Lynne Maphies, Here, 2014
I live in Texas but can’t seem to stop thinking about Iceland. Perhaps there is something about the vastness of the sky and weather there, which is not necessarily all that different from here. As a visual artist working in a special collections library, it’s not all that unusual for me to possess this tendency to find unexpected connections. When an art historian visited the archives, I made inquiries about her research, and a turn in the conversation revealed that the scholar had just returned from Iceland. Further discussion revealed shared interest in Roni Horn, an artist for whom Iceland has been a significant source of inspiration.
Roni Horn You are the weather (detail) 1994–5
Have I ever told you about Roni Horn? Her work embraces a spare aesthetic with textual counterpoints—she really gets the stories in there—pairing words and industrial materials with such precision that if you don’t look carefully, you just might miss the narrative completely. Sometimes it’s in the work quite literally: cast-plastic columns embedded with lines from Emily Dickinson. Sometimes you find it in the installation—remind me to tell you about her displacement of the iconic American Gothic when installing her photographic series Still Water at the Art Institute of Chicago. Other times it’s in the performance: her “disappearance” at a hotel bar (bourbon, if I remember correctly) before a scheduled performance at a museum opening of her work. And sometimes it’s in a book—surely I’ve mentioned You Are the Weather, yes? If not, promise you won't be tempted to look it up online. Find a copy and enjoy the subtleties of landscape revealed day by day, page after page, in the up-close portraits of a young woman’s face in Iceland’s geothermal waters.
Roni Horn TO PLACE: Pooling Waters, #IV (detail) 1994
Not long ago I spent time with Horn's Pooling Waters (Book IV of To Place), a two-volume artists’ book inspired by one of her many trips to Iceland. I seem to recall a particular essay involving a motorcycle and a book of letters by Emily Dickinson. Horn writes, "For the time being, Dickinson's here with me, in Iceland. For someone who stayed home she fits naturally into this distant and necessary place." Volume 1 consists of photographs demonstrating the range of Iceland’s geothermally heated pools. Volume 2 is a collection of thirty-two essays, short stories, and anecdotes about Horn’s time in Iceland, the first half English, the second Icelandic. I paged through the photographs first and then read the text, and by the time I completed the essays, was so excited to revisit the images I could hardly stand it. The photographs viewed so casually the first time now unfolded like flowers—she really gets the stories in there.
Edna O'Brien and son Sasha Gebler, English Lake District late 1970s Photo: Edna O'Brien
For some reason, the second viewing made me think about lonely places, which reminded me of an interview with Irish writer Edna O’Brien that I heard on NPR while alone in a Nashville hotel on a business trip. Discussing her memoir Country Girl, O’Brien said, "Certain people, I think, are kind of born lonely. I can tell lonely people when I see them, and I'm very often drawn to them, because I feel that they might have some secret to tell me." Pico Iyer included Iceland in his collection of essays about lonely places. "Lonely places are the exceptions that prove every rule: they are ascetics, castaways, and secessionists; prisoners, anchorites, and solipsists." They are “island[s] surrounded by land.” Lonely and Iceland seem to go together.
Margrét Blöndal Anahuacalli (detail) 2008
Returning to the conversation with the art historian: she asked if I was familiar with the model from You Are the Weather, Margrét Blöndal, who still resides in Iceland and happens to be a rather impressive artist in her own right. I looked her up immediately and found myself quite charmed by her work. Most of the work is installation-based and sneaks into spaces using scraps and found objects, but the drawings, paintings, and poems are the ones I fell for. From Blöndal’s Airmail paper drawings:
"neither grasshopping nor colourful but marfaminded i am slowly wakening up in the sudden winterrama of islandia. sölvi armed by a helmet bikes and bikes – he just disappeared into the night."
Blöndal spent time in Texas, a residency at the Chinati Foundation that left West Texas with a cat named sölvi, after her son, and another Icelandic connection. Her drawings are so quiet—olive oil stains and soft watercolor washes—it’s quite possible to miss them completely. The word “echo” was used in a review of her work by Chris Fite-Wassilak and I have not been able to think of anything else. Echos. The images I return to again and again are from a group exhibition at the Anahuacalli Museum in Mexico City in which artists were invited to install works inspired by and incorporating elements from the museum collections. Blöndal did a series of drawings paired with sculptures. The drawings somehow become reflections, responses, reactions, pulled from inanimate animal forms—go ahead, look these up online, they’re delightful.
Lynne Maphies, There, 2014
Bear with me while I conclude with a few more unexpected Texas/Iceland connections. From Horn’s Pooling Waters she references Texas and Iceland in “Roads Lack Dedication” about the various ways to get places: “Sometimes the road is a vector, in Texas or on Skeitharársandur for example...” She also mentions conversations with Donald Judd, comparing the desert to Iceland, while visiting Judd in Marfa. There’s the borrowed title of her essay “I can’t see the Arctic Circle from here” about enormous, unbroken expanses of horizon, and how she wants to see the arc, wants to see “the shape of things from among the things themselves.” I’ve never been to Iceland, but I’ve spent time in West Texas and I’m quite certain I’ve seen the arc. From Blöndal’s Airmail paper drawings: “I can see the light appearing behind the curve.” Texas or Iceland? Finally, from the essay “Island and Labyrinth,” Horn writes, “big enough to get lost… small enough to find yourself. I come here to place myself in the world.” Her Iceland sounds just a little bit like Texas, doesn’t it?