SEYDISFJÖRDUR: The house at the edge of the World

Between sheer mountain walls and open sea, in the easternmost and most isolated part of Iceland, lies a house into which artists from all over the world can move to find calm and absorption. It is run by a group of young idealists dreaming of a new world order – and a place where obligation and human contact add value to life and art.

“I’m coughing like a madman!” The taxi driver squirms, hikes up his trousers, which meet a fluffy sweater at a point halfway up his body and spits on the asphalt.  “It’s the volcano,” he explains with another laboured rattle in his throat, as if to emphasize his point. “The air is so polluted with its gases, I can’t stand it. I’m coughing all night, the wife’s going nuts.”

He walks around the car to get the luggage, tugs awkwardly at the suitcases, wheezes and sends white clouds of vapour out into the frosty evening air. “It corrodes your lungs!”

I have arrived in Reykjavik and have exited the taxa outside the city’s small domestic airport, where a propeller-driven plane is waiting to take travellers across snowy mountain tops, barren plains, and, well, the active volcano Bárðarbunga, lurking ominously beneath Iceland’s largest glacier, Vatnajökull, north-west of its sister volcano Grímsvötn. Our destination is Seyðisfjörður, situated at the bottom of a bay surrounded by steep hillsides. One of the scattered houses is Heima – an artists’ residence occupied by a group of painters and other creative people, who have escaped to the edge of the world in order to be able to live and work in peace among flocks of sheep and wild horses and a local population consisting primarily of fishermen. The latter seem to have grown accustomed to the town’s attraction to the more colourful among the travelling folks.

“Have a nice journey!” the taxi driver says drily. I am not entirely certain of his sincerity.

For many months the Bárðarbunga volcano has been front-page news in Iceland. In late summer there were hundreds of little earthquakes in just a couple of days, which seismologists interpreted to mean that an eruption was imminent. Nevertheless the Icelanders seem to tackle the risk with superhuman calm – maybe because they have no other choice and through generations have become inured to the threat of ungovernable nature. That nature always has the upper hand is a basic fact of life, as unavoidable as the changing of the seasons in a place where the geological circumstances might be compared to a bomb, ready to detonate at a moment’s notice. The earthquake frequency is due to Iceland’s very unique location on top of the North Atlantic Ridge, where the North American and the Euro-Asian tectonic plates meet and slowly displace each other, thereby keeping active the many volcanoes lurking underneath the land’s seemingly unshakeable crust.

Continue reading in Oak volume Four