Júníus Meyvant – The Wonderer

Júníus Meyvant is always impersonating other people, and all the people he impersonates are always yelling. His father when he, Júníus, was learning to play the guitar: “Could you play something else!?” His grandfather, on the eve of his 90th birthday, when told he needed to evacuate his home because of an eruption: “I’m not going anywhere!” He, Júníus, when […]

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Sounding Smart

artificial intelligence iceland

SOUNDING SMART What if artificial intelligence isn’t the death of human creativity but a tool to take it even further? SOUNDING SMART “In Iceland, you’re able to establish collaborations with people in three or four hours. You can just call someone in computer science or biology and say, ‘Hey, would you be up for a […]

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Pedro: In Private

Congratulations on receiving the Icelandic Literary Award! That must have been fun?”

“Is this question a part of the interview?”

“Would you answer it differently if this were off the record?”

“Well, yes. I’m still learning how to navigate all of this. You know, getting used to the fact that what you say in interviews then gets published somewhere.”

Despite author Pedro Gunnlaugur Garcia’s initial hesitation, we soldier on.

“I had been preparing for polite letters saying ‘not for us, try again later’.”

He ended up releasing the book under a new title, Málleysingjarnir (The Mutes). “My editor told me that the word ‘conference’ wasn’t sexy and that talking animals were too childish,” Pedro says.

In 2013, Pedro was working at IKEA, stocking shelves. He was turning 30 and he hadn’t really figured out what he was doing with his life. “I was trying to be a normal guy until I found out that it didn’t suit me,” Pedro says. “I had written when I was younger, poems and short stories and such but then I stopped. I wasn’t doing anything creative until I turned 30, and I felt that I’d been wasting my time on things that didn’t bring me any real pleasure and that I wasn’t using my talents.” I’m sure there are 29-year-olds out there who know the feeling. Unlike many others of that age, however, when the thought struck Pedro that he should write a book, he did. 

It took him four years, but in 2017, Pedro was awarded the Icelandic Literature Centre’s Grassroot grant for emerging writers for a manuscript he was going to call Ráðstefna talandi dýra (A Conference of Talking Animals). “And then publishers approached me, which was very unexpected,” Pedro continued in his distinctive self-deprecating, yet genuine tone. “But now I could choose between three publishers.” For an author wanting to get his first book out, it’s an enviable position, but it put Pedro in a weird spot. For the four years he was writing his novel, it had been his and his alone. “It got to grow in peace and become the weird thing that it was. I decided that since I was letting myself do this, why not take it all the way and don’t think at all about who was going to read this. I just wrote to amuse myself. And as a result, it’s a little self-indulgent at times, but it was liberating for me.” Now, it was time to let someone else read it, and even offer suggestions on how to edit it. “I was very shy about it. But it was a relief to get the grant because it made me think that it couldn’t be that bad.”

“I think I was a little too hesitant to kill my darlings, but my editor at Bjartur, Páll Valsson, also realised that the book was weird and strange and that the author was unusual and he very generously gave me plenty of space. He never tried to clip my wings or cut parts of the book like so many people have suggested after it was published. They say it’s uneven, but no one seems to agree on which parts should go.” 

Once the book was released from the safe space of his publishing house, he had to let even more people into what he originally conceived of as his private thoughts. “I was a little rattled when perfect strangers started reading it. Getting reviews in the papers, even seeing it in bookstores, that gave me nerves, which surprised me. I was writing for myself only, doing what I’d always wanted to do, and it had a private meaning for me.” 

“The book is pretty disgusting and weird, and it’s not for everyone.”

No fresh breeze

When the book was published in 2019, this unknown author with the decidedly foreign-sounding name was the dark horse of the season. Pedro went back to his writing desk and three years later, he presented readers with his book Lungu (Lungs). It was another hit, nominated for the Icelandic Literary Prize. “I wasn’t expecting it, frankly. I’d considered it a victory to be nominated, I felt like that meant that I’d made an impact.” This January, it was announced that he’d won. “This might be me sharing too much again, but I had sort of an anxiety attack. I had to lie down on the floor. I was going through some stuff in my life, personally as well as professionally, and it felt like too much.” The contrast between the solitary and personal act of writing and the public event of receiving an award, with all the attention that comes with it, came as a shock. “You spend three years sitting in a corner somewhere, and then you reap what you´ve sown. And don’t get me wrong, I love the reaping, it’s such a privilege to receive this much attention and be this successful. But it has some unforeseen consequences.When I received an award, people who had unfriended me on social media now all of a sudden are my best friends again. So being recognised for your work is one thing, but it’s a whole different experience to receive that sort of stamp, and a statue given to you by the president on TV.” The transition into a public person is a strange and unusual experience for Pedro. “Not that people are crowding me in Bónus, asking for an autograph. I have a tendency to trauma-dump and overshare but I’m still a private person and I’m still learning how this works. ”

His second book took three years to complete. “I’ve never struggled with titles, and Lungs came to me long before the book did. Before I knew what it would be. Then I just had to shape the book around it, figure out why it was called that.”

“It’s my fifteen minutes of fame, and I suppose I have about fourteen more to go.”

"While I was researching for my first book, getting to know life and conditions in Romania, I met a woman who had the surname Lungu, written just like that. And I thought to myself what a great word that was, and how it would be a great book title."

Roots and fruits

While Málleysingjarnir was a story about a family, Lungu revolves around multiple generations. “From the beginning, I had a real strong certainty that I wanted to try my hand at this format. Both because many of my favourite novels are family stories, but this is a generational story. There was something that appealed to me, the chance to write so many different characters and so many different settings.” Pedro also had more private reasons for wanting to write about generational links. “During the writing process, I had a son, and I lost three grandparents around the same time.” For months, Pedro had been stuck in the preparatory stage of writing, creating schemes, mapping the themes he wanted to touch on, outlining characters, without ever getting the story off the ground. All of a sudden, he had a visceral understanding of these large concepts of life, death, and generations. Stories his grandparents had told him became the spark that ignited his story. “I remembered a story that my grandfather told me of his father, my great-grandfather. He was Portuguese and was in the Portuguese army at the start of the First World War. He was supposed to be shipped off to Flanders, in Belgium, but he wasn’t up for that. So, my grandfather told me, he swallowed a bunch of raw olives and went to the army doctor complaining of an upset stomach. He had an x-ray, and the doctor saw black shadows in the images and told him he has terminal cancer. So he got out of being sent away. Almost all the Portuguese sent to Flanders were killed in German gas attacks.” If not for the olives, there wouldn’t be a Pedro.

And that’s how his book begins. “Then I wrote at a maniacal pace, writing tens of thousands of words in a matter of months. ” He wrote the second half on a computer. Momentum took over and characters and story lines came rushing to him. “But the olive story, it was the lightning, the big bang out of which the story leapt.” 

”I’ve rewritten parts to be more gentle on my characters.”

Magic realism and sci-fi

Pedro’s books have been popular with readers and critics alike, praised for their colourful characters, fantastical elements, and vivid storytelling. For many, it’s the maximalism of the story that feels fresh. “I don’t know if it’s in opposition to trends that have been going on, very polished texts with no redundancies. This book just keeps on layering on more stuff. I’ve wondered about it afterwards, if it may be insecurity, not ambition that drives that. I feel like I have to provide so much in order for it to be presentable.”

While he’s grateful for the praise, he’s hesitant to accept some parts of it. “Sometimes I think, if I had a completely Icelandic-sounding name, would people be talking about ‘freshness?’ I think it colours people’s perception that I don’t have a Nordic name and they automatically make connections to South American writers, magic realism. While I admit it’s certainly an influence, I was also influenced by so many other things that people never pick up on. Magic realism is mostly used when referring to Isabel Allende and my namesake Gabriel García Márquez. But fantasy can be found all over the world. I’m not sure how new and fresh my stuff would be considered if I was called something like Jón Emil.” It may be simplistic to throw around the term magic realism for any generational story with fantastical elements but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any connection. “Both  [García Márquez’] One Hundred Years of Solitude and [Allende’s] The House of Spirits are generational stories, I won’t deny that influence. But there are other generational stories such as The Sound and the Fury [by William Faulkner], another favourite book of mine. There’s something about a generational story that captures the root of complexes and neuroses.” 

Parts of Lungu are set in the future, and I mention that elements of sci-fi have been creeping into more and more Icelandic novels recently, particularly with the younger generation of authors. “I think it’s not a premeditated decision to tackle futuristic stories,  just like I didn’t really decide to write a family story. But there’s something in the air, a feeling that we’re about to step into a world that’s radically different. That elements of this new world have been introduced already without us noticing them and that they will expand and change our worldview. Fríða Ísberg tackles the social aspects of it [in The Mark] while I’m exploring biotechnology. There’s a call to face the future and think about what it could look like.”

For the first few years of his life, Pedro grew up in Portugal but moved to Iceland when his parents divorced, before he started school. He’s currently taken on a new challenge. “Translating from Portuguese is a personal challenge since I was so little when I left Portugal, when my parents divorced, so my grasp of the language has never been perfect. I’ve always thought that was a shame, especially since so many people consider that nationality so essential to my character.”

“Also, it’s a book that will go to bookstores and people will read it, hopefully, so that’s something to think about.”

A lonely lighthouse guard  

Both of Pedro’s books centre on family in different ways, but at the heart of them is communication, or perhaps the lack thereof. Pedro admits that that stems from his own life. “That’s 100% me working on my neuroses,” he admits. “The book was written during an incredibly bad period of my life. I went through a breakup with the mother of my child and even though we’ve eventually settled into a good coparenting team, there was so much pain that surrounded it. There are chapters in the book that hurt so much I have trouble reading them to this day. Then the pandemic began, sort of at the same time. So I went through that at a time when we’re cutting back on social communication, almost like going into isolation at the worst possible time.” 

Pouring details from himself and his life into his characters may have been painful, but in a way, the editing process was a healing experience. “I’ve kept manuscripts and returned to them later and found that I’m being too harsh on some people and that the story is too one-sided. Then I’ve had to go back, even add some chapters to find balance.” While he incorporates his own struggles into the text, his books are far from being a transcript of a therapy session. “There’s a primal power in pain, but when it solidifies, it benefits the text to come back to it with more balance and reshape it,” Pedro muses.

When praised for his storytelling abilities, Pedro again finds that his own character is dissonant with his public persona. “Now that my books have been published, people tell me I’m a storyteller. That’s news to me, I’m not known to entertain a crowd with my stories.” I’ve sometimes needed to ask myself afterwards if that is the way I feel about the world.” 

His first book was a little more grotesque and had a healthy dose of Weltschmerz, something his readers noticed. For his second book, Pedro was more aware of the fact that he would eventually present his writing to an audience. “I think in some way, my second book was born out of a wish to reach more people. And I was often close to flattening the whole story out. I was so nervous that it wasn’t good enough that I had someone read it and edit it over and over again.” After multiple revisions, the story was filled with general appeal. It was also becoming bland. “I’d streamlined it so much that it was starting to lose its character. I put the manuscript aside, and when I returned to it, I flipped through the pages and thought that it could have been written by anyone. It was so universal that it had no personality.” He went back a few drafts and revived some of the weird chapters, the ones that weren’t essential to forwarding the plot, but gave it some colour. “There needs to be some unevenness, some perversion, so that the character shines through.”

I ask him if he’s being defined against his will, but he won’t go that far. “I don’t hate it when Auður Jónsdóttir writes that I remind her of storytellers such as Günter Grass and Gabriel García Márquez,” he laughs. “I mean, sure, I’d like to be considered that kind of storyteller.“

“So, you’re going to keep on writing, right, what’s next?”

“No, I might go out on a high note, now I can try doing something else. Or just straight back to stocking shelves at IKEA, what a way that would be to end this interview.” 

He laughs.

“My first two novels focused on families so maybe I’m done with that for a while.”

“Will your next one focus on a lonely lighthouse guard, then?”

“Well, you’re not too far off, really. But I don’t know exactly what it will turn out to be. I’m also thinking that I seem to have hit a formula that works. Should I keep doing books like this? A mix of Nordic melancholy and magic realism? Should I hold on to that or just do whatever feels right next time?” 

From the Archive: The First Day of Summer

bee flower summer spring

From the archive: In this 1972 article from Iceland Review magazine, Folklorist Árni Björnsson delves into the superstitions surrounding the First Day of Summer, a holiday unique to Iceland. Note that this archival content may not necessarily reflect the current editorial standards of Iceland Review.

Since olden times the First Day of Summer has been a day of celebration in Iceland – and it is not surprising that Summer should be warmly welcomed in the far north, for a good summer and national prosperity often go together. Formerly, when the Icelanders lived mainly by farming, their well-being was directly dependent on a good summer. But although the national economy nowadays is not greatly dependent on the number of hours of sunshine as before, a fine summer is very important to everyone – young and old alike. Although winter is often good, exhilarating and beautiful – and people enjoy it in their own ways – the Icelanders long for the summer (at any rate in their subconscious) during the whole of the dark period of winter. Today the First Day of Summer is primarily a holiday for the children, yet the adults are no less joyful when the grass begins to turn green and the summer birds make their voices heard. Nowadays, it is mainly the awakening of nature, the light and the fine weather that appeal to people. But the echo of bygone days still contains something of the customs and superstitions that were associated with this turning-point in the year. Most of this has vanished from the modern world; it is retained in the childhood memories of the generation now leaving us and in books, for the future. The following article describes some of the things formerly connected with the First Day of Summer in Iceland.

tjörnin pond reykjavík

Old Icelandic time reckoning is, in some respects, unusual. The year was divided into two half-years, summer and winter. Normally the weeks were counted, not the months. Thus winter was usually 25 weeks and 5 days, and summer 26 weeks and 2 days. This made only 364 days, and after an interval of some years a week had to be added to summer for correction. These rules were established already in the 10th and rectified in the 12th century.

Among the common people, especially in the country, this method existed side by side with the official Christian time reckoning, and is still practised by old farmers. The months, January, February, etc., were no part of time reckoning among the ordinary people in Iceland until the 18th century.

In old time reckoning summer begins on the first Thurs­day after April 18th; in the Julian calendar, which was valid in Iceland till the year 1700, it began on the first Thursday after April 8th. There is no proof that this system was used elsewhere in the world, but we must suppose that at least certain elements of it were in use in Northern Europe before the introduction of Christianity and the settlement of Iceland. The term ’’First Day of Summer” appears in Norwegian documents from the 14th century. In Iceland we see this expression in the law manuscripts from the middle and the second half of the 13th century onwards. It is also used in all printed calendars from the 16th till the 20th century. However, in the older sources there are no signs of any festivity in this connexion, and this was also not to be expected, but in a well-known description of Iceland from the middle of the 18th century it is said to be the duty of each house-master to give his people the best food available on this day. In folk tales and memoirs from the 19th century the day always appears as a traditional popular feast, usually next in importance to Christmas. Actually this day is the Ice­ landic counterpart to European Spring Festivals.

Here follow some results of a research, which was under­ taken in 1969 to find out how the First Day of Summer was celebrated throughout the country. Taken as a whole, the outcome ought to give a fairly good survey of the cus­toms around and just after 1900. The purpose was, among other things, to find out, whether there were any major differences between the various regions in this field. A priori this was not particularly likely, since isolated areas are really very few. People also used to move not a little from one place to another, for instance for seasonal work such as fishing, etc.

reykjavík botanical garden

Dreams

Most people did not pay any great attention to the dreams they had on the first summer night, and the few who consider this night remarkable in this respect are almost all from the eastern part of the country. Many more people took notice of the dreams they had in the last weeks of winter. They were thought to be meaningful as to the weather in the coming summer. For instance, red animals meant heat or rain, white ones snow or even pack ice.

Forebodings

The first migratory birds were given close attention. Most people believed that winter’s hardships were over when the song of the whimbrel was heard. With the snipe it was important in which direction it was first heard. From east and south it promised good, from west and north the opposite. The attitude towards the golden plover varies greatly. In the south and west of the country it was considered a bad omen if it arrived early, but in the north and east it is a welcome guest, no matter how early it arrives. It was considered undesirable if grassfields showed signs of becoming green early, for instance as early as March. Such early growth was not expected to be long-lived.

Summer presents

The custom to give presents on theFirst Day of Summer seems to have been more common than the custom of Christmas presents. Most summer presents were home-made things. On the south-west coast fishermen used to give their wives all the fish they caught on that day, for their private use.

Spring storms

Generally people expected bad weather near or just before the beginning of summer. Snowstorms at this time had different names. One was called the Ravenstorm, 9 days before First Summer Day, because by this time the raven was thought to have laid its eggs. Some people believed that if they could see that the raven had eaten its own eggs, extremely bad weather was to be expected. If Easter was late, i.e. near or after First Summer Day, it was feared that the Easter storm might unite with the Summer Day storm. Most people hoped for better weather when such a storm was over, except in the north-east, where they seem to have been more pessi­mistic in this respect.

Summer moon

People observed the ’’summer moon” in the following way: The first time you saw the new moon after the First Day of Summer, you should keep your mouth shut until somebody addressed you. What then was said to you, was a sort of an oracle. An engaged girl had seen the summer moon. She went indoors and sat down on a chair. Somebody said to her: ’’Beware, he (the chair) is shaky”. The boy betrayed the girl that very summer. This was called ”to get an answer in the summer moon”.

reykjavík botanical garden

Food and drink

House-wives tried their best to mark the day with something special in food and drink, but too often there was not much left of the winter supply. In the northernmost part of the north-west people used to put aside some delicacies in the autumn and keep them in a closed barrel till the First Day of Summer. These were smoked lamb and other sheep products which had either been smoked or conserved in sour milk. Fresh meat was rare, except veal now and then. Choice parts of halibut were also coveted. Also coffee and sweet cakes, when such luxuries were available. Summer Day cakes made of rye were a speciality in the north-west of the country. They were up to 30 cm in diameter and 1-2 cm thick. Each person on the farm got such a cake, and on the top of it meat, butter and other things. People used to eat a small part of it every day while it lasted. Strong drinks seem to have been most usual in the central regions of the north and east. On the south and west coast the skipper used to give a party for his crew, including alcoholic refreshments.

First summer night

Almost everywhere people observed whether the temperature fell below zero on the first summer night, i.e. whether summer and winter ’’froze together”. This was considered a good omen, most commonly because the sheep milk then would be rich and fat during the summer. Since thermometers were rare, people used to put out a plate or some other container with water in it, and then made their observations early in the morning. Another method, mentioned in folk tales, was to walk bare-footed around the farm houses in order to find out if the grass was frozen. This was not confirmed by any of the informants.

Dedication

In most parts of the country the day was dedicated to young people, but it varies from area to area whether it belongs to boys or girls. In the west and north­west it belongs to young men, but in other parts of the country it is dedicated to young girls. Those, to whom the day belonged, were to help prepare the feast and, in the boys’ districts, they were to be the first to get out of bed in the morning and the first to go out and welcome summer. But it was considered wise for everyone to get up early that morning. This predicted the same habit for the rest of the summer.

Leave from work

In most parts of the country the day was a holiday, apart from feeding and milking animals. Fishermen used to go out fishing, but not as far as usual. At noon people usually put on their best clothes. Many people in various regions preferred to start some work, even if merely symbolically. Quite often they started fertilizing the home field. On many farms it was customary that the housewife visited the sheep cot on this day and inspected the sheep. This is explained by the fact that in olden times the sheep were milked and the farmer’s wife was responsible for the dairy work.

Entertainment

 It was usual for the children on neigh­bouring farms to come together and play. Also grown-up people used the day for visits. Dances or other organized forms of entertainment were rare until after 1890, but after 1900 the newly founded Young People’s League made this day a sort of festival for whole districts with speeches, poetry-reading, singing, theatrical performances, sport and dancing. Today it is actually Children’s Day.

Religious observance

Clergymen used to preach in many churches on the First Day of Summer until the first half of the 18th century, at least in the north of Iceland. This was forbidden by the Danish king in 1744. But in practically every home people used to gather and listen to reading from the Bible or some sermon. Hymns were also sung.

This research is not comprehensive enough to allow us to attempt any division of Iceland into ’’cultural areas” in former times. It seems clear, however, that people’s customs were not so uniform as might possibly be ex­pected, taking into account, for instance, the practical absence of dialects. On the whole, the difference between south and north is not so marked as between east and west.

“Good Spring Weather” Ahead Following Historically Cold March

According to long-term forecasts, this April could be one of the warmest on record. A meteorologist has told Vísir that warm air is expected over the country after the weekend, with “good spring weather” anticipated around the first day of summer.

A quick transition from the coldest March in 44 years

Temperatures have remained above average this month, marking a quick transition from the coldest March on record in 44 years. April could also become historic, albeit for happier reasons, according to meteorologist Einar Sveinbjörnsson who expects good spring weather next week.

“A predicted high-pressure area over the British Isles, along with milder air from the southeast, is expected to bring very mild weather in the coming week, potentially around the first day of summer,” Einar, who also forecasts the weather on the website Blika.is, told Vísir.

According to the Norwegian Meteorological Agency’s long-term forecast, temperatures could reach double digits next week. Einar preferred to remain grounded: “A temperature range between 5-9°C is considered good for the month of April – and if one can feel the warmth of the sun during this time,” Einar noted. He warned that if the trend of warm weather continues, April could be considered an extreme weather month, similar to April 2019, provided there are no sudden changes in the last week.

April 2019 was the warmest in many parts of the country since the beginning of measurements; the average temperature in Reykjavík was 6.5°C. Einar told Vísir that it was, however, too early to say whether this year’s First Day of Summer (Thursday, April 20) would also mark the actual start of summer.

“Cold spells with snow or rain can manifest themselves in this country throughout May and until June. But after this cold winter, it would be great to have a sunny and warm May to get rid of the ice from the ground and better prepare us for the arrival of summer,” Einar concluded by saying.

Collectors Critical of Proposed Amendment to Weapons Act

guns

A new bill sponsored by the Minister of Justice has been criticised by firearms collectors, RÚV reports. The bill – an amendment to the weapons act – repeals an exemption on the importation of semi-automatic and automatic weapons even if said weapons are being imported as collectables.

Repealing an exemption on “collectable weapons”

On February 28, the Ministry of Justice posted a draft of an amendment to the weapons act on the government’s online consultation portal. The ministry referred to the bill as part of “a necessary revision to the law,” which, among other things, proposes to repeal an exemption on the importation of so-called “collectable weapons” that may include semi-automatic and automatic firearms.

A total of 45 comments – most of them authored by collectors, firearms enthusiasts, and marksmen – were received in regard to the proposed amendment (comments were closed last March); gun collectors complained that their ability to collect firearms was going to be severely limited if the amendment was passed.

Read More: What Kind of Gun Laws Exist in Iceland

“I think it goes without saying that the regulations need to be tightened and that acquiring these weapons is made more difficult – in addition to making increased demands of dealers – but to completely ban importation without any solid reasoning smacks of authoritarianism,” one commentator noted.

Guðjón Agnarsson, who operates the gunship Byssusmiðja Agnars alongside his father, told RÚV that he disproved of the bill: “It’s primarily the fact that the selection of remarkable and historic guns that can be imported to Iceland is being limited,” Guðjón told RÚV.

On the heels of the domestic terror plot

As previously noted, the importation of semi-automatic and automatic firearms will be prohibited if the amendment passes – even if said weapons are considered collectables. WWII enthusiasts would, therefore, no longer be able to import the famous Luger pistol or the Walther PPK.

“The Luger is one of the biggest and most popular collectable guns, and then, of course, the Walther PPK, the pistol with which Hitler shot himself. It would be nice to have one like that,” the aforementioned Guðjón Agnarsson told RÚV. He and his father have requested a meeting with the Minister of Justice in order to discuss the bill and convey the views of the collectors.

As noted by RÚV, the Minister of Justice’s bill was introduced following the so-called domestic terrorism case; the defendants in the case – accused, and later acquitted, of plotting a domestic terrorism attack in Iceland – had hoarded numerous weapons, including dozens of semi-automatic guns and 3D-printed components, alongside a considerable amount of ammunition.

The father of the National Police Commissioner – a well-known firearms dealer, who operates the website www.vopnasali.is – was entangled in the case.

Velvet Terrorism

 

“Resistance is always a choice. And there are always new moments for resistance. It’s not just in the prisons, it’s in everyday life.”

UP IN ARMS

Visiting the exhibition Velvet Terrorism: Pussy Riot’s Russia, you enter a dark room. You are pleasantly greeted by a man sitting at a fold-up table spread with pamphlets and copies of Maria Alyokhina’s 2017 prison memoir, Riot Days. To your right: a video of a woman in a baggy, black dress fills one wall, blonde hair curling messily out from beneath a red balaclava. Standing above a portrait of President Vladimir Putin, she carefully lifts her dress and pisses all over him.

This is the first-ever museum exhibition of Pussy Riot’s work, and it’s being held at Reykjavík’s Marshall House. Maria Alyokhina has been through much to be here. When, on February 24, 2022 President Vladimir Putin announced the beginning of a “special military operation” in Ukraine, Maria, a founding member of Pussy Riot, watched the announcement from a detention centre on the outskirts of Moscow. Less than a year later, she and fellow members of the feminist punk band and activist group have created a visual omnibus of their political actions, a comprehensive critique of Putin’s Russia, in Reykjavík.

Pussy Riot is in theory a punk band, but their best-known works are acts of political protest and performance art. They first came to prominence in 2012, when they performed Punk Prayer, a frantic 60-second sonic protest at the altar of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, in which Maria and her companions exhorted the Virgin Mary to become a feminist. Indeed, the exhibition’s title, Velvet Terrorism, comes from Patriarch Kirill of Moscow’s description of the protest. Several of the band’s members, including Maria (also known as Masha), served time in Siberian penal colonies for the performance. The charges: hooliganism and “religious hatred.”

“I think that art is basically asking the question: 

Do we want to live like this, or not?”

OUT FOR DELIVERY

“I was concerned that all of this visual material might die in the exhibit,” Masha tells me. “We didn’t want any frames on anything.” It’s never easy to incorporate the provocative, rebellious spirit of performance art into the sometimes-musty confines of art museums. In lieu of frames, glitter and brightly-coloured tape decorate the walls, evoking a teenage girl’s poster collage. Nothing here is permanent, the entire exhibition ready to be torn down about as quickly as it was put up.

Among the many images and videos of their diverse political actions, one stands out. Two women, Nadya Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, are dressed in blue and white sarafans, a traditional Russian women’s costume, accessorised with fishnet stockings and black boots. The scene resembles idyllic depictions of maypole dances, except the streamers are replaced with yellow plastic police tape and the two women are tying up a faceless, masked policeman. Nadya stares at the camera.

After politely pacing among many such images, visitors are finally challenged by a prison guard. To get through to the end of the exhibit, you must surrender your shoelaces, belts, phones, and keys and place them all in a grey, plastic tray. Your personal belongings disappear through a slot in the wall. It’s unclear where they’ve gone.

You are ushered into a small room, shuffling to not trip over your now-loose shoes. In front of you: a closed door. Above: an intercom, broadcasting in Russian. On either side: institutionally grey-green walls. It doesn’t help that the door is rather heavy and stiff. It takes some time to realise that freedom is only a quick, violent push away.

Hanging on the opposite side of the door is a bright-green uniform complete with an insulated backpack, the kind used by online food ordering and delivery services. This is the uniform that Masha used to escape from Russia in April 2022.

“We transported the uniform all the way from Moscow,” Masha says. “It took two months and got here just two weeks before the start of the exhibition. We never really know what’s going to happen to us, so it’s better for it to be here.” Police surveillance is a daily reality for her and her friends (you can always tell Kremlin agents from their bad taste in footwear, she says). And since 2021, Masha has been picked up by authorities for various trumped-up charges, including violating COVID-19 quarantine. For the past two years, she has been under intermittent house arrest, but the decision to flee only came when the authorities announced that she was to serve the rest of her sentence in a penal colony. Having once served out a sentence in Siberia, she had no desire to return.

“Sometimes we need to go out on an errand or whatever, so I came up with this idea to buy the uniform,” Masha explains. “The political police, you know, are quite stupid. The lower-level guys will be tasked with just monitoring you entering and exiting your home, and they often don’t notice much else.” With the help of the delivery uniform and Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson, Masha was able to make it to the Belorussian border, and ultimately to Iceland via Lithuania. Ragnar’s exact involvement is left unstated, one of many cul-de-sacs in our conversation for the protection and anonymity of her friends. 

Despite its dramatic nature, Masha is quite nonchalant about her disguised escape. “The most difficult thing,” she tells me, “is making the decision. Once you’ve made your decision, the rest is just practical.”

“Arrests can be fun.”

EARLY ACTIVISM

This decisiveness has defined Masha’s life from an early age. “I was quite a problematic child,” Masha says. This isn’t a surprise. “I changed schools a lot, I couldn’t get along with my teachers. The way they teach in Russia, it’s still Soviet-era patriotism.” It was shortly after completing secondary school that Masha truly became politically conscious. And it wasn’t contact with dissident students in Moscow or radical reading groups – but the destruction of a beloved forest – that led to the leap of faith.

“I read that the state was going to clear Utrish Nature Reserve for an oligarch’s mansion,” she explains. Located on the Abrau peninsula along the Black Sea, only a narrow strait separates Utrish from Crimea. Which at that time was still Ukrainian. Utrish Nature Reserve is also the only part of Russia to have a Mediterranean climate: a little slice of paradise. “It’s a very unique place that should be protected,” Masha says. “I hitchhiked there after finishing school. At the time, I didn’t know anything about activism. I wrote to some organisations like Greenpeace and WWF and asked what I could do. And then I just picked up my backpack and went.” 

She started to collect signatures to save the nature reserve from development, and when she returned to Moscow, she wrote again to Greenpeace and WWF asking what more she could do. From there, things started to snowball: she organised small demonstrations, filmed political actions, and collaborated with others. It was also during this time, as a student at Moscow State University, that Masha met Nadya. Together, they would become two of Pussy Riot’s founding members.

 

PUNK POETRY

Masha’s problems with authority continued at university. “I was studying literature, and all of my professors were writers and poets. They knew what was going on, why were they not in the streets?” While some in the ivory tower agonise over the relationship between art and political commitment, for Pussy Riot’s project, the interconnectedness of the two is quite simply axiomatic. Art and activism at the same time.

For Masha, “punk isn’t a genre of music. It’s a way of life.” And this “way of life” isn’t merely an aesthetic identity. It has to do with asking the authorities difficult questions, being willing to come into real confrontation with the state. This is something that Masha is deeply familiar with, having spent a total of two years of her life in prison, and about the same amount of time under house arrest. “I think art has a responsibility to change the norm,” she explains. “So many things that are normal now, that we take for granted, are still very new. It was totally impossible to imagine gay pride within some people’s lifetimes. You could end up in a mental hospital. Some people had to sacrifice themselves to change the norm. I think that art is basically asking the question: Do we want to live like this, or not?”

Since those early days of activism, Masha and her companions have toured and lectured throughout the world, led major demonstrations, and, of course, made themselves enemy number one in Putin’s Russia.

FACE OF RESISTANCE

A common motif in Pussy Riot’s visual vocabulary is the moment of arrest. This moment, the frequent conclusion to many of their actions, could be seen as an integral part of the performance, the standing ovation to a virtuoso protest. 

In one such image, from a demonstration of the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Cossacks in fur-lined ushankas lash Masha and her companions with heavy horse whips. There is a curious detachment, as if neither party particularly wants to be here. The action takes place in the passive voice; there is whipping being done. Masha and her friends stand there stoically disassociated from the blows, while the Cossacks, half-bored, wait for 5:00 PM to roll around, like the rest of us. In other images, Masha’s face is illuminated by a saintly calm. Looking at the camera as hulking, armed guards take her away, she resembles nothing so much as the Pietà.

“Of course, it’s stupid to resist these large men with guns,” Masha says. The saintly appearance is, in a very practical sense, a signal to these violent men that she’s no longer resisting. But her calm passivity in these images also casts absurdity on the proceedings, men in special forces gear surrounding the diminutive Masha. “Even these men are just working a job,” Masha says. “There are definitely some true sadists who enjoy the full extent of their power, but they’re not the majority. The majority are tired. They want to go home to their wife and kids. And just like everyone else, they’re not being paid enough for what they do.” In some of these images, however, the attentive viewer might catch something else: the shadow of a smile. “Arrests,” after all, “can be fun.”

And Masha’s defiance extends well beyond the moment of her arrest. “The penal colonies [often referred to as ‘the zone’], are still the same as in the Soviet Union,” Masha says. Prisoners live on strictly regimented schedules, sewing military uniforms for slave wages. During her time in the penal colony, where she was subjected to a total of five months of solitary confinement, Masha maintained contact with human rights observers. Through learning her rights and hunger striking, she even successfully mounted a campaign to reform conditions from the inside. “I started to defend myself,” Masha remembers. “I asked for a copy of the prison regulations. Many don’t know this, but they have to give you the regulations if you ask for them. I started to read the regulations and I found out it was them breaking the law, not me.” 

But it wasn’t easy. During all of this, guards would sometimes break script, asking her why she didn’t make life easy for herself. Why she always had to take the hard way. But, as Masha tells me: “Resistance is always a choice. And there are always new moments for resistance. It’s not just in the prisons, it’s in everyday life. I knew that if I submitted in prison, even when I regained my freedom, I wouldn’t be free.”

 

THIS WAY: WAR

Over the last year, pedestrians in downtown Reykjavík may have noticed some new graffiti in several locations. Over a field of blue, an arrow points east. War: 3,963 km. Beside the arrow, a black bomb crashes through a house.

An island on the edge of the Arctic Circle, Iceland has always been on the periphery of world history. But it is Iceland’s marginality that has often thrust it into the centre of things as well. Its Mid-Atlantic disposition made it an important shipping lane during the Second World War. It was likewise considered a sufficiently central, yet neutral, location for the famous nuclear disarmament talks between Reagan and Gorbachev in 1986. Iceland’s peculiar position has also made it home to high-profile asylum seekers and political refugees over the years, most famously the controversial chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer, who called Iceland his home from 2005 until his death in 2008.

It makes sense, then, that Pussy Riot’s first-ever exhibition took place at the Marshall House. The house, built in the post-war years of development under the Marshall Plan, was originally a fishmeal factory. The Marshall Plan’s goal was to develop post-war Europe, especially Germany, to keep it within the American sphere of influence. Today, the Marshall House is home to Kling og Bang, i8 Gallery, and several other spaces for contemporary art. Iceland, so far away from it all at first glance, is not so insular after all. “War,” Masha says, “is always closer than it looks.”

“War is always closer than it looks.”

“The Blue Lagoon Does Not Damage Hair,” Spokesperson Says

The Blue Lagoon Iceland

Responding to an inquiry from Vísir, a spokesperson for the Blue Lagoon has stated that a soak in the lagoon has “a positive and beneficial effect” on both skin and hair – contrary to the online discussion; the inquiry follows recent chatter on social media regarding the damaging effects of the Blue Lagoon’s water on hair.

“My hair is ruined”

In a recent video that has garnered more than 20 million views on TikTok, internet personality Kat Wellington told viewers that her hair was “ruined” after an extended soak in the Blue Lagoon:

“Me and my family,” Kat began, “were lying on the slope, […] sleeping with our hair soaking in the water for an extended period of time. Anyway, [I] just wanted to report that my hair is absolutely ruined.”

As noted by Vísir, Wellington is not the only person to have made such a remark on social media; other TikTok users have also posted videos recounting similar experiences. And some have cautioned potential visitors to the Lagoon against putting their hair in the water.

A misinformed discussion

In a response to an inquiry from Vísir, Helga Árnadóttir – manager of the sales, marketing, and product development department of the Blue Lagoon – stated that the discussion was misinformed:

“The Blue Lagoon’s unique ingredients, such as silicon and minerals, actually have a positive and beneficial effect on both skin and hair. The lagoon does not damage hair. Certainly, the texture of the hair changes in the short term if guests do not use the conditioner that is offered to them when they visit the lagoon.”

Helga observed that visitors were informed about the water’s properties upon arrival and were given instructions on how to manage its effects. She added that an “uninformed discussion” was never ideal and emphasised that the Blue Lagoon had remained the same for the past thirty years. Visitors, in general, were content with their stay and appreciate the lagoon’s impact, she maintained.

Helga concluded by saying that the company continually monitors the online discourse and responds to misinformation whenever it deems it necessary.

Man Drowns Following Accident at Westman Islands Harbour

The driver of the vehicle that went into the harbour in Westman Islands yesterday evening has been pronounced dead, RÚV reports. The police have launched an investigation into the incident.

Resuscitation attempts unsuccessful

At 8.18 PM yesterday, the Westman Islands police were notified of a vehicle that had been driven into the Nausthamarsbryggja harbour in the Westman Islands. Speaking to RÚV, Chief Inspector Jóhannes Ólafsson stated that a crew member of a local fishing boat, which was on its way to the port, had placed the call.

A response team was immediately dispatched, and a diver was sent to retrieve the vehicle’s driver, who was alone in the car and unconscious. Despite quick reactions from the authorities, resuscitation attempts proved unsuccessful, and the man was pronounced dead. According to an announcement from the police, an investigation has been launched into the causes of the accident.