2023 in Review: Culture

Diljá Pétursdóttir iceland eurovision

As the year draws to a close, Iceland Review brings you a summary of the biggest stories in community, culture, and nature in 2023. Here are some of the biggest culture-related stories from the year.

Laufey Sets New Jazz Standard

It’s been a big year for Icelandic musician Laufey. In September, Laufey’s sophomore album, Bewitched, set a record for the most streams in the jazz category on Spotify on its day of release, accumulating 5.7 million streams. The previous record was held by Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett’s 2021 album Love for Sale, which received 1.1 million streams on its first day. Bewitched features the British Philharmonic Orchestra on two of its tracks and consists mostly of original compositions, along with one cover song.

On November 10, Laufey released two Christmas songs in collaboration with Norah Jones, a cover of Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas and an original composition entitled Better Than Snow. Both of the songs were recorded in a single take.

 On the same day that the duets with Norah Jones were released, Laufey announced to the crowd at the Paramount Theatre in Austin, Texas, that she had received her first Grammy nomination (for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album): “I especially love Austin now because this will forever be the city where I found out that I received a Grammy nomination,” Laufey remarked.

Laufey is the artistic mononym of Icelander Laufey Lín Jónsdóttir. A former cello soloist and talent show finalist, Laufey graduated from Berklee College of Music. She released her debut EP, Typical of Me, in 2021.

Power Outage: Diljá Misses Out on Eurovision Finals

Earlier this year, Diljá Pétursdóttir was chosen to represent Iceland in the 67th annual Eurovision Song Contest. Diljá, a long-time Eurovision fan, went on to perform her energetic ballad, aptly named Power (co-written by Pálmi Ragnar Ásgeirsson), during the second semi-final night of the Eurovision Song Contest. It took place in Liverpool on May 11, and ten entries advanced to the final. Despite Diljá’s performance receiving favourable reviews from Icelanders, she did not advance to the finals.

Read More: Power Player (Brief Profile of Diljá Pétursdóttir in Iceland Review)

Diljá spoke to Eurovision commentator Sigurður Gunnarsson for the National Broadcaster (RÚV) following her performance. Despite failing to qualify, she was pleased with her performance: “It went amazingly well.”

Icelandic Lamb Receives Protected Status

In March, the European Commission approved the first-ever Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) from Iceland for Icelandic lamb (ice. Íslenskt lambakjöt). The product name is applied to the meat from purebred Icelandic lambs, which have been born, raised, and slaughtered on the island of Iceland. The designation is the same type granted to champagne and means that no product that does not fulfil the above conditions can be labelled as Icelandic lamb.

Read More: Labour of Love (A Profile of a Young Farmer)

“Sheep farming has a long and rich cultural tradition in Iceland,” a notice from the European Commission read. “The characteristics of ‘Íslenskt lambakjöt’ first and foremost consists [sic] of a high degree of tenderness and gamey taste, due to the fact that lambs roam freely in demarcated wild rangelands and grow in the wild, natural surroundings of Iceland, where they feed on grass and other plants. The long tradition of sheep farming passing down generations on the island has led to high standards of flock management and grazing methods.”

Trouble at the Opera

On Saturday, March 3, the Icelandic Opera premiered its production of Madame Butterfly, authored by Italian composer Giacomo Puccini and first performed publicly in 1904. Three days after the premiere, Laura Liu, a Chinese-American violinist for the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, published a post on Facebook in which she accused individuals involved in the production of yellowface (i.e. where a non-Asian performer uses makeup to make their skin look yellow in order to portray an Asian character). Liu shared pictures of the performers, who were shown wearing makeup, including painted-on black eyebrows and black wigs: 

“Are we bringing yellowface back, Iceland?” Liu asked. “Furthermore, Madame Butterfly is Japanese. Those are Chinese characters. ‘All look [the] same,’ right? It’s disturbing to have to repeat this: yellowing up is the same as blacking up. When you wear another race as your costume that’s called dehumanisation. Do better.”

On March 9, Steinunn Birna Ragnarsdóttir, Director of the Icelandic Opera, addressed accusations of racism and cultural appropriation in an interview with the radio programme Reykjavík Síðdegis. 

Steinunn iterated some of the points made by her colleague Michiel Dijkema: “I was very clear about not using yellowface in this production,” Steinunn stated, adding that the producers had taken “different routes” to make the production believable, Kabuki makeup, for example.

When asked what she made of the accusations, Steinunn replied: “We celebrate this discussion and listen with an open mind to these different perspectives.”

On Saturday, March 11, Steinunn Birna was interviewed by the nightly news, in which she stated that a few minor changes would be made: “We had a good meeting yesterday with the performers, and the director, where we listened to their experience. We decided that we would tone down the makeup. Even though we believed that we had not been guilty of yellowface, we decided to remove painted-on, slanted eyebrows and wigs, for such a thing would not serve to detract from the overall performance. There are two guidelines that I follow: that my people feel good, and making a good show even better. 

Háskólabíó Movie Theatre Shuttered

The Icelandic company Sena cancelled its contract for the operation of a cinema in the Háskólabíó theatre as as of July 1 of this year. Konstantín Mikaelsson, Manager of Sena’s Film Division, told the media that Sena’s decision was informed by increased consumer demands for facilities and declining attendance.

Sena has managed the operation of Háskólabíó since 2007, but Háskólbíó’s history stretches back to the year 1961. During the first decades, the theatre featured a single large auditorium. Smaller auditoriums were later added. The building was the main concert hall of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra for years until the Harpa Music and Conference Hall was put into use in 2011.

In addition to film screenings, Háskólabíó has been the venue for university classes, concerts, and various events. In June, Guðmundur R. Jónsson, Director of Administration of the University of Iceland, told the media that the university would likely continue to use the building for concerts, conferences, meetings, and teaching.

Icelandic Whisky Seeks Protected Status

FLóki Whisky

Icelandic distillery Eimverk has applied for protected status for the product name “Icelandic whisky.” Bændablaðið reports that the application was received by Iceland’s Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST) in September and is being processed. If granted, the designation would limit which products could be labelled “Icelandic whisky,” reserving the term only for those produced in Iceland with local ingredients.

Eimverk distillery, founded in 2009, produces Icelandic liquors from local ingredients. Their single-malt Flóki whisky is produced locally in small batches using only Icelandic barley and Icelandic spring water.

Read more on Eimverk distillery’s Flóki whisky production

In December 2014, the Icelandic parliament enacted the Product Names Protection Act, which allows for the protection of product names on the basis of origin, territory, or traditional uniqueness. Such laws, often manifested as Designation of Origin, are widespread in Europe, where they are often applied to artisanal products such as French champagne and Spanish ham.

If it received protected status, Icelandic whisky would be the third product to do so. Icelandic traditional sweaters, known as lopapeysur, received that status earlier this year and Icelandic lamb was granted the distinction in 2019.

Lava Caves Closed to Protect Stalagmites and Stalactites

The Environment Agency of Iceland is working to close off access to two caves in the Þeistareykjahraun lava field in North Iceland in order to protect their unique mineral formations, RÚV reports. Geologists have conducted extensive surveys and mapping of the cave system in order to ensure that they don’t miss any point of access to either cave and will be blocking off forty square metres [430 sq ft] in total.

Þeistareykjahraun lava field; RÚV screenshot

There are 15 known caves in the Þeistareykjahraun lava field. One of those that is currently being closed off to public access is 2,500 years old and is filled with one-of-a-kind stalagmites and stalactites. The second cave was discovered only last winter but was plundered of many of its natural treasures shortly after making the news. These two caves are therefore being closed in order to ensure that no more damage is done to their unique mineral formations and that no more of these are removed from the site.

RÚV screenshot

Stalagmites and stalactites are protected natural monuments in Iceland, and have been since 1974. It is illegal to break or damage these formations in any way.

RÚV screenshot

Not everyone who visits the cave has intentions of damaging or removing the mineral formations, of course, but the nature preservation team isn’t going to take any chances. They’ve found ten access points to the caves that they are in the process of blocking off with metal fences and locks. The project is expected to cost ISK 2 – 3 million [$14,365 – $21,548; €12,262 – €18,394].

Goðafoss Waterfall Receives Protected Status

Goðafoss waterfall

North Iceland’s Goðafoss waterfall was officially given protected status on Thursday. Designating it as a protected natural site will not only allow for increased safeguarding of geological formations around the waterfall, says the Environment Agency of Iceland, but also protection of the waterfall itself and its source river, Skjálfandafljót.

Revered for its beauty, the horseshoe-shaped Goðafoss is also one of Iceland’s largest waterfalls by volume. It’s one of the most popular tourist attractions in North Iceland and is divided into two main falls and several smaller ones. Goðafoss can look considerably different depending on the time of year, water flow, and weather conditions, but, at 9 – 17 meters [30 – 56 ft] high and 30 meters [98 ft] wide, it’s always a stunner.

Photo by Golli

According to legend, Goðafoss—literally meaning ‘fall of the gods’—got its name when Þorgeir Þorkelsson Ljósvetningagoði, a Lawspeaker of Alþingi in 10th century Iceland, threw the statues of the Norse gods into the falls after deciding that Icelanders would convert to Christianity, at least outwardly.

Goðafoss joins a handful of other waterfalls around Iceland that have also been given protected status: Dynjandi in the Westfjords; Hraunfossar and Barnafoss in West Iceland; Skógafoss in South Iceland; and Dettifoss, Selfoss, and Hafragilsfoss in Northern Iceland.

Goðafoss protected status ceremony
Photo by Auðunn Níelsson

Minister for the environment and natural resources Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson signed the official documents at Goðafoss in the company of local government officials, landowners, Environment Agency of Iceland and ministry staff, and locals. Brass quintet Norðangarri played a few songs and coffee was served after the ceremony. On the occasion, the Minister remarked, “Today, we protect one of Iceland’s natural treasures. The protection means that rangers will now take organised care of the area, keep it safe and educate travellers.”

 

Proposal to Protect Geysir Area a “Cause for Celebration”

Geyser

Earlier this year, the Environment Agency of Iceland submitted a proposal to declare the Geysir region a protected area. The deadline for comment on the proposal passed on April 23. Among the aims of the proposal is to preserve the area’s unique geological formations. The Icelandic Environmental Association (Landvernd) has announced its support for the proposal.

Geysir

The geothermal area of Haukadalur Valley, in southwest Iceland, is home to the hot spring Geysir (The English word geyser derives from Geysir) along with more than 40 other smaller hot springs, mud pots, and fumaroles.

Despite being an integral part of Iceland’s Golden Circle (the most popular tourist route in Iceland), the Geyser area has not enjoyed protected status. This means, among other things, that the Environment Agency of Iceland is not responsible for ensuring the minimum safety of visiting tourists.

In January, the Environment Agency of Iceland submitted a proposal to grant protected status to the Geysir area.

Preservation, scientific research, tourism

According to the Agency, the aim of the declaration is to preserve the area’s unique geological formations and to ensure that visitors may continue to visit the area without negatively impacting the environment: “… the area is of tremendous educational and scientific value, both locally and globally. The protected status will also help ensure the future use of the area by locals and tourists and that it is capable of receiving the thousands of guests who visit every year.”

The proposal forms a part of the government’s effort to extend protected status to vulnerable sites in Iceland in accordance with the government agreement. The proposal is submitted in accordance with Article 39 of Act No. 60/2013. The proposal was authored by a workgroup comprised of representatives from the Environment Agency of Iceland, the Bláskógabyggð Municipality, and the Ministry for the Environment and Natural Resources.

Should have been done “decades ago”

On April 22, the Icelandic Environmental Association announced its support for the proposal. The Union calls the proposal a cause for celebration: “Granting protected status to the Geysir area is long overdue. It’s actually quite astonishing that protected status wasn’t granted decades ago. It will ensure that future generations will be able to enjoy the magnificent beauty and power of the Geysir area for the foreseeable future.”