Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In


Art Vent Letting the Fresh Air In

February 17, 2009

I was in Iceland all last night, in my dreams. Before going to sleep I watched Part II of Heima, the gorgeous Sigur Ros film (more like a long music video/travelogue) from 2007 (thanks to Roberto and NetFlix)—which I can’t believe I’d never seen, given how enamored I am of Sigur Ros and all things Icelandic. In 2004, on my way to an Olafur Eliasson exhibition in Oslo, I stopped for several days in Iceland for the sole purpose of driving alone in that surreal landscape while playing their music—which is so eerie and beautiful I can get weepy just listening to it on my iPod while riding Metro North. The idea may sound hokey, but it totally worked—except for when I was freaked out. My plan was to drive from Reykjavik up to Geyser, around the coast to Grindavik, and end up soaking in the milky, steaming mineral waters of the Blue Lagoon. I had a map that showed a road by the Arctic Sea, with numerous place names, which I assumed to be quaint little fishing villages. Instead the “road” turned out simply to be a driveway-like leveling of the gravel and the place names just that—places, perhaps inlets, someone had once named. I drove for hours in my rented Toyota (with its seemingly unlimited gas tank) without seeing any evidence of humans or habitation, the only road signs being those that said “Blindhead”—which meant that the narrow road I was on was about to go over a rise where I wouldn’t be able to see any vehicles that might be approaching from the other side. The prospect of a head-on collision was scary, but not as scary as it would have been if I’d actually seen another vehicle the whole time I was driving. I would come to the top of one of those hills, hoping to catch sight of a house, a barn, a fence—anything, off in the distance, a restaurant or gas station being too much to hope for—but each time there was only the endless empty ribbon of road, stretching on and on….

Somewhere in Iceland, 2004

December 19, 2008

This morning at breakfast, with my houseguests Einar and Manuela, the conversation turned to elections, Nixon, and then Nixon‘s summit meeting with Pompidou in Reykjavik in 1973. At the time Einar and other young Icelandic architects were concerned that the city’s early timber houses were being destroyed in that era’s international craze for “urban renewal,” the excuse being that the buildings were derelict. To demonstrate that their shabbiness was only superficial, Einar and 60 to 80 friends went to work on a row of houses scheduled for demolition, painting facades and replacing windows. It just so happened that soon after, Nixon came to Reykjavik for the summit, and wanted to take a stroll around the city. As they walked down this street of newly pristine houses Nixon said to his host, “I see that you take good care of your traditional architecture here in Iceland”—and after that, of course, there could be no talk of demolishing them. The buildings stand to this day.

When Buckminster Fuller visited Reykjavik two years later, Einar told him this story. “I’m happy to know this,” Bucky said, “because I like to think that everyone has some good in them and I’ve never heard anything positive about Nixon.”

Einar writes about this, his first visit with Fuller, in his upcoming book about his 40-year quest to find what he has named the “Fang,” which is, in geometric terms “a space-filler for five-fold symmetry space.” Below, Einar’s geometry at work in one of Olafur Eliasson’s installations, Your spiral view (2002), which I photographed at the Kunstmuseum in Wolfsburg, Germany, in 2004, and is now part of the Beyeler Foundation collection.

August 18, 2008
Last week I saw the Kronos Quartet perform at Tanglewood, part of wanting to support the festival in going beyond their classical-music-as-usual format, which is treated with such annoying reverence here in the Berkshires. It was the first time I’d been in Seiji Ozawa Hall, which was built in 1994 for $8.7 million and designed by William Rawn Associates in Boston in a manner aptly described by my friend, Scott, as “I. M. Pei channeling Charles Rennie Macintosh.” The relentless woodwork is gorgeous, veering close but thankfully avoiding association with the cheesy faux-Mission look that’s become so ubiquitous in furniture and design in the years since the hall was built. The entire back of the building opens up to include picnickers on the lawn, and exterior stairways contribute to a pleasant indoor/outdoor ambiance. My only complaint is with the decidedly un-ergonomic wooden chairs which, with thin cushions on the seats and none on the backs, are much more uncomfortable than they need to be—especially when listening to challenging music. I was familiar with much of the Kronos’s aggressively adventuresome repertoire, but didn't realize that they’d commissioned over 600 pieces in their 35-year history. While some of their choices push the limits of my tolerance for cacophony—a sound I associate, rightly or wrongly, with contemporary academic composition—there were moments that were completely transporting, among them Flugufreisarinn by Icelanders Sigur Ros (rightly described in the program as “at the forefront of invention in today’s international post-rock scene”), of whom I’m a fervent fan, and Steve Reich’s Triple Quartet.

The Kronos, like many contemporary musicians, make free use of pre-recorded audio, the only part that, for me, was disconcerting. I don’t mind sampling because it’s clear what it is, but I found it distracting to sit there and wonder what was live and what wasn't. This is one of the things I value in—and have learned from—the visual work of Robert Irwin and Olafur Eliasson, who make a point of keeping their means obvious so that the experience is the experience, and not marred by conjecture about how it’s done. One of my companions at the concert, Gregory, suggested that the Kronos might be better off having someone behind the computer up there on the stage with them, just to acknowledge the source of the sounds. But in general I don’t love the combination of canned music with live performance (even with dance)—it reminds me too much of lip-syncing (how about those Chinese?), or the violinists in the subway whose backup orchestra is a CD in a boombox.

I found a YouTube version of the Kronos playing Flugufreisarinn, which hardly does it justice, but can give you a taste. And finally the stunning new Sigur Ros video, Gobbledigook, has been posted, so I can include it here rather than make you go to their site to download it. It was done in collaboration with Ryan McGinley (Scott asked, “Does this mean that now I have to like Ryan McGinley?” and the answer is, "Yes."). Of course this is exactly what it’s like to be in Iceland, but with more trees.

The Kronos Quartet playing Sigur Ros:

Sigur Ros video Gobbledigook

I neglected to bring my camera, so Gregory took these pics of Ozawa hall with his iPhone:

June 3, 2008
I hardly ever recall my dreams, but when I do they’re almost always the same. Except for the ones where I’m in a public place without my clothes, or suddenly remember I have a kitten or baby I’ve forgotten to take care of (they’re always okay, I just feel this terrible guilt), all of my dreams are travel dreams where I can’t get somewhere, can’t find my luggage, etc. I thought when that dream finally came true that I wouldn’t have it anymore but that didn’t happen (yes, I really was in the airport outside Reykjavik at 6:30 a.m., unable to find Einar’s phone number or my luggage, running across the tundra after the only bus of the day that was leaving without me…). In last night’s dream I was lurching from car to car on a futuristic train trying to find my luggage, clutching a gigantic zip-lock plastic bag stuffed with hundreds of tiny bottles of toiletries to my chest. The “stewardesses,” all in a gaggle talking about their dates of the night before, were no help. At one point I found myself walking through the empty observation car as we were passing Niagara Falls and next to the rushing water was a giant screen duplicating the scene, as if it were a rock concert. All of this was no doubt triggered by reading an article in an old (April 28) TIME magazine, about Richard Branson and his revolutionary plans for Virgin Airlines (where I’m a regular), one of which is to end the “Sisyphean tyranny of the cart” by offering choices (which you pay for, of course) from a computer screen, brought to you whenever you want. Wow, I think, what a great idea, until I realize that if I did get that plastic-wrapped $12 turkey sandwich, most likely it wouldn’t be appetizing enough to eat, so what to do with it? Perhaps use it as a neck support as I nap, hoping I won’t dream.

P.S. The Iceland story ended happily. Einar, sensing something was up, rang me, I found my luggage, and the beautiful blond bus dispatcher took it upon herself to arrange for a driver to take me to Einar’s outpost, about 25 minutes away (cost: $16)—where breakfast was waiting. It was almost worth it to find out how caring people could be to a stranded stranger in a far-flung place.

Photo: Carol Diehl, Iceland 2006
April 28, 2008
Le mur vegetal, Musee du Quai Branly. (Photo: Julie Ardery)

I know I'm not supposed to like Jean Nouvel's Musee du Quai Branly just as I'm not supposed to like Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim, but for different reasons. Still, I like both, for different reasons, and one of the best parts of the Musee du Quai Branly for me is the "vertical garden" on the facade of the section of the museum that houses staff offices and the way it provides a transition to the neighboring buildings. Now I find out that it's the work of one Patrick Blanc [via C-Monster] who specializes in putting greenery on the face of buildings. Here's my friend Einar Thorsteinn's contribution to the genre:

Iceland, 2006 (Photo: Carol Diehl)

More about vertical gardens in "Green Anchors" in the NY Times.

July 6, 2007

Photo: Carol Diehl, Iceland, 2006
When I wrote the post below, I assumed that the siding on the house inside the dome was not wood but metal, like that on so many of the houses in Iceland where wood is scarce. Einar wrote to correct me, adding this bit of Icelandic humor: "What do you do when you get lost in the Icelandic woods? Stand up."
July 6, 2007

Alexandra and her Saarinen Womb chair (see Making it hers, below) reminded me of another modernist icon, the geodesic dome, specifically the house my friend, Einar Thorsteinn, designed and took me to see last October when he and his wife, Manuela, gave me a tour of what they called “alternative Iceland”—as if all of Iceland isn’t “alternative.” Einar, who was a protégé of Buckminster Fuller, is an architect, mathematician, designer, and artist, who I met at Olafur Eliasson’s studio in Berlin when I was researching my Art in America article about Olafur. Einar collaborated with Olafur on his second show in New York, and is the muse behind Olafur’s elaborate geometry. His numerous side projects include working on the design of a mobile moon station for NASA and, looking ahead to a time when the earth could become uninhabitable, making plans for a domed city for Iceland—at the presentation for Olafur’s upcoming survey show at MoMA, the curator described Einar as a “visionary”. Einar tells me Einstein’s theories have been long superseded by one Burkhard Heim, and I have the feeling that me talking to Einar about Einstein is like someone who’s just discovered art talking to me about Andy Goldsworthy.

Our road trip to the Icelandic hinterlands had to be put off for a day because of high winds that made it impossible to drive, apparently not an unusual occurrence. But the next morning dawned sunny and glorious. My previous two trips to Iceland were in the winter when sun was hardly an issue, but this time I was glad I brought sunglasses, which Einar explained you need in Iceland because the sun comes at you from a very low angle and is therefore always in your eyes. The sun’s lowness also creates long shadows, which lends extra drama to the already dramatic moss and lava-rocked landscape.

The domed house, near the village of Hella (108 km from Reykjavik and close to the Ring Road) is visible from the road, appearing as a curiously regular grassy hill with windows in it. Getting closer you can see that inside the dome is a house and a garden—the earth and grass covers the house part, keeping it warm no doubt, while the glass over the garden makes for a greenhouse-like micro-climate. What’s funny is that the façade of the house inside the dome is hardly contemporary, but like a traditional Icelandic abode. With its painted red siding and white trim around the lace-curtained windows, it reflects the decorating tastes of its inhabitant, a woman in her seventies with a passion for gardening and tchotchkes—the place is rife with cement gnomes, while a reproduction of Michelangelo’s David graces the exterior garden.

Einar tells me that his purist architect friends aren’t amused by the incongruity, but he thinks its great, as do I. As with Alexandra and her Womb chair, it demonstrates that the owner is not making a style statement, but loves it for its own sake. This is Einar on top: