Truth be told, I went to Iceland expecting somewhere very rugged and practical, with little in the way of arts and culture. Much of that relates to knowing that until the middle of the last century, Iceland was one of the poorest countries in Europe, if not the world (read Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Centre of the Earth” and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about). Much more was down to Iceland being framed as an ourdoorsy and spa destination, with very little emphasis on its arts and culture offerings.
As it happened, I was pleasantly surprised.
Reykjavik was by far one of the most creative cities I’ve ever been to. Forget Paris, New York, London and all those other overrated epicentres of everything and anything cultural. In fact, probably only Düsseldorf has gotten me anywhere near as excited about the arts, and yet with Reykjavik, and Iceland as a whole, there was a whole different ethos, culture and level of creativity going on.
Hannes from Pink Iceland explained it to me as he took me on their Pink City Walk tour. Like any major city in Europe, there was always arts going on as you would expect – the Sólfar (Icelandic for Sun Voyager), a gleaming, metallic Viking longboat that stands by Reykjavik’s shoreline dates back to the 1980’s and was designed as a celebration of the city’s 200th anniversary. Visiting Listasafns Íslands (National Gallery of Iceland) it was clear much of the artwork dated back through to the early 20th century, although most of the artists had left Iceland in order to study the arts in Sweden and Denmark, returning afterwards. There were always out-there Icelandic musicians such as Björk and Gusgus. Naturally, there was always that kind of high level art that you can find throughout Europe.
The moment when things changed for Iceland, when the country’s creativity really exploded, was the infamous Icelandic banking crisis. As the country’s economy folded and people lost their jobs, many decided to take up crafts, painting, writing, making music and so on… in order to pass the time and possibly bring in some extra money. When the economy recovered, people carried on with their creative endeavours – some were actually making enough from their art to live on, especially with more and more tourists now visiting Iceland, but most continued because they found a real enjoyment in it. Now it is said that “Everyone in Iceland is an artist. And then they have a day job.”
Around every corner in Reykjavik there was a new point of creativity, be it a glance of Iceland’s most common design motif – the iconic hexagonal forms adorning the likes of the National Theatre of Iceland, Harpa concert hall and Hallgrímskirkja, which are inspired by the formations of geometric basalt columns found throughout Iceland – locally handcrafted Christmas decorations at the Christmas shop on Laugavegur shopping street, or the many boutique stores selling high-quality Icelandic designs for the home (who needs Ikea?). Then there are the countless picture galleries dotted around town, the bookshops selling an abundance of Icelandic literature (10% of the population has published a book), and amazing music stores like 12 Tónar, where I was offered a coffee while listening to the latest album by the Icelandic electronic group Gusgus, which I had them recommend me based on my tastes. (On a slight side note, I’d say if you are getting yourself or others souvenirs from Iceland, don’t go for something mass-produced in China at one of the tourist hot spots – get something original and Icelandic made, the sheer quality and uniqueness alone are worth it).
Being in Iceland really got my creative juices flowing. I found myself really excited about photography, and ended up going a bit crazy with Hipstamatic as a result, and keen to get stuck back into my artwork again after taking a rather long hiatus. The striking, magical landscape that has inspired many artists before me also served as the inspiration to finally bring together the bare bones of the book I had rattling around in my head, and start laying out a coherent skeleton so I can finally put pen to paper. Seeing other people’s finished work gave me so much more motivation to have something of my own to show.
So if you are suffering from writer’s block, or just want some creative inspiration, I definitely recommend giving Iceland a go – it has culture, creativity and inspiration oozing from every nook.