I was certain that I had taken a plane to Keflavik, but in my bleary-eyed stupor aboard the bus to Reykjavik, I couldn’t help but wonder if I had changed planets instead of continents.
There’s a single, straight road out of Keflavik airport, and for about 20 kilometers, that’s all there is. Just one road, and nothing but lava fields on either side, jagged and sprawling until they reach the base of far-off mountains as austere as the rough rock they rise from.
Maybe the shock is specific to those homegrown in America, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen that much land for nature’s taking—where was the development? Farms? Billboards? Paths? People? Anybody? Someone? Hello?
“Bleak,” muttered an older woman seated near me, as we stared out opposing windows. “Very stark.” The only evidence to the contrary were little pockets of dandelions and lupins sprouting bravely against the dark landscape, warding off the dementors.
We rode on in silence for a bit, before the woman said to no one in particular, “Not much going on here.” With foreigner’s gullibility, I was inclined to agree with her: we were coursing through desolation. But in a few days time, I’d realize this landscape was far more alive than the sidewalk city paths streaked with bright lights that I for long have considered to be the definition of vibrance.
Before awakening to the intensity of Iceland’s raw land, which I first mistook as too harsh for my liking, I warmed to the beauty of something more familiar to my aesthetic tastes—the quaint yet modernized seafaring city of Reykjavik.
The city is teeming with art, from street murals to store fronts to the presentation of an espresso, and I was most amazed by its general proliferation than any particular piece. I took a class called Philosophy of Art with Lydia Goehr in college, and she began the semester by asking us, in her strong British accent, to define art. As it turns out, that’s a tall order, and she knew it. You can’t define art by saying it’s pretty, or it’s something you enjoy, or that it’s visual, or that it stimulates, because you can easily find counterexamples to all of the above.
When confident each student was thoroughly dumbfounded, Professor Goehr offered the following definition: art is the opposite of utility. If we appreciate something as art, we appreciate it strictly for what it does not offer us in direct use. I battled with that definition until I finally succumbed, realizing that despite my resistance, I resonated with it. In some sense, the ability to appreciate something beyond what it serves you is more than just art—it’s beauty.
And so, the art everywhere in Reykjavik surprised me—how could so much space and time be willingly devoted to that which lacks utility?
Once I saw the prices of paintings, ceramics, and even pleasantly laid out espressos, the answer to my question was clear: art did have utility; art paid. The catch is that only a few are able to pay the price.
I’ve long held a theory about inequality that I don’t often share. It’s this: what separates the rich from the poor, the expensive from inexpensive, the desirable from the disagreeable, is access to beauty. It makes sense, too, if beauty lacks utility; that means beauty is available to those with disposable income who can afford beyond what’s necessary.
The reason I don’t widely share this idea is that I can see how easily it can degenerate. I’m not trying to say the ills of poverty can be condensed to “not having pretty things.” However, what often distinguishes the price of something (and therefore what also distinguishes who can afford it) is its level of beauty.
The price of a car that has been keyed can be thousands less than the same car equal in all other aspects, but with perfect paint. The price of a penthouse with a picturesque view can be hundreds of thousands more than the price of another apartment a few floors below it, with an identical layout albeit a lesser view. Even the pursuit of human beauty is governed by price differentials; elective plastic surgery is available for those who can pay, but those who can’t may have to deal forever with a protuberant nose. In these examples, the utility offered by the compared items (two cars, two houses, two noses) is the same but the price, and therefore access to the different items, is largely affected just by beauty and the status such access represents.
These thoughts were running through my head as I stood in an avant garde art house in downtown Reykjavik. I was admiring an abstract painting—or was it a scene of a choppy harbor?—but I also felt foreign to the work, knowing that it was not mine and, given its price, could not be mine. It’s strange, experiencing something you don’t own. It’s like standing at the bay windows of a friend’s penthouse apartment, with your admiration of the view tainted with longing and maybe even envy. Can you truly enjoy the experience of such a view as much as you would if you owned it? Lost in these thoughts while gazing at the blue waves of the painting, I felt a sense of distance. I was just a visitor, not an owner.
Stepping out of the art house and back into the streets of Reykjavik, an elaborate street mural caught my eye. It was an expansive black and white sketch that covered the side of a building. The faces of two women spread across the facade. One was applying lipstick to another with her right hand while her left hand pressed into the woman’s cheek, creating shadows where her fingers pushed into the skin.
I paused my walk to linger in the scene. Who owned this art? It couldn’t really be the building’s owner, because the owner can’t experience this art when they’re actually in their building. And it couldn’t be the artist, because they’ve laid no claim. Then who was this for?
This art, I realized somewhat basically, was for everyone. And so it belonged it no one. In fact, it could not be owned. I could not buy this mural and keep it for myself, and neither could anyone else; the question of ownership was irrelevant, and so the relationship between ownership and experience had evolved. What I owned in seeing the mural was my experience of seeing the mural, and that ownership of experience was as available to me as it was to anyone.
In that moment of thought, I wasn’t just a visitor. And if I had had that understanding before touring the art house, maybe I wouldn’t have felt like a visitor there, either. It’s possible I could have even felt like an owner, at least of the moment, with my experience of observing the art perhaps as authentic or even more authentic that the eventual financial owner of that art.
I could not own that painting in the art house, but in looking at it, for a moment it was mine nonetheless. And even if one day that painting were to go home with a new owner absconding with it to privacy, she wouldn’t be able to reclaim what I’ve stored in moment and memory.
As a traveler, it’s easy to feel like an outsider—not just with what you see that you don’t own, but with your experiences, too. You are an outsider to the sidewalks you navigate with a map. You are an outsider to the conversations in languages you don’t know. You are an outsider to the sights you’ll see once, and likely never again. But on this trip to Iceland I’ve decided you don’t have to feel like an outsider, even if you are one.
This perspective grew as I tested the waters outside of Reykjavik, starting with a day trip around the famed Golden Circle. It wasn’t long before I realized on the tour bus that Iceland’s beauty extends far beyond Reykjavik’s art scene. As I explored the land, I toyed with the idea that the art of Reykjavik was just trying to offer a simple beauty for those looking for a respite from the intensity of the land. Was that geyser too much? Here’s a painting of it that doesn’t erupt when your back is turned. Was the experience of oncoming frostbite too painful? Here’s a photo of the conditions that led to it instead. And so, in this way, the gentle art of the city plays call-and-response with the fire and ice of the art of the surrounding nature.
There was art in Iceland’s nature, everywhere. In geysers bursting, waterfalls thundering, mountains domineering, sulfur pools swirling, sheep snuggling. Perhaps unsurprisingly, questions of ownership cropped up, too. Before stopping at a waterfall—one of Iceland’s most mesmerizing art shows—the bus driver announced that we were not supposed to walk around certain parts near the base, because “the owner doesn’t want visitors there.” How do you own a waterfall, I wondered, as we stepped out armed with cameras.
The question soon left me as all five senses took in the scene. The water crashed so violently on the rocks below that some of it rebounded in mist, clouding my glasses. I took deeper breaths to catch the scent of the lupins, which were seemingly unaware that the ground they believed to be secure enough for their roots gave way to a colossal upheaval in the meeting of water and rock just a few yards away.
I broke out of my trance to take a few photos, but since I no longer have Instagram or Facebook to drive to me to keep clicking for that perfect snap, I was able to pocket my phone and just be for the rest of our short visit.
When we boarded the bus again, the driver thanked us for complying with the rules about walking around the waterfall set by its owner. I thought back to the beauty of my visit and laughed quietly to myself, because the owner of the waterfall didn’t know that I owned it, too.