I recently acquired my first raincoat. It happened at the foot of the Vatnajökull glacier in Southeastern Iceland. “If you think you hate the weather in Iceland, wait five minutes and you’ll hate it more,” my glacier-hiking-arctic-adventures-guide teased, looking on at the soggy, ill-prepared herd of humans that had collected in front of him, each dense with water, fear, and whatever other feeling a 2,000-meter glacier should cast upon someone. Unlike the wool-dressed Icelandic sheep, humans aren’t fond of pack mentality—for the miles before this rain, we traveled always at a safe distance from each other. Nor are we fond of unexpected showers in 10-minute intervals. It was clear, my hair now sickeningly wet, that I was to be a sore match for the forces on this island. Erik offered me an extra raincoat. I thanked him, but by then the rain had subsided.
In five minutes, I’d hate it more.
No one comes to Iceland to think less about the weather. And it’s not an easy thing to overlook. Its presence is made all the more palpable due to the absence of high-rises or rows of developments—just endless amounts of open air, lush fields. You either come prepared to be shot down by the blazing sun, scathing rain, burning geyser mist, freezing glacial water, or you stand there waiting to be molded by a mixture of these forces.
Aside from the weather, all I know about Iceland is an amalgam of facts skimmed from various postings on the walls of hotels and guesthouses: beer wasn’t legalized until 1989; three trees next to each other is deemed a forest; Iceland was the last place to be settled by humans. There is an air of placidity, miles of land free of barriers. Everyone who visits feels as if they’ve discovered something secret, or have woken up a resting giant. And all are eager to share.
This fascination has influenced a large number of artists, both Icelandic and many foreign, all turning to Iceland as a place for inspiration and clarification. Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson has long exalted Iceland as a place largely similar to that of a studio itself: “Actually, a lot of public spaces seem to suggest that you can use the space to—I wouldn't say ‘reinvent’ yourself, but at least ‘reconsider’ yourself.” The light, landscape, and weather above all, are unmistakable in Eliasson’s work. In May of 2017, he opened Studio Olafur Eliasson in downtown Reykjavik, which is now open to the public. His most celebrated piece, known as “the weather project” employed humidifiers and hundreds of monochromatic lamps; disseminated mist and a radiating yellow light flooded the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern in London. Art critic Brian O’Doherty, in a description of the installation to Frieze magazine, illustrates the space as: “enormously dismal—like a coffin for a giant— but was socialized in an effective way.”
The climate Eliasson installed transformed what once was a large empty space, where people moved past each other unknowingly, into a space where all collectively gathered under the sun. The severity of it and the proximity that people in Iceland have to weather has shifted the way Eliasson experiences weather conditions in London or other metropolitan areas. He brings these unvarnished episodes of weather into the steel-framed Turbine Hall, with its old construction crane still hanging above, and visitors instantly feel the weight of gravity. The only reasonable next step being sitting down, breathing in the mist, and letting themselves be smothered by the light. For Eliasson, he believes it is, “one of the few fundamental encounters with nature that can still be experienced in the city.” He goes on to explain that, “As inhabitants, we have grown accustomed to the weather as mediated by the city. This takes place in numerous ways, on various collective levels ranging from hyper‑mediated (or representational) experiences, such as the television weather forecast, to more direct and tangible experiences, like simply getting wet while walking down the street on a rainy day. A level between the two extremes would be sitting inside, looking out of a window onto a sunny or rainy street.”
I think about my hiking herd and how weather made friends of us; we walked the miles before the downpour in silence, and the miles after laughing and damning the rain.
During an Icelandic winter, the sun shines for four hours a day. In summer, it doesn’t set until 10 at night. Between all of this, the wind and rain sustain. For Icelanders, having to deal with a riotous sky or a turbulent ocean is never a bitter pill. Visitors for 10 days, 100, a year, may never navigate Iceland in the same way. For starters, the Icelandic language has developed around 56 words for wind alone, some meaning close to storm and some alluding to a calmer state. But what keeps visitors coming back is the hope that they might begin to learn the how’s and what’s. Many of the artists (even native-born Icelanders) who find spaces to work in Iceland only end up doing so temporarily. But all continue to dwell on their experiences and talk candidly about the impact. The question is not why they care so much about the landscape, the culture, and the weather; it is a question of how a place reminds them that they do.
Perhaps no visitor has attempted to answer this question as committedly as artist and writer Roni Horn. A native of New York, Horn initially visited Iceland out of college and has returned constantly since the mid-70s. Her oeuvre, in photography, writing, installation, and various other mediums is much like the Icelandic weather she is fervently in awe of: difficult, and oftentimes impossible to grasp. Only for viewers and readers to marvel at and be made curious by—as if it were another climate or a combination of many. Intimately communal yet vastly solitary, Iceland and Horn have depended on each other for company. And Icelanders have welcomed Horn as they do most visitors, enthusiasts, and wanderers to their island. Over 100 local residents have collaborated with Horn in her studies with the weather, offering their personal experiences and sharing what continually draws them home. Horn, along with Oddný Eir Ævarsdóttir, an Icelandic writer, pursued various residents of the towns of Stykkisholmur and Helgafellssveit. The 197-page book titled Weather Reports You is told through the experiences of police officers, sailors, farmers, and preschool teachers. All seem to harbor a quiet understanding that those who visit have all come to quench some desire. A desire to feel one might be an infinite stranger, or that their proximity with everything else is unbounded. And being on this island makes those desires a fact, that we still have many conversations to make with nature. And being exposed to its daily forces fuels Horn’s fascination and frustration. Both with how little we know and how much we never will, about the water we drink or the rain. “During the many months of making these interviews, I learned something important about Iceland…” Ævarsdóttir reflects, “I can’t say exactly what it is...but it’s connected with people’s different ways of reading their environment and the people around them, living in the whirlwinds of memories and forgetfulness.”
“My weather began back in grade school. In class, the teacher announced a hurricane was on its way. With that, she dismissed us and emphatically instructed: ‘Run home!’ Scared at first, exhilarated afterward, I ran all the way,” begins Horn in the introduction of Weather Reports You. This book and the recordings have proven, most importantly, the length that Horn has gone to bridge herself with the surrounding communities, and the importance of this gesture. Aside from the introduction, in all 197 pages, her name is almost absent. And aside from the brief introduction, she allows only those who have tampered with this climate their entire lives to speak on it. They do so proudly, many having not thought much about this everyday occurrence. Some speak about the perils of boating, or simply being outside. And some just hate when the weather prevents them from simply playing basketball. Horn’s desire has always been not to recreate but to pass on, in whatever language best suited, the feeling that the island has instilled in her. Echoing the sentiments of Eliasson, Horn has long used Iceland as her makeshift studio and in her most ambitious project to date, all of Horn’s abiding interests are displayed subtly but clearly.
The Library of Water, or Vatnasfn, is a building which rests quietly on a promontory, overlooking the town of Styykishölmur. The library houses an installation of 24 glass columns. The language of these pillars is much like that of her sculptures: each pillar contains water collected from some of the most famous glaciers in Iceland. Cast in solid glass and standing floor to ceiling, the properties of the water reflect and refract the town, its buildings, and the people who visit the library. At some angles, we see ourselves as one with the red lighthouse that faces the window. In others, we’ve melted in with the reflection of neighboring columns; the surfaces of these are constantly in flux, much like the reflection of oneself in water. The pillars are clustered at the entrance of the library and in front of the walkway to the seating area. We make ourselves fit, swerving and spreading ourselves across the space created. Much like rain, in some areas, we cannot move without dodging a pillar and in all areas, the reflections of the 24 pillars constantly change the visuals we are experiencing.
The choice of Styykishölmur, a town on the western coast of Iceland, as home to this artistic venture is intentional. It is the home of many of the interviewees in Weather Reports You and Vatnasfn houses the tapes of these recordings; in 1845, it also coincidentally began recording the first regular measurement of weather. Upon finding this building, which was used only to house books in transit to other places, Horn negotiated with the town mayor on a renewal of the building, proposing for it to be a public space. Above all, Horn hoped it would be a place that reflected the history and culture of the island. Upon being granted permission, Horn placed down sheets of rubber flooring and set off to collect what would become the library’s 24 columns. Now in its 11th year, the library is used as a community space and visitors are invited to attend events, sometimes with shows by performers like Ragnar Kjartansson and Laurie Anderson. During its less busy seasons, Vatnasfn is accessible by a code, which you can retrieve by visiting the Volcano Museum down the hill. Some leave books, notes, and writing. Others come to browse the catalogs and listen to the recordings. A management staff comes to check up on the space from time to time, but in general, it is left as is. All that is asked of visitors is to remove their shoes. The general preservation of this place comes not from strict policing, but an understanding that there is something sacred preserved here—be it experience, emotion, or bits of Iceland’s landscape—and it is up to all who come upon it to respect and nurture it.
For many, it is rare to be able to see the landscape so clearly, unfettered by much else. And when the rain hits harder, one becomes more alert. Both of how humans are affected by our surroundings and our obvious shortcomings in understanding and dealing with nature. Though Horn tends to be somehow both subtle and conspicuous about her intentions, it is easy to feel that her work with Vatnasfn comes from a level of urgency. Parts of the casted water comes from the Vatnajokull Glacier, also known as “Fat Yogurt” for those less privy to the Icelandic tongue. It is a glacier superstar, one of the largest of its kind (by volume) in Europe and covers more than nine percent of the island alone. Even in its grandiosity, a glaciologist at the Icelandic Meteorological Office has reported that more than ten percent of the glacier has melted since 1890 and the land around has risen by approximately 25 millimeters just within this past year. All of Iceland's glaciers are melting; the weather has become, more so now than ever, ominously unpredictable across the world. These pillars stand as testaments to loss, but even more as icons of hope. When faced, on a human scale, with a force normally too large to comprehend, we’re reminded of the beauty in Iceland’s glaciers. Horn forces our movements to literally blend with these pillars, and we feel how interconnected we are to their livelihood.
Past the bevy of glass columns is the back room, where one may sit, listen, and as Horn hoped, find commonality under the weather—see it both in its true scale and on an individual scale. “I imagine the weather reports of Laramie, Palermo, Hudson Bay, Gorky, Lake Baikal, Timbuktu and so on. Iceland is only a starting point. But Iceland more than most places is a country that has forcibly been made to experience the weather as the dominant, essentially unpredictable presence that influences the outcome of all things on the island.”
Today I am stopping by the town of Höfn, the largest town in Southern Iceland. Still, there is only one convenience store in the center. It sells few imported products, lots of dairy. Although the car I have is a hefty 4x4, it’s heavily misaligned from bouts of rough rental usage. Rough not from off-roading or poor behind-the-wheel habits but weathered by a terrain that was never meant for cars. Höfn boasts the island’s best seafood, even lobster dipped in chocolate. If you’re lucky, soup always waits at the end of a treacherous journey.
On the off chance I look out the window, I see a red chair set atop a rock. Someone has left it there I assume (for viewing pleasures? forgotten?) and it stands as if it’d been drilled into the gravel, unfettered by the wind. How well we weather a storm depends on many things: stamina, courage, familiarity, intent. In this case, I was ruefully beat out by painted plywood. I was tempted to take a break, take a seat on this chair, see if I could learn anything.
Nearing Höfn, I passed my third waterfall; across it landed flocks of swans, puffins, and around it clusters of horses and sheep grazed. Across it, another rainbow. Due to the rain, I’ve seen six and a half rainbows in 10 days.
It’s nearing 10 pm and the last of the sunset has left the sky; it’s raining again outside. A dull knocking rain. PLONK, PLONK, PLONK. I’m hesitant to draw the blinds, as it has proved to be quite the event for me here, always taking upwards of 15 to 20 minutes. Each time I find myself paralyzed and stupefied, staring at the vast abysmal land, not lit by a single streetlamp. An uncanny mix of awe, shock, longing, and terror.
WEN ZHUANG R'19 left that raincoat in the airport.
Excerpts from Weather Reports You:
When I was a little girl, I lived in a very good place as far as the weather was concerned. In bad weather, it was horrible. Everything shook and rattled and you lay awake at night wondering what would happen if the house was blown out to sea. Oh yes, I just made a ship of it, if it blows away it’s bound to turn upside down and sail on its roof and then I’m safe inside the house. I lived with that until I was almost ten.
When I was twelve, I lost my uncle at sea, so I’m not really terribly fond of storms and the sea. The weather is always connected with the sea in my mind. That’s what puts the fear into me the most, the sea. If the sea starts moving, I know what to expect.
Born 1940, Stykkisholmur
I never see the sun without starting to tingle and I’m outside at once. I was at sea for nine years. Once when I was on board the trawler Skúli Magnússon (I think it was the Skúli Magnússon, rather than the Jón Þorláksson) I was out on the Halinn grounds and we ran into strong, nasty weather, hauled in the trawl and headed for land. But it was snowing, there was a raging storm and heavy frost, and that was when I felt in most danger at sea. I was so tired of smashing the ice off all the ropes and as soon as I turned around everything was covered again. Sometimes when a sheep went missing and you saw a snowdrift somewhere, well into the spring, if there was a little grass sprouting alongside the snowdrift, you could always be sure the sheep was there. The sheep never left those gullies the whole winter and it was warm. I remember that because I was a kid on the farm and I was like the family dog, they sent me out to fetch the sheep from the snowdrifts.
Born 1930, Blönduós
The best weather is the weather I can play basketball in. The worst weather is when I can’t play basketball, I think.
Born 1991, Stykkishólmur
Several years ago, I was very depressive, I often used to think then that you don’t know which came first, the chicken or the egg, if and how the weather affected my depression, for better or for worse. And I remember at that time I was shut in here by myself a lot, I shut myself away and there was an incredible amount of salty northerly storms. No snow on the streets but brine and seawater spraying everything so all the windows turn grey and the asphalt jet black although it is just dry. If you pull yourself together and go outdoors to scrape the salt off it gets a little brighter, you feel a little brighter. There’s also the question if I felt the weather [was] was worse because I was unbalanced.
Anna Sigríður Gunnarsdóttir
Born 1960, Reykjavík
Nurse at St. Francis Hospital
I had to go up onto the mountain every single day, whatever the weather. So I ought to have some definition of the changeability of the weather. But I’m such a blockhead. It’s a fact that even if you do something daily that has an effect on you, it’s as if it never sticks in your mind as a special phenomenon. Unless you’re hit over the head! But sometimes I feel my whole life was spent more or less in peril.
Born 1918, Stykkishólmur. Died 2006.
Retired lighthouse keeper at Hornbjarg