Heart to Heart

Kristján Kristjánsson

Every now and then, when I turn on the radio and tune into the National Broadcasting Service in the morning, they’re playing something a little different. A 40s country song, a patriotic hymn sung by an Icelandic choir, someone moaning the heart out of a blues song, or even a traditional chant of the old […]

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Icelandic Whaling CEO Defends Suspended Vessel

Hvalur, whaling company,

In a recent interview with RÚV, Kristján Loftsson, CEO of Iceland’s only whaling company, defended a recent incident that led to the suspension of one of his vessels. Kristján cited mechanical failure and criticised the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST) for its lack of expertise and procedural lapses.

Untenable situation

In a recent interview with the news programme Kastljós, Kristján Loftsson, CEO of Iceland’s sole whaling company, addressed questions concerning an incident that resulted in the suspension of operations for one of his whaling vessels.

Kristján explained that the incident on September 7 was accidental, involving a hook entangled in a winch. This mechanical failure left the harpooned whale alive and attached to the hook, with the crew unable to either reel it in or release it. “It was an untenable situation with no better course of action available,” Kristján stated.

He further argued that a video capturing the incident was misleading. “The footage, taken by an inspector from the Directorate of Fisheries, employed by the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST), utilised zoom features that distorted the actual distance of the whale from the vessel,” Kristján said. He contended that the whale was out of range for immediate euthanisation, making the suspension of the vessel’s activities based on the video unjust.

Kristján criticised MAST’s expertise, stating, “To my knowledge, the organisation lacks individuals with a comprehensive understanding of fishing.” He estimated that approximately 70% of MAST’s staff consists of general office workers and veterinarians. Kristján also claimed that MAST had failed to consult with the Directorate of Fisheries before making the decision to suspend operations, thereby violating its own protocols.

Fulfilling the quota impossible

When questioned about the likelihood of the suspension being lifted with only ten days remaining in the hunting season, Kristján Loftsson responded, “I’m loathe to peer into the brains of MAST’s employees. I refuse to do it.”

Kristján concluded by revealing his intention to apply for a new whaling licence once the current one expires. He also disclosed that the company has thus far hunted fifteen whales, approximately 10% of the total quota of around 160, acknowledging that fulfilling the quota is unlikely. While he confirmed experiencing significant financial losses, he declined to specify the amount.

Power Player

Diljá Pétursdóttir iceland eurovision

One of Diljá’s favourite Eurovision Song Contest performances ever is fellow-Icelander Yohanna’s song, Is It True, from 2009. Yohanna’s performance, the furthest Iceland has ever made it in Eurovision alongside Selma’s 1999 performance, is still a major moment for Diljá. “I thought it was just so catchy,” Diljá says. “She was so pretty and she was wearing this blue dress with a blue dolphin in the background. I just loved the song and she sang so beautifully.” Ever since, Diljá’s dreamt of representing Iceland in the contest. This May, that dream is coming true as Iceland will be represented in the 67th annual Eurovision Song Contest by Diljá performing her energetic ballad, aptly named Power (co-written by Pálmi Ragnar Ásgeirsson). 

diljá pétursdóttir iceland eurovision
Mummi Lú

Since those early days of watching Yohanna perform, Diljá has already participated in several major song competitions, including Ísland Got Talent and Idol in Sweden. “It was fun and I’m really happy that I did it, but it really didn’t go anywhere,” she says about her time in Sweden. “But I think I overdosed on anxiety in Sweden because I haven’t felt any since then!” 

“I’ve got an athlete’s mindset.”

For someone who’s spent most of her life performing, Diljá has had her share of struggles with anxiety. “I always had huge anxiety problems related to school and competing in singing,” she explains. “I couldn’t handle taking tests. And it was the same with performing. I got so anxious. But I did it because I knew I have to be able to do something like this.” It may not come as a surprise, then, that Diljá’s Eurovision song concerns overcoming feelings like these. “You hold no p-p-p-power over me,” she belts in the chorus.

diljá pétursdóttir iceland eurovision
Mummi Lú

“I think before Idol I took everything a little too seriously,” Diljá says. “Like, I thought it was going to be the end of the world if I missed a single note! If I did something embarrassing, I thought it was just going to end me. But after Idol, it wouldn’t have mattered at all. It’s just supposed to be fun!” 

These days, instead of worrying about her performance, Diljá likes to have some healthy rituals before she goes on stage. A former physiotherapy student at the University of Iceland and a self-professed crossfit addict, health is the guiding light in her life. Before singing, she likes to do some push-ups and stretches to warm up. As she puts it: “I’ve got an athlete’s mindset.” Viewers of this year’s song competition even got to see Diljá do some callisthenics on-air, and her stage presence is nothing if not athletic.

“We’re going to use the opportunity to make it a lot bigger than we ever could in Iceland.”

diljá pétursdóttir iceland eurovision
Golli

Diljá also says there are big things in store for her at this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, which will be held in Liverpool. According to her, the expectations have gotten a lot higher since she watched Yohanna perform many years ago. In March, fans of Eurovision in Iceland tuned in to watch Söngvakeppnin, Iceland’s competition to select its Eurovision representative. It’s a sizeable TV event but decidedly more humble than in, say, Sweden.

“There’s such a huge gap,” Diljá says. “Some countries’ selection contests are almost as big as Eurovision itself, like Melody Festival in Sweden. Söngvakeppnin is always getting better and better, but still, some countries have a big advantage.” Icelanders should, however, rest assured. The details of Diljá’s Liverpool performance are still under wraps, but as she says, “We’ll all be on the same field once we’re in Liverpool. We’re going to use the opportunity to make the performance a lot bigger than we ever could in Iceland.”

“At the end of the day, it’s the one week a year where everything is just supposed to be about music and it’s just supposed to be fun.”

diljá pétursdóttir iceland eurovision
Mummi Lú

Although Diljá’s got big plans for Liverpool, there’s a part of her that will miss experiencing Eurovision at home in Iceland. “I always watch it with my family,” Diljá tells me. “It’s a sacred holiday for me and my mom.” And Diljá is quite dedicated to this family tradition. “Two years ago, I was acting in a play, but it was going to be performed during Eurovision. And I just said, I’m sorry, I can’t do it! I have to watch Eurovision with my mom.” For Diljá, the ideal Eurovision experience includes getting cozy with her mom, some sparkling wine, and take-out pizza. “I never like going to these big Eurovision watch parties some people have,” she explains. “I’m here to listen to the songs! The show is on, we can always hang out after.”

Diljá isn’t going to jinx herself with any predictions, but she’s confident she’ll go far. “I know I’m not ranked super high internationally right now,” she admits. “But it’s all going to change when they see me in Liverpool. I think my chances are good. I know I’m headed to the finals, and that I’m going to shine there.” 

diljá pétursdóttir iceland eurovision
Mummi Lú

And if Diljá does become the first-ever Icelander to win Eurovision?

“I would go for a very long walk,” she laughs. “I’d probably need to be alone and ground myself because it would just be too much. I think there’s a good chance I’d just lose my mind if that would happen!”

Icelanders are famous – perhaps infamous – for taking Eurovision rather seriously. What, ultimately, does Diljá think that Eurovision is really about? “At the end of the day, it’s the one week a year where everything is just supposed to be about music and it’s just supposed to be fun,” Diljá says. “It’s so excessive. And I love it!”

From the Archive: President Vigdís

vigdís finnbogadóttir president of iceland

From the archive: This article was published in Iceland Review magazine in 1982. Archival content may not necessarily reflect the current editorial standards of Iceland Review.

President Vigdís Finnbogadóttir got to know her countrymen intimately during the presidential campaign in early 1980 — the first such campaign in Iceland where the candidates actively electioneered. It pleased her immensely to find out how much people in general knew about their country and its history. She came to the conclusion that common people in Iceland talk together much more than is usual in other countries — rather a novel discovery. She maintains that her experience in the theatre has been very useful in her present job. She is a firm believer in the future of small nations, provided they learn to stick together and utilize their potentials in a rational manner.

I was expected to do one better than the men.

Informality is a hallmark of Icelandic society, so there were no uniformed guards standing inside or out, as I walked into the office of the President, located in an old one-story building facing the central square of Reykjavik. The building, one of the very oldest in town, dating from the mid-eighteenth century, was at one time a Danish prison. President Vigdi’s is a tall, handsome, vital and quick-witted woman in her early fifties. Prior to her elections, she was for eight years manager of the Reykjavik Theatre Company. She is single and has one adopted child, and claims it would be difficult for a man of her generation to be the President’s husband. The pace she set during the campaign, when she travelled throughout the country speaking and meeting people, has continued. She has also made official visits to three of the Nordic countries: Denmark, Norway and Sweden, as well as to Great Britain.

Warm and friendly

“Surely you did not envision some two years ago that you would be sitting here today,” I said to President Vigdís after we sat down in her modest office. What made you run for president?

“As soon as it became known that President Kristjan Eldjarn would decline renomination, some of my friends and a number of strangers started coaxing me, pressing me to step forward. Out of the blue, they started enumerating various qualities which would stand me in good stead in this high office. I was supposed to know my country and its people well through my previous occupations. They said I was eloquent in Icelandic as well as in some foreign languages. When the campaign got underway, I was said to be quick to get out of a tight spot and to make a good impression, to be warm and friendly. Not so few also maintained that I never made distinctions among people. This was not only said by my friends, but also by people who did not know me personally. Now as then, I am always equally surprised when people tell me how they see me.”

vigdís finnbogadóttir president of iceland
President Vigdís with Crown Prince Harald and King Olav V of Norway.

I am always equally surprised when people tell me how they see me.

“I think that my teaching in secondary-school and on television has a lot to do with it. I am essentially modest and never believe I can do things as well as they ought to be done, but my upbringing made me ambitious to do my very best in any job. Actually, the idea that I should run for President first came to my attention more than three years ago. I had given a speech to a gathering of intellectuals, and later I was told that, after I left, the idea that I would make a good candidate was aired. At the time I thought the idea was preposterous.”

But you changed your mind?

“Well, when the first candidate came forward, the idea was revived. After Dr. Eldjarn had officially announced his intention of retiring from public life, there was not a moment’s respite. At first I did not really take it seriously, pushed the idea aside, wanted the closing date for announcing candidacies to pass. The other candidates stepped forward, but I hedged despite telegrams and delegations. I even stayed away from the Theatre. Then one night at the home of my friend and colleague, Tomas Zoega, who was the business manager of the Theatre, I decided to run. Several of my friends were present, and their main argument was that it was fitting, in view of the great success of Women’s Day in Reykjavik in 1975, that a woman should stand for election to the highest office of the land. As soon as I had made up my mind, my friends said, We all stand behind you! It never entered my mind that I would get elected, but I also felt sure that my candidacy would not be a total fiasco. I merely wanted to prove that a woman could take part in a presidential campaign on an equal footing with men.”

Obviously a gain for the liberation movement

Did you look upon your candidacy as somehow part of the women’s liberation movement? Or were other considerations more important?

“Not as part of the women’s liberation movement, no. But to me it seemed natural that some woman should run—that she should seek the office as an equal. At the time I happened to be at a crossroads in my life. I had just resigned from my job at the Theatre. I had no ties. I knew I would be exposed to a good deal of criticism during the campaign. But my mother and other close relatives were so old that they would not be told what might be said about me, and my little girl was too young to understand. This appraisal proved correct. I am quite convinced that I would not have run, had I been married.

I now appear so often at meetings all over the country that I could not expect a husband my age to be ready to follow me wherever I go on official business—and people would find it strange for me to be travelling alone most of the time. We live in an era when women still more or less live their lives through their husbands, not the other way around. Women my age very often see their surroundings through the eyes of their husbands, which of course can be excellent binoculars to look through at the world.”

Do you nevertheless look upon your election as a gain for the women’s liberation movement?

“The election was obviously a gain for the liberation movement. But I was not elected as a result of that struggle. If women had joined forces I should have won at least 50 percent of the votes. A very considerable proportion of my votes came from men, particularly old and young ones. The older generation really wanted to elect a woman. It is in truth hard to believe how many of the older generation supported me—especially elderly men. I suppose they were thinking of the future—the future of their daughters. I think men become women’s liberation champions for their daughters, not for their mothers or wives.”

Did you feel that you benefited or suffered for being a woman during the campaign?

The King of Sweden and President Vigdís Finnbogadóttir

“Mostly I was treated with respect, even though political fanaticism sometimes raised its ugly head. I have never belonged to a political party, but I have had and still have strong opinions, especially regarding the struggle for the national and cultural independence of our people. This seems to have confused some people. I was supposed to be a communist sympathizer and to be opposed to church and religion. A strange conclusion indeed! This loose use of political labels is not only irritating but downright dangerous. I suppose we are all idealists and sympathize with the ideal of equality. Does that make one a communist? For one thing, how can an Icelandic nationalist possibly accept the subjugation of other nations or condone what has happened and is happening in various parts of the world? I stand for equality, cultural growth, national independence, world peace, and the hope that humanity may avoid a third and final holocaust.”

What was most surprising to you during the presidential campaign?

“My greatest pleasure was meeting this nation of ours. I had never imagined what fun it would be to travel around the country, visit farms and factories, talk to people from all walks of life and discover that they were articulate in a way that is becoming rarer in the big urban centres — to meet people who know their country and its history inside out. It was a revelation. I had mostly seen the country Irom a car window, driving along the highways, but not come into direct contact with the people themselves. It was a great experience, particularly in the sparsely populated areas. I had never expected the impressive qualities of those people. They were so wide awake and well informed. I think the common people in this country talk together much more than is usual in other countries I know.”

Wider powers not the goal

Then, on 1 August 1980, you took office. Was it hard to assume the new role? Were you nervous? Were you apprehensive about replacing your predecessor? Have your experiences in teaching and the theatre been of use to you?

“That’s a big bunch of questions. No, I was not nervous. I don’t think I am the nervous type. I had no idea of what I was in for. Nobody knows beforehand what he or she is in for. My predecessor guided and helped me in every way possible. We were in the peculiar situation of having no trade union to help us. My predecessor performed his duties with such excellence—for years, I had admired his performance—that I felt apprehensive about not being able to do equally well. I have tried my best. But obviously, each of us does the job in accordance with his or her character. It is impossible to imitate others. Each of us creates a different image of the office. But at the same time, we try to preserve established traditions. I don’t want this office to gain wider powers; it should not aim at monarchy. My experience in the theatre has been valuable. Whoever deals with drama gets to know human nature in the most diverse circumstances. I entered this office with the experience that nothing in human nature or conduct is entirely unexpected. Of course, you never know how much you actually do know, but I have learned so much about human beings in the theatre so I don’t judge harshly. I have learned to be tolerant of everything except prejudice.”

president of iceland vigdís

Do you find it hard to be your own real self when you appear in public? Can you say what is on your mind and do what you like in a world where for instance flirting lends a certain colour to life?

“It is hard to change a 51-year-old person even if every opinion should be changed whenever valid reasons suggest that. I don’t find it difficult to appear in public. I always enjoy being with other people and think I am my old self all the time. I hope I’ll never lose the joy of life nor the human touch. Whether you flirt with a child or a man, mutual understanding is always a pleasure, and the moment’s delight from one day to another is what actually counts.”

During your official visit to Denmark last year, the Danes found you more open and outspoken than is common for heads of state. Do you think they were right? If so, do you consider this an asset?

The President should be as close to the people as possible.

“There is no doubt that as a popularly elected, non-political head of state I can allow myself to say more than royalty can. It is obvious that those brought up in a certain manner to fulfill prescribed duties have a different attitude. I never make a political statement and take no stand on political questions – unless we agree that the whole of life is in a certain sense politics. I am very discreet and try not to change that strand in my nature. I would never dream of revealing secrets, and find myself to be one of the most reticent Icelanders now alive — like a doctor who has taken his Hippocratic oath. That’s why I could follow my intuition and say what I wanted to have in the headlines of next day’s papers in Denmark.”

Nationality and culture

How do you look at the role of the President beyond the traditional one?

“The traditional role is trying to be alert to everything concerning Icelandic nationality and culture. The President should engender, among the people at large, a feeling of genuine mutual friendship. I try to talk personally to everybody when I meet groups. The President should be as close to the people as possible, for the office is first and foremost a symbol of national unity.”

What is it in Icelandic culture that, in your opinion, should be especially cultivated and stressed?

Vigdís Alongside Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher

“The preservation of our language and a steady stimulation of all creative efforts. In many ways we are unique in our creativity. If we look after our culture as well as our children, we consciously strive for what all humanity yearns for: peace. Nobody can believe in the future without working for peace. Wishful thinking is not enough. We have to follow closely what is happening in the world and state categorically: This we want but that we do not want. We have to demand that all the money now squandered on armaments and international power politics should be channelled to make use of the marvellous scientific discoveries of modern times in the service of the hungry and the needy. We have found the means to halt the population explosion. I refuse to believe that we cannot find the means to halt the greed for power. I am an idealist on behalf of children. Those jockeying for power around the world have only ten or twenty years to go. They must not leave the coming generations with a world threatened by annihilation.”

The small nations of the world have a future.

“Youth should protest instead of losing hope and taking refuge in drugs to dull the senses. Only a lack of will to live can make a person try to dull the senses in order to survive.” Do you think the small nations of the world have a future, considering the so-called brain drain, which deprives them of their ablest minds and best-educated citizens?

“I feel convinced that the small nations of the world have a future once they realize that by sticking together they are a major power. It may not be possible to stop brain drain entirely, but it can be diminished if the small nations co-operate and exchange talents for certain tasks, just as farmers share tractors. Nordic co-operation is a case in point. The Nordic countries are a cultural superpower, no doubt about it. They have produced a culture which reaches the masses, and publish newspapers and weeklies which enhance sensibilities and rational thinking.”

You have been asked to open the Scandinavia Today exposition in Washington D.C. next September on behalf of the Nordic heads of state?

“Yes, I am proud to have been asked to do that and am very much looking forward to the occasion. This is a dream I have long known would come true. I am proud of being a spokeswoman for all the Nordic countries on that occasion, and it is a great compliment to us that they have this confidence in me, underlining the fact that Icelanders were the first Europeans to write in the vernacular, nearly 900 years ago.”

Deep North Episode 11: One Night in Gufunes

iceland hip hip birnir

It is honesty, full-throated and vulnerable, which elevates Birnir’s music above that of other contemporary rappers in Iceland. That and some excellent production. Bushido, Birnir’s latest work, is a culmination of certain developments in contemporary hip-hop in Iceland; one is inclined to agree. To put one’s finger on the appeal of the album requires, perhaps, some basic theorising on the phenomenon of music – and the power it exercises over a person’s emotions.

In episode 11 of Deep North, we talk about hip-hop, family, and what makes Birnir tick. Read the full story here.

 

Björk Announces New Album: Fossora

björk grammy

Björk has announced that she will be releasing a new album, her tenth, this fall. The revelation comes via a wide-ranging interview in The Guardian. The album will be called Fossora, “the feminine version of the Latin word for digger,” and anchored by the two “lodestones” of bass clarinet and gabber, a style of Dutch techno that came out of The Netherlands in the 90s.

Interviewer Chal Ravens describes Fossora as a reaction to 2017’s Utopia and says the album features “moments of astonishing virtuosity and bewildering complexity, and, like much of her recent music, a resistance to easy melody.”

The new album is, in a way, a product of the COVID and the space and time that lockdown gave Björk to explore and develop new songs and sounds. But it’s also reflective of “a transitional time,” in the singer’s life, says Ravens, with songs that in one instance, honour the passing of her mother and in another, serve as a kind of farewell to her youngest child, Ísadóra, who recently moved out of her home. (Both Ísadóra and Björk’s son Sindri provide backing vocals on that track, called “Her Mother’s House.”)

There will be a fantastical quality to Fossora, Björk explained, but also an earthiness. “Let’s see what it’s like when you walk into this fantasy and, you know, have a lunch and fart and do normal things, like meet your friends,” she said to Ravens, while also describing Fossora in an email to the Indonesian duo of Gabber Modus Operandi as her “mushroom album.”

“It’s like digging a hole in the ground,” she wrote to the pair. “This time, I’m living with moles and really grounding myself.”

Fossora will be out on One Little Independent Records this fall. Read Björk’s full interview in The Guardian here.

Another Low Front Expected This Weekend in East Iceland

A woman walking two young children through the snow

A yellow weather alert will be in effect for northeastern Iceland from late Saturday afternoon and until early Sunday morning. Iceland Review spoke to a meteorologist at the Icelandic MET Office yesterday to inquire about the storm – and the inordinate number of lows that have passed through Iceland this winter.

(The interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

“Is it finally over?”

“Are the storms finally over?” I inquire, in a tone of hollow hopefulness, of meteorologist Óli Þór Árnason with the Icelandic MET Office.

Thursday saw yet another yellow weather warning in the capital area (my mother-in-law’s flight to Ísafjörður was cancelled).

“Well, no, that’s the simple answer,” he replies. “We’ll have another low front Saturday evening, and it’ll last into the morning. The weather will be quite divided. You’ll have sharp southerlies and warm temperatures to the east – exactly what you’d like to see here in the south, to get rid of the snow, you know? – and then you’ll have slow-moving northerly winds in the south and west of the country.”

“Hmmm,” I say, taking notes.

“It’ll be black and white – and I’ll let you decide which part is black and which part is white.”

“Thank you so much for that, for respecting independent journalism. Listen, doesn’t this bother you?”

“Yes, no, you know I’d like to see a little more spring in the weather. Less south-westerly winds and less hail. If that was the case, it wouldn’t be much of a problem.”

“You know, this is the first time in my life that the weather has really bothered me. Like really bothered me. I’m 36 years old, but for the first time in my life, I’m exasperated.”

“It was like this all the time before the turn of the century. This kind of weather was much more common back then. Probably your memory’s playing tricks on you.”

“Maybe you’re right; I was in the States from 97 to 2002 – and then in the early ‘90s as well.”

“Yes, it’s not exactly advisable, making such comparisons.”

“So, let me get this straight, none of this is bothering you at all?”

“No, I’m fine, pretty much. March can be a little tricky, but then the low fronts start subsiding. The main motor for these storms, that cold puddle just west of Greenland, which has been quite active in feeding this kind of weather, is gradually getting warmer. And you can feel it. There are changes in the air. The sun’s climbing higher.”

“But things don’t look great, in the long-term, do they?”

“You mean like global-warming?”

“Yes, that’s what I mean.”

“Well, we won’t be breeding crocodiles in Iceland anytime soon if that’s what you mean. But, yes, there’ll be more heat and more humidity. More bursts of precipitation. The best indicator of global warming is the fact that the alcohol content of certain wines is rising, because they’re growing at higher temperatures.”

“Thank you, for your time. It’s been enlightening.”

(For more updates on the weather, visit vedur.is)

 

 

 

State Of The Artist

THE

PLUMBER

For many years, the minimalist composer Philip Glass worked as a plumber. He did this not only before he started composing but also alongside his music work. Once, while installing a dishwasher in a SoHo loft, he glanced up to see the art critic of Time Magazine, Robert Hughes, looking down at him in disbelief. “But you’re Philip Glass! What are you doing here?” Hughes exclaimed. Glass explained that he was installing a dishwasher and would be finished soon.

I am a musician. For me, the most notable thing about that story is not that a renowned composer had a second job (after all, here I am writing for a magazine), but how Hughes, who writes about art for a living, could be so shocked about the reality of artists’ lives. Even those connected to the arts tend to think of creative people as floating untethered in some other world: writing, recording, or painting in their studio until they receive recognition, success, and financial stability in neat order. The truth is a lot messier.

Especially in smaller societies, many artists work across disciplines, juggling various careers that are difficult to summarise in an “about” section or fit into a nine-to-five schedule. I’d wager that your favourite Icelandic artists belong to this group, and that their art is likely not commercially successful. Yet even these artists themselves say that’s not always a bad thing.

Ragnar Helgi Ólafsson

THE

BRICOLEUR

“There is no artist heaven waiting for you on the other side. It’s always a hustle. Even when people enjoy a lot of success, in Iceland they usually need to make money in some other way. Take publishing: books are popular here, they’re bought and sold as Christmas presents, but the payment you get for writing the average book in Iceland is maybe enough to live on for two or three months.”

These are the words of Ragnar Helgi Ólafsson, who has graciously invited me for coffee to discuss his own myriad creative work. By phone, he reluctantly agreed to chat, but issued me a warning. “I don’t have all the answers to this lifestyle, it’s always just a big mess.”

So, what does Ragnar do? “My children have been asking me that for the past 20 years. ‘Dad! My teacher asked what you do, what should I say?’” he laughs. “I think the book I sent to print last week says ‘Ragnar Helgi is a writer and visual artist.’ But, you know… I also teach, I play music, I sing in a choir, I publish books, I design book covers… so it’s difficult to say.” Ragnar likes to see himself as a sort of creative handyman. “In French there’s this word bricoleur: it’s not a professional carpenter, rather more of a dabbler. Someone who’s just good with their hands and has a do-it-yourself approach. That’s sometimes how I think of myself as an artist.”

All of Ragnar’s pursuits are creative. “Essentially, I keep busy making things – some of them I get paid for, a lot of them I don’t. I’ve stopped thinking about that.” Earlier in his career, Ragnar tried to keep his jobs in separate compartments. “But in recent years I’m more relaxed about it. What is art, what is design, what is work? I don’t take it very seriously, the distinction between those things. I don’t find it a helpful distinction.” Perhaps for some artists with a non-creative day job, the distinction is more easily made. “Being a night watchman and a writer. That’s the classic combination, it’s almost banal. Sometimes I think that would be a good idea: when you’re completely burnt out, to do a non-creative job. But my life has somehow turned out this way, that the work I do for money is also creative work. I don’t know if that’s good or not,” Ragnar muses. 

When all your work is creative, it’s easy for the edges to bleed. “One day I’m designing a book cover for a bestselling author, then the next day a friend comes and asks me for help making a poster for her no-budget art film. Sometimes I think it’s actually good how little money there is in the Icelandic art world. People just make things, and no one asks: ‘Wait, what am I getting paid for this?’ There’s nothing to fight or get jealous about because everyone is equally broke. But then of course people need to have something on the side to pay their bills and fill their gas tank.” 

In some ways, Ragnar prefers having his own creative projects separate from commercial concerns. “I find the creative process more satisfying when you don’t owe anyone anything. I can just create what I want, or even just what comes to me, and then say take it or leave it. That’s a good feeling.” Focusing on commercial success can be a booby trap of sorts. “I think it’s best to not expect that your art will earn you a living. There’s too much risk that you’ll become bitter. That’s the only true peril in the life of an artist: thinking you’re not appreciated as you should be, that others are getting more than you. Then it’s important to focus on what you’re doing, what gives you joy. And that’s creating.” 

This lifestyle is not free from financial challenge, however. “COVID was a nightmare for people like me: freelance projects dried up, art projects too.” While he admits that the prospect of a regular salary is sometimes appealing, Ragnar says he is often surprised at what a good life he leads. “I can’t say I’m a starving artist. I want for nothing, though I am sometimes broke.”

Prins Pólo

THE

SERIAL

CAREERIST

“There’s an imp on my right shoulder that’s always saying:
‘Be wise, do something practical.’
Then there’s one on my left shoulder that just goes ‘bleeehhh!’
Then they talk to each other and somehow it works out.”

For many creative people, having a single career is like wearing the same T-shirt every day – a T-shirt that’s a few sizes too small. They keep heading back to the changing room looking for a better fit. This is the case for Svavar Pétur Eysteinsson. “I’m always trying to be just one thing. But no matter how I try, it never works out,” he tells me. Svavar is better known by the name of his light-hearted music project, Prins Póló (Prins being Prince, and Prince Polo being a Polish chocolate bar beloved by Icelanders). Musician, graphic designer, and photographer are a few of Svavar’s current job titles. Past titles include farmer, guesthouse operator, concert booker, and veggie-dog-recipe inventor. “When I was little, I wanted to be a farmer. Cultivate the land, grow things, feed people.” His creative work seems to have a similar purpose. “I try to make things that are useful, or make people happy, or both.” 

When I called him up to ask for an interview, Svavar asked me to come by the following morning. “I don’t like to plan far in advance, I’d rather do things right away. In my work, I never know what’s going to happen next. I wake up in the morning, go into my office, then maybe someone calls me and says: ‘Hey, I’ve got this idea,’ and we start a project. There’s a certain freedom to that. It gives you the opportunity to shake things up. But of course, it’s hard to make ends meet. There’s an imp on my right shoulder that’s always saying: ‘Be wise, do something practical.’ Then there’s one on my left shoulder that just goes ‘bleeehhh!’ Then they talk to each other and somehow it works out.”

The Prince recently went back to school to study photography. “I thought: ‘I’m going to be a photographer and nothing else!’ I tried it for a bit and I couldn’t. It was too restrictive. So now I’m all these things and also a photographer.” I conjecture that Svavar perhaps wouldn’t be happy doing any single job. He agrees that’s probably true. “At the same time, I really respect people who do one thing their whole life. There’s a cobbler in Grímsbær shopping centre. He’s been there for over 50 years in a room half the size of this one. I think he’s been there since it was opened. And he’s still fixing shoes and copying keys and enjoying it. People like him make me feel so calm and grateful. It’s nice for a person like me to see that stability. But these two kinds of people are equally important in keeping society and culture running, and there’s no reason to put one on a pedestal above the other.”

Iceland’s tumultuous economy might play a part in locals’ willingness to hop between careers. “It’s always boom and bust, boom and bust. When there’s some sort of bubble, people change jobs, and when there’s a bust they go back to school. Then they graduate and change jobs again.” But Svavar also perceives a shift in the Icelandic mentality over time. “I think people today are less content in their own skin than they once were. They’re always looking to change things up. Find a new path, get new clothes, a new kitchen, change their car. Fifty years ago, you found your place and you just stayed there. There was a lot of risk in taking chances. That’s maybe the difference between me and the cobbler: he’s not going to take any risks.”

Sigríður Hagalín

THE

DOUBLE-HEADER

 “My life has been split in two for the last few years. I work as a reporter at Icelandic national broadcaster RÚV for half the year, which is a really wonderful job,” Sigríður Hagalín Björnsdóttir tells me. “It’s very creative, fun, and demanding. Then the other half of the year I sit at home and talk only to the voices in my head. Which is also absolutely wonderful, but it’s a completely different job.” 

Sigríður’s “voices” have so far produced three novels. The first sprung from an idea that she mulled over for 15 years. “I always wanted to be a writer, but I think I was just never brave enough – it was such a big step. And when I was younger, I didn’t think I had anything to say. I studied history in university and ended up as a reporter. And that suited me.” Working in the newsroom, stories are delivered on a strict deadline. “I was always turning in my projects at the end of the day. After a while, I wasn’t sure that I could sit down and write something long-form anymore. So, in 2016, I took three months paid leave from work. I thought: ‘OK, I’m going to sit down and write for three months and see what happens.’” What “happened” was her first novel, Eyland, published later that year. 

While her books have been well received, Sigríður says her goal is not to become a full-time writer. “Not as long as I can continue working as a reporter. I’m incredibly proud of being a journalist, I think it’s one of the most important jobs in the world. I get to work with such smart and creative people and I’m still passionate about it.” Yet working as a writer gives her the space to develop ideas that don’t fit in the newsroom. “The material for all three of my books sprouted from something I was reporting on or investigating. In the news, you can only work with facts, things that are real. But some ideas stay with you, leave you with questions, expand in your subconscious. And since I can’t keep working on them as a reporter, it’s easier to transfer them to fiction and keep developing them there.”

Being a writer has other perks. “It’s a much more rewarding job than being a reporter. You get a lot of positive feedback. As a journalist you mostly get negative feedback: people accuse you of pushing an agenda, or taking the side of this or that political party. As they say: journalism is printing what someone else doesn’t want published; everything else is public relations.”

In order to write her novels, Sigríður takes time off from journalism. “I think if I had a job that was totally different from writing, if I were an accountant or a mechanic, it would be easier to juggle both. But a lot of creative energy goes into reporting. After a full day of writing at work, it’s hard to go home and work on writing something else.” Despite these attempts to keep her two professions separate, Icelanders have noticed that Sigríður’s fiction has a peculiar way of seeping back into her job as a reporter. Her first novel Eyland describes an Iceland with its borders closed to the world, while her 2020 book Eldarnir is about an eruption on the Reykjanes peninsula. (Here’s hoping her next novel is about a world without deadly viruses.)

Sigríður is grateful for her dual life and doesn’t see it as abnormal. “We all have room for more than just one role in life: we are friends, coffee drinkers, parents, spouses… we have so many layers. I think it’s very normal and very healthy to want to develop yourself in more than one area.” It can also be a great challenge to learn something new. “As a reporter, I’m an old warhorse. I’ve been there for over 20 years and seen almost everything. As a writer, I’m a rookie. I’m still learning how it all works. And it’s really fun to be both at the same time.”

Eygló Harðardóttir

THE

GROUNDED

ONE

“I saw right away that art wouldn’t be a source of income for me. When I came home from graduate school in the Netherlands, I trained as a park ranger in order to be able to work during the summers.” I am sitting with visual artist Eygló Harðardóttir in her sunny studio, while she tells me about the 20 years she spent working as a highland ranger in the summers. “It was very grounding. Some years I worked at locations where I was all by myself. You’re alone in the mountains, in a little house; you sleep there, you wake up there. You don’t have electricity, you get your water from the river. You’re always aware of everything around you, all 360 degrees. rangers are hired to ensure that nature conservation laws are followeed, so you have to be aware of all traffic, animal and plant life. You keep a daily log of how the grass is growing, when the moss blossoms, which cars passed through: you know them by their tracks.”

She never took her art practice with her to the highlands. “You work ten hours a day, you don’t have time for anything else. I found it an enthralling new world, but of course, it’s also related to art. Being a ranger opens up your senses, it’s all about how you experience the environment around you.” It’s ultimately a much more structured job than making art, however. “You’re a public employee and you have to work within a specific framework. Whereas in art, anything can happen. It can fall apart if it has to, and you can start over. It’s not quite the same when you’re guiding people on a hike.”

When Eygló came home from her studies in 1991, Iceland’s art world was a bit different than it is now. “Today, it’s a lot more international. There’s more money. More grants, more artist salaries. More places to exhibit. When I came home from my studies, you had to rent exhibition space. Now the framework is more professional. But the grassroots have always been there.” Though there is more money in the arts, Eygló is not sure that translates into more artists who are solely dedicated to their craft. “I have never made a living directly from art. I have done so indirectly; I’ve gotten grants and artist salaries, which I’m really grateful for and have made a difference. And I teach. It’s a big struggle, for everyone. Not least for young artists. It’s expensive to rent a studio, to start out.”

So, what has helped her keep making art? “It’s been really important to participate in industry organisations, and I think teaching has been important. Then also maybe just stubbornness. To keep going. And the thing that keeps you going is that you’re always searching. As soon as you’re done with one piece, it leads you somewhere further. You’re never finished, there’s always so much left. Maybe that’s it: the curiosity to keep going.”

THE

MAKERS

The night I finish this draft, I sing in a performance at Harpa concert hall alongside my choir: a group of writers, visual artists, musicians, and other creatives. We lead the audience through the dimly-lit space, carrying little flashlights in our hands. Afterwards, a fellow choir member tells me how happy she is that she quit her teaching job to write full time. I wonder whether I should quit mine – but only until another choir member, a filmmaker, tells me she’s looking for steady work. “It’s just so nice to have some regular income,” she sighs.

I think about Eygló’s words, that there’s always more discovery, more work, more play ahead in the life of an artist, and I wonder why we use the past tense when we talk about artists who have “made it.” The only artists are the artists who are “making it,” or even more precisely, artists who are making, within the messy bounds of life, bills, family, and dishwashers – without a clear or comfortable path, but with that little guiding light that’s just bright enough to illuminate their next few steps – and the rest of society’s, that follow.