In Iceland, the forests are too few to camouflage the rubbish, which is why farm machinery, cars and other old junk generally lie rusting at the back of houses.
Sometimes you can find real museum pieces, such as an only Rafha range with beautiful spirals that used to be a glowing red. There are certainly plenty of people who hold onto things, like the employees of the Seyðisfjörður Technical museum. But many Icelanders have no real rapport with old objects and are sceptical about upcycling objects that have become ‘worthless’.
Nevertheless, the practice of recycling is progressively catching on in Iceland and a few towns are very seriously looking at recycling and converting household waste. For decades, Ásgeir Jón Emilsson (1931-1999), nicknamed Geiri, a fisherman and artist in Seyðisfjörður, had his own system of recycling. He produced picture frames with cigarette packets and his tools transformed tin cans into diaphanous chairs.
It is highly unlikely that Geiri followed statutory regulations for recycling waste. This obstinate artist had little respect for civil servants or police officers whom he treated like beings from another solar system. Geiri didn’t have an easy life. The youngest of 12 siblings, he was born blind in one eye and deaf in one ear. The catalogue published to coincide with an exhibition of his works, by the Skaftfell arts centre in Seyðisfjörður described him as charismatic and serious and always championed the disadvantaged. The Gerahuis, this self-taught artist’s brightly coloured house, can be visited on a visit to Seyðisfjörður.
Unlike Geiri, Sverrir Hermannsson (1928-2008), originally from Akureyri, was unable to destroy even the lowliest of everyday objects. This carpenter by trade kept each nail and each hammer that ever came into his hands. For example, despite the nail being rusty and bent after pulling out of the wood when renovating the Nonni house, Sverrir was incapable of throwing it away. And Sverrir was involved in renovating many a historic building.
When his house in Akureyri was on the point overflowing, Sverrir transformed his passion into a public collection. To the south of the Eyjafjord, in the Smámunasafn Sverris Hermannssonar or “Museum of small things,” his passion for collecting is documented with great aesthetic sensitivity. While the keys, door handles and drill bits all look somewhat similar, their placement obeys a carefully considered, hidden order that has been lovingly explained.
‘People think that I must be mad … I haven’t thrown away a single pencil since my apprenticeship in 1946 … They see me as eccentric … Isn’t that strange!’ The visitor, who at the beginning can only see grotesque, oppressive clutter of an impulsive hoarder, is gradually won over by the cheerful serenity with which Sverrir presents his hobby. You then find yourself marvelling at an old pen holder, which a mouse has dragged into its nest and gnawed a bit, before changing its mind.
So what can we do with an empty can, that supposedly technically outdated Rafha range, and what should we do with last century’s fishing tackle? Over the long-term, museums and art centre won’t solve the problem of recycling alone. Visitors also have to make an effort.
In Grenivík, right at the end of Eyjafjord, in a little fishing village, there is a wooden hut that was previously used to hang up the bait on longlines and salt the catch. Tools, fishing lines, working clothes and containers are exhibited. Dried fish hang from the ceiling on green straps. It’s a public holiday and at the entrance they are giving away dried fish with butter. These are those fibrous strips commonly sold in preprepared packs.
Dull cries ring out in front of the cabin. A few Icelanders are trying to shred a large fish. It requires a certain amount of strength to grind down and wear away this dry, brittle mass. So much so that the hammer head flies off and just misses the head of an bystander. Finally, broken up and reduced to fibres, the fish yields and the distribution begins.
While I am still chewing, I discover a green strap close to a rock that was used as an anvil. A suspicion flies through my head, which is confirmed in the hut: the hammer was a museum piece, but so was the fish. I swallow – the exhibited object has been irreversibly consumed. I glance at the circle of eaters and wonder to myself if the Icelanders are taking the issue of recycling just a little too seriously?
Translation: Jackie Dobble
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