Creation in the mystical darkness
Lara Valgerdur Kristjansdottir
Seyðisfjörður is a small town located at the innermost point of a narrow fjord in the East of Iceland, about as far away from the capital of Reykjavik as you can get while staying on the island. Covered by mountains and solely accessible by a road over a mountain pass, when driving into the fjord and looking over the colourful houses surrounding the still lake, the town of 680 inhabitants seems a world away from anywhere else. However, once you settle in this town that far away feeling is accompanied by a sense that still you are close to just about everything. Amid this sense of distance yet closeness, Seyðisfjörður has a distinct, spiritual essence which is accompanied by an ever-evolving, international cultural- and arts scene.
“The town’s distinct artistic atmosphere leads you to wonder how the absence of natural light can influence the creative thinking processes, and creation in general.”
In contrast to Icelandic summers which are marked by endless light, loss of any sense of time and unbounded energy, the winters are another story by far. With their unique qualities, the long winter nights are beautiful, cold, dark, filled with a certain weariness. Light graces the land for but solely for a few hours during the hardest part of these months. Despite the additional layer of gloom as the sun disappears behind the mountains, as well as its geographical isolation, Seyðisfjörður’s uniqueness attracts even the young and international to dream of settling there, and yes, during winter as well.
The town’s distinct artistic atmosphere leads you to wonder how the absence of natural light can influence the creative thinking processes, and creation in general. How can such a remote town of dour winters draw the attention of artists which would usually be considered more probable to reside, develop and create in the atmospheric and inspiring cities of Europe?
The fact that Seyðisfjörður was constructed not by Icelanders but by ‘foreigners’ (Norwegian fishermen had settled the town in the mid-19th century, and the Danes largely contributed to its economic upheaval) is considered to have contributed to the multi-cultural element characterizing it until today. Despite the town’s remoteness within the island – intensified during the winter as isolation becomes increasingly felt with difficult weather- and road conditions – the Smiryl Line ferry arriving once a week from Denmark through the Faroe Islands has served as the town’s lifeline for decades. It can be seen as a reflection of the unique notion the town has always held, of not looking towards Reykjavik but directly over the fjord towards Europe. This awareness has moreover fed into the uniqueness of Seyðisfjörður, its cosmopolitan ambiance, the high threshold the town has for foreigners, and for freaks, for untypical people coming to do untypical things.
“It can be seen as a reflection of the unique notion the town has always held, of not looking towards Reykjavik but directly over the fjord towards Europe.”
One of these distinct individuals was a conceptual artist known for always doing the opposite of the conventional, world-renowned Swiss-German Dieter Roth who first came to Seyðisfjörður in his search to get as far away from the capital as possible. Turns out the town brought him happiness and ease, nobody paid any particular attention to him, he was just like all the other freaks, those who had arrived as young hippies from Reykjavik to work in the fishing industry and live cheaply. A few decades later, around 2000, a particular ‘rural romance’ atmosphere had swept over a generation of Icelandic artists who came to find charm in moving from cities like Berlin and settling into affordable Seyðisfjörður – probably noticing a certain allure in both its electric summers and mystic winters.
One of the most interesting elements of the cultural life of Seyðisfjörður is LungA, which for twenty years has been a yearly celebration of creativity and culture in the form of an art festival during the summer, and the LungA School, an independent and experimental art school with its main studio space in an old fishnet factory. An institution, a commune, a ‘situation’ in which artistic practices are experimented with as a way of doing and thinking. It is built around a sense of community rather than obedience to a certain authority and specific policies and hosts 12-week programmes and an artist residency in Seyðisfjörður, mostly stretching over the winter months. The young and the international come to share an experience of studying art; developing an interest in everything surrounding oneself; and live the process of constant conversing, collecting, and experimenting. The school is continuously developing – intending to never stay constant or the same. Since its establishment in 2014, every year two groups of twenty new ‘Lungis’ are welcomed and invited to take part in shaping the community and the environment. Persistently generating new understandings of the circumstances while learning to understand themselves – LungA focuses on self-reflection and the nature of the creative process itself instead of on particular outcomes, making it different from ‘traditional’ art schools.
During the summer, with timelessness and endless wild energy, there is harvest, celebration, and of course light. The LungA festival, having been held for two decades, brings thousands of people together to appreciate art, music, and nature. During the winter, there is creation. In contrast to the summer months, the winter in Seyðisfjörður brings a focused spirit, a specific state of concentration, and consequently a fitting atmosphere for experimentation. When speaking to one of LungA’s founders it becomes clear to me that in fact, in the absence of light, space is opened up for the generation of your own ideas of the world. As you are not able to constantly see your surroundings, you become able to make infinite space for different ways of imagining everything around you, rather than relying simply on what you otherwise perceive with your eyes. Boundaries fade away and creation is stimulated with a reimagination of what had otherwise been taken for granted or thought to be known. “It’s a place of unlearning”.
“Boundaries fade away and creation is stimulated with a reimagination of what had otherwise been taken for granted or thought to be known”
The LungA school as a commune – an embodiment of the entire notion of community facilitating and enabling creation – a notion which comes to characterise the life of Seyðisfjörður. As the winter and darkness loom over the fjord and daylight passes from sight, what endures is the continuous; the mountains, nature, and above all the people. Living together every hour of every day – eating together, tidying up, and creating together – allows for a different sense of closeness, heightened by the darkness, enabling people to break down walls and be themselves.
Further reflecting on shaping bonds between people: along with Seyðisfjörður’s respected centre for visual art, art residencies, ongoing workshops, exhibitions and experiments, the winter sees smaller-scale, local festivals which aim to bring light into the community of the town during short days. Inhabitants’ windows are decorated, poems, music, films, and arts are shared. One of the light festivals, List í ljósi (Art in light), inspired by the darkness, started as a way for the two founders from Iceland and New Zealand to get through the winter and celebrate the return of the sun in February. For them, as for most artists in Seyðisfjörður (if artists are even distinguishable from other inhabitants?) being surrounded by so many other creators throughout the wintertime is what inspires, keeps one active and occupied. “Energy begets energy”. Being able to view the wintertime as a phase of opportunities and togetherness instead of difficulties becomes a quality which makes societal life all the more beautiful.
Perhaps it can be said that the mystical darkness of Seyðisfjörður provides the raw space to go within, explore the self and begin the process of creation, and as the long nights transient into longer days and the curtain of darkness is lifted by light, creation comes to be celebrated by all.