Experiencing Magic in Iceland
Students got to know Reykjavík via daily 30-minute walks between the chic hostel where they stayed and their studio spaces at the Iceland Academy of the Arts.
Having recently worked as an artist in residence in Reykjavík, Assistant Professor of Graphic Design Paul Soulellis (pictured below right, exploring Iceland by boat) harnessed his passion for Icelandic culture in developing a remote summer course for RISD students. One of six new three-week courses RISD Global offered this year, Artistic Practice in 24-Hour Light focused on the Nordic island nation’s incredible, ever-changing light.
As it turns out, “the focus on light was less intense than I thought it would be,” Soulellis says, noting that the 13 students who participated in the course responded to Iceland’s unique culture in unexpected ways. Instead, they were more interested in focusing on “the topic of developing an ongoing … studio practice in a new place, [asking]: How does one develop productive rituals and habits?”
Soulellis found the guidance provided by local artists indispensable in designing the course and planning a series of immersive experiences to encourage students to tap into the magic of Iceland. He worked closely with Icelandic performance artist Bryndís Ragnarsdóttir and visiting New York artists Sal Randolph and David Richardson, among others.
Thanks to their connections to Iceland’s arts community, students traveled to Hveragerði, drank tea in the home of local author Guðrún Eva Mínervudóttir and then soaked in a small thermal pool at the top of an impossibly green hillside. “Everything on the trip felt like it was in slow motion, but that day in particular invoked a completely different sense of time,” Soulellis recalls. “At RISD you’re packing as much as you can into every day. Slowing things down and taking long walks in that landscape created an experience that could not be reproduced elsewhere.”
The experience began with a series of open prompts offered by Randolph—nouns (fish, sun, shadows), verbs (amplify, reverse, cook) and modifying phrases (in a circle, after swimming) students could mix and match to jog ideas for launching projects. “It was such an amazing tool,” says Soulellis. “I’m thinking about how I can use it at RISD to try to capture some of that intense, almost tactile sense of discovery students experienced in Iceland.”
Part of the discovery, Soulellis explains, evolved organically as students walked, cycled or rode local buses back and forth between the Kex Hostel in Reykjavík and their shared studio space at the Iceland Academy of the Arts. Each walk along the water provided new insights and surprises: the appearance of a puffin or a momentary burst of sunshine through the cloud cover.
Another inspiring element of the adventure was the way Soulellis chose to end it, with an “artistic happening” rather than a group crit. With the help of Ragnarsdóttir, students took over Mengi, an artist-run gallery space in downtown Reykjavík, on the last night of the trip. They were asked to situate their projects—as performances, installations or single-media pieces—in the gallery for a collaborative, four-hour event that was open to the public.
Visitors invited to the happening came upon one tantalizing installation before they even opened the gallery door. Sculpture major Emily Abelson 19 SC sprinkled the sidewalk with stones she had gathered on the beach and painted individually with a subtle white line enveloping the shape.
“She painted 1,000 stones and left them all over town,” says Soulellis. “Even if tourists take a few with them on the plane when they leave, evidence of her work will always remain.”
Another incredible piece came from newly declared Graphic Design major Niya Sun 20 GD. She presented I’m Being Present, a one-hour performance piece projected on a screen via a smartphone. It involved her turning over a new index card at the beginning of each minute and spontaneously jotting down her thoughts and feelings based on that moment in time and the physical space around her. “It was an intense study of being present,” says Soulellis, “and was really moving for the audience.”
“Being present in the gallery space,” Sun adds, “I absorbed from my audience and then shared with them with as much transparency as possible in an attempt to synchronize perception, consciousness and expression—all in the moment.”
Randolph and Richardson connected the student work together with live ambient music, and Soulellis contributed a performance piece in which he made vegetable soup throughout the happening and served it at the end of the evening. He describes the collaborative event as “open, interdisciplinary and poetic”—the perfect culmination to a magical experience in Iceland.
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