An alfresco Arctic art gallery warms the soul in Iceland

Yoko Ono’s monument is just the tip of the iceberg on tiny Viðey Island.

By , Correspondent

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    Stark Exhibit: Scultpor Richard Serra's "Milestones" are placed to frame nature and distant Reykjavík.
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The boatman doesn’t speak English. Or maybe he just doesn’t want to. I ask him his name, hoping to follow up with a fusillade of questions about how long he’s been sailing this route, and whether he likes it here in the Arctic cold of northern Reykjavik; but my plan is foiled by his brusque reply: “Ticket.”

I can take a hint in any language, and take a seat at the back of the boat. I am the only passenger. We leave Sundahöfn Harbor and set sail for Viðey (pronounced veethey), a tiny, uninhabited island less than a mile off the coast of Iceland. It is, I’ve been told, 400 acres of unspoiled greenery, rain-slick rocks, fluttering birdlife and ... modern art.

Yes, this is, possibly, The Hardest To Reach Art Gallery On Earth.

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The boat rocks side to side, draped in sheets of rain. When we pull into Viðey Harbor, there is not a single soul to welcome me to the island.

“So, you’ll pick me up at 3:30?” I ask the boatman. I think I hear him say “Já,” but the prospect of being alone on an uninhabited island plays tricks on my mind, and I wonder if really he said, “Bah,” or even worse: “Ha!”

• • •

Putting an art gallery on a remote edge of Europe is quite in line with the character of this island nation. Icelanders are proud of their isolation and the spirit of independence it engenders. The novel for which Halldór Laxness, the Icelandic writer, won the Nobel Prize in 1955 was called “Independent People.”

In the tourist shops of Reykjavík there are rows and rows of T-shirts that say, “Lost in Iceland” on the front, and, “Is anybody out there?” on the back. The cover of the current issue of The Iceland Review says: “Nobody can hear you scream ...” It’s the headline for a feature on Icelandic crime writing which is often set in dark, remote towns, but it could just as easily be the headline for a feature on Viðey.

It dawns on me, as the boatman disappears into the distance, that if I trip off one of the cliff edges or tumble down a hill, no one will hear me scream. I don’t even have cellphone reception.

• • •

In the distance, close to a cliff, I see what looks like a UFO – a weird-looking object with a gray circular base and a large, bright white tube rising from its middle. The true nature of this object is far more unexpected than a craft from outer space.

It’s the “Imagine Peace Tower” by Yoko Ono. Intended as a “beacon to world peace,” it is designed in the shape of a well with the words “Imagine Peace” inscribed on its walls in 24 languages, and it produces light, not water. Unveiled last October, the tower will emit a beam of white light every year from Oct. 9 (John Lennon’s birthday) to Dec. 8 (the date of his death).

Ms. Ono put the beacon in Iceland because it is a peaceful nation, the only European country with no standing army. And because it is a “unique ecofriendly country” – the tower’s electricity comes entirlely from the Hellisheidi Geothermal Power Plant on an active volcanic ridge in southwest Iceland. The tower is a collaboration between Ms. Ono, the City of Reykjavík, Reykjavík Art Museum, and Reykjavík Energy.

From Ono’s beacon, you can see another work of art in the distance – an anchor on a hilltop. Ironically, it’s a monument to 20 fishermen who died in 1906 when there was no beacon here, and their boat was smashed against Viðey. I start to head over, but the skies have opened and I have to take shelter from the rain in an empty barbecue lodge.

• • •

Even by Icelandic standards, Viðey seems remote. It wasn’t always this way. There was a monastery here from 1225 until 1539. Farming and fishing flourished from 1901 until 1930, when Viðey village reached a high of 138 residents.

But when these local industries declined, the islanders left. Since 1943, Viðey has been uninhabited, and all that remains of the once small-but-bustling village are the foundations of the family homes and the still-intact schoolhouse.

There are two sections of the island – Home Island and West Island. They’re connected by a narrow isthmus of pebbles and sand that, in some weather conditions, is submerged, turning Viðey into two islands once more. Yet there’s a sprawling work of art on West Island by one of America’s best-known sculptors that I desperately want to see.
I risk it and cross.

• • •

Richard Serra’s “Milestones” is visible immediately. It’s everywhere.
Mr. Serra is a minimalist sculptor best known for making imposing monuments using sheet metal. “Milestones,” consisting of nine pairs of pillars made from columnar basalt, dominate West Island.

A sign by the side of the path suddenly makes me feel like I’m in a trendy gallery: “Milestones” has “many of the characteristics of minimal art: repetition of the same forms, symmetry, mathematical regularity and direct influence upon the environment.” If it wasn’t for the wind turning my face red, I could imagine myself in the Tate Modern.

Serra’s pillars are intended to frame certain views of Viðey and Reykjavík in the distance. They invite visitors to venture around West Island and look between the pillars like frames, with the island itself as the art.

My Viðey map, now soaked and crumbling, tells me that on the cliff edges near one pair of Serra’s pillars there are three rocks with carved inscriptions: “They may be hard to find ... and perhaps they were never meant to be discovered.” Intriguing. More modern art? I search, but find nothing. A red flag with a skull and crossbones on it lets me know that I’m too close to the cliff.

• • •

Heading back to Home Island, now so drenched and freezing that I take refuge for 20 minutes in a cabin-style toilet, I tackle Viðey’s most demanding work of art. At the top of a steep, slippery hill, there’s a statue of the Virgin Mary encased in rainbow-colored glass. It was donated to Viðey by the Catholic Church in 2000 to celebrate the 1,000th anniversary of Iceland’s conversion to Christianity.

I end my visit at Viðey House. Built in 1752, it’s one of the oldest buildings in Iceland and the first to have been constructed from stone. It has been the home of some of Iceland’s most powerful men over the past 250 years, but today it’s a cafe. And there I discover that there was one other person on the island with me: Gerdur Hanssen, manager of the house.
She lets me dry my hat, jacket, and sweatshirt near a heater and makes me a cup of hot chocolate.

“During the summer, we’re much busier than this,” she says.

I ask her about the mysterious rock inscriptions that I failed to find: Are they modern art, too?

“Oh no,” she says. “Some of the young people who lived here 100 or 150 years ago carved their initials into the rocks.”

It’s a powerful reminder, I think, that others before Yoko Ono and Richard Serra sought to leave their mark on Viðey, too.

The wonder of Viðey is that it turns art into a lived experience, an outdoor hike surrounded by the unforgiving North Atlantic. And you get wet – and cold and exhausted and elated – as you peruse the works on display.
When my boatman arrives, we sail back to Reykjavík, in silence. Only this time, I’m glad of it, resting my rain-lashed head gently against the cabin wall.

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