Iceland loomed large last year, not so much as a destination – more a roadblock. Eyjafjallajokull sent a pall of ash over the North Atlantic disrupting flight services all over Europe. It’s not the first time Icelandic volcanoes have had a baleful effect on Europe. Three thousand years ago the explosion of mighty Hekla contributed to the eclipse of the early Mediterranean civilisations of Minoa and Mycenae. It won’t be the last.
Iceland straddles the continental divide between Europe and America. The faultline is visible in the region of Thingvellir where the continental plates rear in sheer walls above a steaming plain. It is the site of the world’s oldest parliament, the Althing. Here, in 930 AD, ancient Icelanders gathered to hold court and elect their parliament. Irish monks were the first people to reach Iceland but the Vikings would supplant them and become the were the first Europeans to colonise the North Atlantic and ultimately reach America.
Four hundred years before Columbus, Leif Eriksson founded Vinland (Greenland) and the colony lasted a couple of centuries before fading from sight and memory. In the 1930s the Americans commemorated the explorer with the donation of a dramatically heroic statue which guards the plaza before Reykjavik’s landmark Hallgrimskirkja. The church is named for Hallgrim, a 17th century devotional poet. He married Goethron, a Westland Islander captured by Algerian pirates in 1620. She was amongst a fortunate few to be ransomed by the Danish king and Hallgrim was dispatched to reacquaint the freed captives with Christianity – thus do love stories begin.
At the top of Hallgrimskirkja’s immense spire you can see all of Reykjavik neatly laid out below. There’s a palpable sense of drama and contrast on this fulcrum between the old world and the new, where Europe meets America. Powerful organ music pushes up from the stark church full of gothic power, while the modernist spire feels like a spaceship to heaven. Meanwhile, the city far below has a feeling of toy town. The buildings are clad in corrugated iron, painted in primary colours tumbling down to the harbour, beyond which jagged snow-capped mountains pin down the deep blue horizon.
Iceland’s modern parliament building dates from 1880 and is set in a pleasant square in the city centre with the small Cathedral, Domkirkjan, nearby. I shelter from the cold in a pleasant bar opposite the park and enjoy a pint of the local brew, Gull, the rim of the glass frosted with ice. There are large photos on the walls of the recent disturbances after the financial crash. The black and white prints give a feel of ancient history, the scenes themselves, featuring police in riot gear, look improbable in such a placid square amongst an amiable people. The crash and the anger were real enough though.
There is political fire too in the work of Erro at the City Arts Museum. Iceland’s most significant visual artist was a prolific exponent of the collage, depicting a strange synthesis of propaganda, sex and consumerism. His most appealing series shows Mao and the Red Army leading a communist invasion of Europe and the USA. There is much reference to classical painting and iconic advertising such as the Rothman’s ad. Perhaps the east will rise, as Erro hints, or perhaps the twain should never meet. Iceland itself is finely poised, ever growing, ever changing.