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.
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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.
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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.
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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.