Many years ago, we arrived in San Francisco on Hallowe’en night, unaware of the annual street-party in the Castro every October 31, which, back then, attracted a raucous crowd of 300,000 people, making it almost impossible for our taxi-driver to get to our hotel, which we never ventured away from that night. We like the city (who doesn’t?) and have returned a few times since. But we’d never have predicted SFO would be near the top of next year’s travel list, never mind what led to it—scarecrows in Iceland in a region we hadn’t even planned to visit.
In one of the country’s most remote and northernmost villages, a fingernail below the Arctic Circle on a map of Iceland, is a work of art called the Arctic Henge. We considered seeing this mythical stone sculpture, but it didn’t made it onto our itinerary.
Until the morning we decided to change plans, nix a punishing drive to see the Askja Crater and instead, drive north.
While on our way, outside the village of Kópasker (pop. 121), I noticed a field of scarecrows, their funky clothes battered, beaten and twisted about them. The light was stunning that afternoon, a cool Arctic luminosity freshened by a brisk wind. Perfect for photos, so I had Magellan stop.
Sigurlina J. Jóhannesdóttir, an Icelandic artist who has lived in the area with her husband since 1979, began putting up these scarecrows on the Snartastaðir 2 farm thirty years ago.
Look closely and you’ll see many of them are depicted cooking food. Typical scene for a farm, right? Until you see a scarecrow kid in a cauldron!
Sigurlina based one of her characters on Grýla, a cannibalistic ogress of a troll that Iceland’s greatest Saga writer, Snorri Sturluson, wrote about in his time (1179 –1241). The sagas tell of Grýla and her husband Leppalúði preying on children and kidnapping them, especially badly behaved children.
In one poem, Grýla is described as having a hundred balloons tied to each of her fifteen tails, every balloon filled with twenty ill-fated children. She’s also shown having three-hundred heads, each with three eyes, charcoal teeth, goat-like horns, a bearded chin and ears fastened to her nose and dangling to her shoulders.
Not all of Sigurlina’s characters are trolls; some are political. Sigurlina created a woman scarecrow behind a stove to poke fun at a member of the Icelandic parliament who said a woman’s role in life was at home behind the stove cooking for her family.
Wanting to tell you more about Sigurlina, I kept altering my Internet search queries. The rabbit holes I chuted down led me to an artist with a similar name, Sigurjónsdóttir, who had written an article on Reykjavík’s contemporary art scene. Wanting to see what we might have missed, down I hopped.
Which is where I discovered her paragraph entitled, “Ragnar Kjartansson, the Icelandic artist of the 21st century.” Here’s what Sigurjónsdóttir had to say:
Kjartansson’s work spans multiple media, from video installations and live performances to drawings and paintings. All of them blur together, borrowing elements from each other. He approaches painting as live performances and his films as paintings, but ultimately it’s all connected through historical and cultural references. The Guardian ranked his visual piece The Visitors (2012) as the number-one artwork of the 21st century; his work is on regular display at i8 Gallery.
Double wow is how Magellan and I felt when we watched a short YouTube of “The Visitors.” and viewed the online review from The Washington Post.
IN THE SUMMER OF 2012, THE ARTIST RAGNAR KJARTANSSON GATHERED A GROUP OF MUSICIANS AT ROKEBY, A HISTORIC ESTATE IN THE HUDSON VALLEY.
BY THE END OF THE WEEK, THEY HAD CREATED A MULTISCREEN VIDEO INSTALLATION THAT HAS BEEN ACCLAIMED AS ONE OF THE DEFINING WORKS OF OUR TIME.
EXPERIENCE IT, YOU ENTER A DARKENED GALLERY WITH NINE LARGE SCREENS. EIGHT OF THEM SHOW ROOMS AT ROKEBY, WHERE THE MUSICIANS, CONNECTED ONLY BY HEADPHONES, PLAY AN HOUR-LONG SONG IN UNISON.
It was hailed as a masterpiece the moment it appeared, back in 2012. Seven years later, the Guardian made it No. 1 on a list of the 25 best artworks of the 21st century. But the past 18 months have made Ragnar Kjartansson’s video installation “The Visitors” more than just great; they have recast the work as a mirror for our current moment, making it seem breathtakingly prescient.
Once in a while it happens that way: Certain artworks just rhyme with the zeitgeist. Manet’s “Olympia.” Picasso’s “Guernica.” Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans. Arthur Jafa’s “Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death.” You can debate their merits as much as you like; what you can’t deny is the charge they get from mainlining something bigger in the culture at large.
To see “The Visitors” as the world begins its tentative and fraught emergence from a still-evolving pandemic is to realize you are in the presence of just such a work. The way Kjartansson’s immersive exhibit echoes and distills our gradual, vaccine-assisted transition from prolonged isolation to summertime resumption of social life is uncanny.
The piece, commissioned by and originally shown at the Migros Museum in Switzerland, has since been displayed in several museums around the world, including Bilbao, The Guggenheim, the Broad in Los Angeles, The Hirschhorn in DC and San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art.
Triple wow is how we felt upon discovering “The Visitors” is returning to SFMOMA, starting next Saturday and continuing for more than a year until January 2, 2024.
Will we get there? You’ll know if we post a blog by the name SFMOMA’s giving the show: The Visitors, Again!
P.S. Magellan’s superior research skills unearthed two articles in Icelandic about Sigurlina that we translated. She says the scarecrow family by the road has a practical value. “Pedestrians tend to slow down, so they act as speed bumps. It will especially benefit the eiders who have to cross the highway with their young later this summer.”
Bjarnason, Eftir. “https://www.mbl.is/greinasafn/grein/1018279/Margt sem ekki kemur fram í símaskránni.” mbl.is, May 19, 2005.
Juliano, Michael. “Weep with joy and watch this video of ‘The Visitors,’ the Broad’s most moving piece of art.” Timeout, March 24, 2020.
Ragnarsdóttir, Regína Hrönn. “Kópasker Village on Melrakkaslétta Plain in North-East Iceland.” Guide to Iceland.
Ragnarsdóttir, Regína Hrönn. “Grýla and Leppalúði – the Parents of the Icelandic Yule Lads.” Guide to Iceland.
Smee, Sebastian,; Florit, Gabriel; and Lee, Joan. “Revisiting ‘The Visitors’:an oral history of Ragnar Kjartansson.” The Washington Post. July 23, 2021.
Taylor, James. “Artist Ingibjörg Sigurjónsdóttir On Reykjavík’s Contemporary Art Scene.” The Culture Trip. February 25, 2020.
Unnarsson, Kristjan. “Fuglahræður við Kópasker breyttust í barnahræður sem sjóða börn í potti.” Visir. March 24, 2022.