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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 Brendan O'NeillCorrespondent / September 29, 2008

Stark Exhibit: Scultpor Richard Serra's "Milestones" are placed to frame nature and distant Reykjavík.

Brendan O'Neill


Reykjavík, Iceland

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.”

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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.

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.