you would find in London, Paris or New York; only in smaller measures, in lighter doses; and yes, expect the unexpected too. There’s even a Japanese Embassy with people who speak Japanese.

The good thing about Reykjavik is that at some time or other, when an artist—a musician or a painter or a filmmaker—has done their world beat and is looking for some last untapped frontier, he figures: Yeah, Iceland, that’s a place I’ve always wanted to go. And so, sooner or later, they all end up here. Last month we had the Dalai Lama, the month before we had David Lynch, this month we have cutting edge Japanese experimentalists over here strutting their stuff.

Okay, I know what you’re thinking. No, this ain’t Broadway or Piccadily Circus — sure, and thank God. We wouldn’t want the pulse of neon, the chuffing of yellow taxis, or the eyesore of double-decker red buses on their way to Madame Toussards; but still, stuff does go on here, famous people do stop by; and the thing is, unlike the rest of the world, they’re left entirely at their own leisure. You sit in a bar somewhere in trendy, downtown Reykjavik, and suddenly you notice Forrest Whittaker sitting there nursing a beer, Quentin Tarantino schmoozing some dumb blonde, or Kiefer Sutherland contemplating his next season of 24 Hours; yet strangely, no one walks up and asks, ‘Oh my God, you’re Kiefer Sutherland, can you sign my bra?’

Icelanders are used to having famous people in their midst. It probably has something to do with the fact that almost every second Icelander has his or her own claim to fame. There are more musicians, painters and poets per square mile of arable land here than possibly anywhere else in the world; and that, among many other things, makes this not so little (actually Iceland is larger than Ireland) island in the middle of the North Atlantic unique. As if the lunar landscape and the aurora borealis weren’t quite enough.

Financial Collapse, and a Bit about Whales

Ever since the financial sector collapse left the entire country in debt, Iceland became a model for how not to do things. Some people speculate that the local IMF representative is having a hearty chuckle every morning with his cornflakes and Icelandic Skyr (a kind of Viking ricotta cheese). Virtually everyone in the world knows that Iceland is hanging on a proverbial thread, trying to rub elbows to join the EU, and coming up with half-hatched plans to settle its humongous debt; so humongous, in fact, that there is even a website dedicated to it, iceslave.is, where you can watch the national debt escalate on a minute-by-minute basis. So really, what’s there to do, but take out your dusty trumpet, your paintbrushes, or your clay-modelling kit? Sounds like a decent strategy, and now even the Japanese are coming over to give us a hand.

To the dismay of most G-40 countries and Greenpeace, the Icelandic government recently approved new whaling quotas. Someone here seems to believe that for the sake of 50 or so jobs, whatever ridiculously small number it may be, it’s worth it to jeopardise reputation (and possibly tourism—over 70,000 tourists go whale watching every year) by selling a few whale carcasses to Japan. Here’s the big rub: It appears the Japanese aren’t all that interested in buying the whale meat anyway, so I guess some of us here in Iceland will be chowing down on whale for years to come. (Actually, for those of you who are curious, it tastes a little like lean steak, not fishy at all. Yeah I know, sorry, but yes, I did try it—once, a long time ago.) Japanese Charge d’Affaires ad Interim (temporary Ambassador) to Iceland, Mr. Katsuhiro Natsume tells me in Japan, whale meat has always been a poor man’s food, and that considering the variety of fish and seafood now available, the Japanese nation would rather go for salmon, tuna, or even the extremely dangerous Fugu.

Japan and Iceland: Not Just About Fish

Japan holds the record for the highest average life expectancy in the world. Iceland tails only a smidgen behind. I recall having seen a documentary in which it was said that most of the oldest people in Japan are on the island of Okinawa, and they maintain that his has to do with their healthy diet of seaweed and fish, and the occasional mud bath. All these things are plentiful in Iceland, but the Icelanders are very fond of their smoked lamb meat and their sheep heads, and who could blame them? I guess that’s the reason they’re only in second place. Yet, it’s not all about seaweed and fish; mud, on the other hand, could well have something to do with it, or perhaps it’s just the water.

Professor Nishioka Tatsushiko of the Tokyo University of the Arts, currently over here for the Tokyo 101 Festival, says he finds Iceland one of the most unique places in the world. ‘Somehow there is a tranquility here unlike anywhere else I’ve ever experienced. I feel so alive, it’s just so easy to get creative.’ So maybe it’s just all about the vibe? Could it be that seismic activity going on deep under the surface induces a particular creative spark? Is it a coincidence that Hollywood lies just below the San Andreas Fault?

In October 2008, Yoko Ono installed her Imagine Peace Tower just outside Reykjavik’s Viðey Island. The ethereal sculpture is actually a gigantic floodlight streaming right up the into the night skies spelling out ‘Imagine Peace’ in twenty-four languages: A testament to the memory of John Lennon and a symbol of universal peace and suffrage. Yoko says that she chose Iceland because of its lack of dependency on oil and coal, which she sees as symbols of power, greed, and eventually war; but above all Iceland’s purity as a land still in touch with nature.

The Icelandic movie director, Friðrik Þór Friðriksson’s stunning film Cold Fever starring Masatoshi Nagase, documents the trip of a Japanese businessman to the Icelandic countryside to perform a Shinto blessing. Friðriksson has been heavily influenced by the Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, director of the Seven Samurai and the Academy-Award-winning Ran. In a 1995 interview with London’s Independent newspaper, Friðriksson said: ‘Both [our countries] are volcanic islands. Both depend on fishing and sea faring. Both are fascinated by stories of ancient warriors and old battles and, of course, with witches, ghosts and spirits of all kind. But Japan is changing very fast. You turn on the TV in Tokyo and all you see is baseball. Somehow I can’t see that catching on in Iceland.’ But in 2009, I’m not quite so sure. For starters, there’s even Icelandic rap; what’s next but baseball?

 

So Where are All the Icelandic Bonsai Trees?

Iceland itself, in its pristine nature, is a country of stark contrasts. During lightless winter months at times, it seems that day after day of blustering winds, swirling snowstorms, biting hail are trying to have a go at you; yet this summer I have probably seen more cloudless, clear blue skies than any other in the last twenty years (probably not that surprising since I lived the last ten in Shanghai, where it’s mostly yellow smog). And the landscape itself; Condense all you see around you, boil it down to a few essentials: a volcanic outcrop, a field of wild Lupine bursting in violet, a bank of deep rich green moss, and the white curls of tiny waves, just out beyond a fjord into the north Atlantic, and you have an image for the most Zen of Japanese paintings, or the quintessence of a Shinto garden somewhere in someone’s courtyard in Kyoto, only without the golden carp and the trees. (Apparently the once-upon-a-time burgeoning Icelandic forests of birch were all hacked down by the first Vikings to build longboats.)

  The strange and alien-looking Marimo are freshwater green algae that grow in balls in lakes only in Japan, Iceland, and Estonia, and no other place in the world. One of these balls is on display at the Tokyo 101 Exhibition. It is housed in a clear glass vase, and according to Max Dager, the museum Director, it has to be carried outside after the museum is closed to soak in the clean midnight sun. The Ainu, the indigenous people of Hokkaido, venerate the Marimo as a powerful lake god. The algae balls bear an uncanny likeness to the Earth in that they are green and round and in their need to rotate in order to receive light on all sides. If you can manage to get hold of one of these, they make the most ideal pets, as they only need clean tap water and plenty of sunlight; plus with all that extra oxygen, they will probably help to clear your sinuses.

I follow Max around the exhibition, where Japanese carp made of silk, raw silk-worm cocoons, and other hand-worked textiles flow along the ceiling, guiding you from one innovation to the next. The exhibits range from Japanese-Scandinavian architectural influences, in particular those of the Finnish architect, Alvar Aalto (who also designed the Nordic House where the actual exhibit resides), to the cutting-edge Japanese textile design company, NUNO, who, much like contemporary Icelandic fashion designers, work in all kinds of natural and synthetic materials, blending recycled plastics with raw silk, polyester with hand-made paper, even dying silk with metal rust to incredible effect. There are numerous works from talented young Japanese animators and filmmakers from the Musashino Art University, some of them eerily echoing recent pre-released videos by the Icelandic band Múm for their new album, Sing Along to Songs You Don’t Know.

Then it suddenly clicks, I think I’ve sussed the connection between contemporary Japanese and Icelandic arts: There is something innately spontaneous about them both—a wild abandon that somehow transforms itself into the deepest, most tranquil beauty, a kind of naïve stretching out into the universe, then bringing back of all of that mystery into the context of the now. It has this spine-tingling Wow-factor. Landscapes of immeasurable beauty lead to wild and speculative mythologies, which infuse the culture and the religious beliefs, and finally inspire its creators. Japan of course is deeply rooted in mythology, heavily influenced by Shinto and Buddhism. Japanese folklore involves incredibly humorous and bizarre characters and locales, including revered ancestor spirits, monsters, ghosts, dragons and morphing supernatural animals. Iceland too, has a deep tradition of the otherworldly. The epic Eddas of the Vikings, written down by Snorri Sturluson in the thirteenth century, are as rich with exotic creatures and supernatural beings as anything in Japan, and in fact, there are many parallels, but no Bonsai trees—not really.

Kindred Spirits

Ambassador Natsume likens the similarities of the two countries as coming down to a very simple, almost Zen principle: ‘Both islands are young, still growing geologically speaking. A sense of soft power emanates from both. This is what binds, brings us together.’ So perhaps just as Japanese culture aspires to the Zen in things, carefully crafting art as an expression of the cosmos, Icelanders live in a self-sculpted cosmic garden, powered by a midnight sun and all the water they could ever need, and more; from this comes the unique expression.

Water, of course, is the unifying principle of life, the Sun its creator; Japan is the country of the rising sun, Iceland, the midnight sun. Somehow they are both trying to catch its dappling reflection on the very waters of the ocean of life.

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Marc Vincenz was born in Hong Kong. Currently based out of Iceland, he writes a column for the Reykjavik Grapevine, Iceland’s English-language newspaper. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in various journals and magazines including Poor Mojo’s Almanac(k), Prick of the Spindle and Shipwrights.

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