From music to radio dramas to art exhibitions, the nations of the North are exploring their own cultural identities while making the world sit up and take notice. Monocle takes a look at what some of them have to offer.
Of the eight High North nations, Iceland is something of a plucky pop overachiever when it comes to music. Its identity on the world stage – one whose successes range from the inquisitive and probing melodic explorations of Björk, to the recent global chart-bothering sounds of Of Monsters and Men, to the epic, critically acclaimed soundscapes of Sigur Rós – is an accessible blend of playful experimentation. And you feel those sounds, produced by a national population the size of a middling Canadian town, would get made whether the world was listening or not.
“I think it’s just the Icelandic method of how we make music,” says Birgir Jón ‘Biggi’ Birgisson, engineer and co-owner of Sundlaugin recording studio in Mosfellsbær on the northern outskirts of Reykjavík. “There’s no restriction.
Everything is allowed.” Biggi is trying to sum up the local sound and also what it is that draws musicians from around the world to his boxy concrete studio straddling a geothermal stream in a suburb of the city. The studio was built as an indoor swimming pool in the 1930s for workers at a nearby wool company. After being drained in the 1960s it was used as storage, then a gallery, but fell into disrepair. The space was bought by Sigur Rós in the early 2000s and is still co-owned by the band’s former keyboardist, Kjartan Sveinsson, along with Biggi.
Today, Icelandic musicians Jónas Sigurdsson and Ómar Gudjónsson stop by to complete mastering on a new recording. It means a lot of sitting hunched over the controls of the 1979 Neve production console – a warm-sounding mixing desk imported from a French radio station that was dropped into Sundlaugin through the roof when its new owners realised it wouldn’t fit through the front door. The console looks out over the “pool” area below, now empty of water and filled instead with instruments such as Wurlitzer keyboards, Hohner pianos, a dulcitone (a compact, piano-like instrument) and vintage guitars from long-disappeared US producers such as Silvertone and Kay.
“I’ve got way too many of course,” says Sveinsson. “I’ve stopped doing it now but I used to go to flea markets and simply buy shit guitars,” he says, laughing. “Everyone has a Fender or a Gibson and you can presume how they’ll sound. But we want something different.”
The homely charm found at Sundlaugin is grown from an Icelandic music scene that is still small enough for everyone to know one another. “For me it all sounds really different,” says Biggi. “I think that’s its strength. Bands aren’t mimicking others’ sounds. There’s no room for that. You might end up meeting them in a bar and it’d just be awkward.”
And you never know when you might need friends. When the studio was flooded last year due to a burst mains, artists and carpenters from the surrounding community rallied around. The influence of Swiss artist Dieter Roth, a one-time resident of Mosfellsbær and whose former assistant Gunnar Helgason oversaw the reconstruction, can be felt throughout.
“It’s not sterile. It can be a little bit shabby sometimes but that’s alright,” says Sveinsson of the end result. “It’s about feeling good when you’re trying to be creative.”
US musician Julianna Barwick’s recent album Nepenthe – all ethereal, swirling noise and hushed emotive harmonies – was partly recorded at Sundlaugin.
“Sundlaugin is also known as the Swimming Pool studio. You have to walk down the steps into the recording space – the pool – and the mixing console is above upstairs. It’s just a beautiful building, a really well-crafted space with lots of light and natural reverb.
We recorded a young choir there but it was nothing formal, they’re just friends of Biggi and [US artist and musician] Alex Somers, who produced the record. The experience stuck with me and Iceland itself is stunning too – full of colours I’d never even seen before. There’s no way you can’t be swept up in that.”
The history of Denmark and its former territory, the now self-governing state, Greenland, is not without its controversies and residual bitterness. Denmark’s national broadcaster, dr (Danmarks Radio), however, is addressing a more positive episode from this particular colonial relationship in its latest radio drama, Menneskenes Land (Land of Men): the ultimately ill-fated expedition of the Danish missionary, Hans Egede, to the Arctic island’s east coast in 1721.
“It is an incredibly dramatic story,” says the six-part drama’s English-born writer Christian Gamst Miller-Harris. “Egede comes across as a complete drama queen in his memoir. He is strong willed and overpoweringly devout but also melodramatic, so we had to tone him down to make him believable.”
Norwegian-born Egede – the “Apostle of Greenland” – was sent by the Danish king to colonise Greenland and persuade the indigenous population of the virtues of Christianity. This he did with fire-and-brimstone teaching and a level of compassion that was unusual for missionaries of the time. He also founded Nuuk, Greenland’s capital.
“This is a story of colonisation,” admits Miller-Harris. “That’s never really positive but Egede did it in a Danish way, with no soldiers or massacres. It would have been worse if the Dutch, who were hunting whales up there at the time, had got there first. For me the story of Denmark and Greenland is neither 100 per cent horror, nor 100 per cent glory.”
Miller-Harris and his co-writer, Lasse Lindsteen (whose idea the drama was), chose to avoid overt reflections on the current state of affairs between Denmark and Greenland but they were sensitive to the historical issues. “Though one of the Greenlanders in the cast was concerned we were depicting Egede as too benevolent at the start, they have found it quite balanced,” says Miller-Harris. “It was also a challenge to evoke the landscape of Greenland on radio,” continues Miller-Harris, “but we tell the story from the viewpoint of Egede looking back on that period in his life in retirement in the Danish countryside and he described it vividly.”
For the cast, dr is drawing on its – understandably limited – repertory company, so you’ll hear voices from its global television hit Forbrydelsen (The Killing): Thomas W Gabrielsson, in the title role, and Henrik Birch, as the captain of the ship that bore Egede to Greenland.
Menneskenes Land airs from 23 October on P1 and will be available as a podcast on dr.dk/radiodrama.
Poul Erik Tøjner, director of the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, talks us through its new exhibition, arctic, which runs until 2 February 2014.
The Arctic’s not just about endeavour, triumph and failure against the elements. Artists have always been intrigued, too – eager to track and investigate the motives of solo explorers, resource-hungry nations and, sometimes, just to stare into the wilderness.
In contemporary artist John Bock’s video work “Skipholt”, we follow an explorer who struggles across a rugged landscape wearing a monstrous, poorly mounted backpack. The film recalls the finest images of noble, heroic men of great stamina, for it is based on one of our basic stories: “Man Against Nature”. But it delivers these icons up to parody.
We find another wanderer in Darren Almond’s video work “Arctic Pull”, in which parody has now been replaced by a monomaniac struggling through a blizzard in the dark, where everything is an indistinguishable mass around the protagonist who pulls a sledge across what can barely be called a landscape.
Finally we find a third wayfarer in Guido van der Werve’s video “Nummer Acht, Everything is going to be alright” (Number Eight, Everything…). Here we meet a man who is walking across the ice towards us, closely followed by an ultra-modern icebreaker that ploughs up a channel where the man has just passed.
Three men in a landscape, all images of “Man in the Wilderness” – and above all images with antecedents in a history that is itself full of images. Louisiana’s major arctic show presents this historical background as a foundational narrative of our culture and its use of images and ideas, myths and stagings.
For that, more than anything else, is what the story of the conquest of the Arctic and the race to the North Pole was: a major cultural project that called upon the greatest and most reckless heroes, including some who should have been wiser than they were. Heroes who were also nourished and supported by a culture that for 150 years, from the late 1700s on, hungered for a meeting with the unknown, and staged its own desire afterwards in the great images and stories and ideas that came to define the magical North – often before they had even been there.
arctic encompasses a basic narrative of our culture and its use of images and constructs, myths and mise en scènes. Louisiana’s exhibition unfolds the dream of the far North as image, cultural ideal and scientific field. From the Romantic Age to present-day contemporary art, the Arctic plays a role as a place where everything terminates in endless whiteness and something new can begin. An untouched landscape, terrifying and dangerous. Once a territory to be conquered, the Arctic today could well mark the perimeter of human power.