Cinema in the fjörds, Björk and the heildarlistaverk

It was heartening and exciting to read in The Guardian about an EU programme to bring European arthouse movies – both adult- and children-friendly – to the remote towns and villages of Iceland.

The idea of a minibus driver traversing the last truly wild frontier of Western Europe – the Westfjörds – with just a technician and some digital kit to hand in order to show films in windswept community centres to cinema-deprived locals seems worthy of a movie or a groundbreaking piece of storytelling in itself. It’s like a cross between something out of the Gospels and the valiant and epic peacenik bus expeditions acrossthe USA in the 1960s: benevolent cinema evangelism, so to speak.

A confession. Before I read this article (and merely saw a link on the Guardian page with a taster), I got the (false) idea that the movies were being showed outdoors. This made me even more excited. The fusing of artistic rendition and out-of-door landscape is an ambitious concept but (for me) a fascinating one – certainly one that evokes thoughts of the efforts made by Max Reinhardt at the Salzburg Festivals of the 1920s, when outdoor theatrical performances were combined with accompanying chamber and orchestral music (a tradition continued to this day).

One of the key figures in the history of total art: Max Reinhardt

One of the key figures in the history of total art: Max Reinhardt

One can only hope that the opportunity comes to pass in the Westfjörds some time soon (although it may require a number of heating lamps depending on the time of year). By happy coincidence, however, I subsequently read this piece, also in The Guardian, charting the efforts of Björk to go one further than Reinhardt and all those he inspired by collating artistic performance and scientific discipline with ecological and educational endeavour courtesy of her long-evolving Biophilia project.

You have to hand it to Björk – and indeed, as the article strongly implies, to Icelanders in general – in this respect. Nothing in the way of multifarious intellectual or practical enterprise seems too daunting for them, in spite of or because of the remoteness of the country and its limited resources (which in turn necessitate humans being resourceful). Björk seems appropriately symbolic of perennial Icelandic efforts to redefine the word polymath: maybe the phrase Renaissance Man needs to be supplanted by something like Biophilia Woman on this occasion (although I doubt even that captures her potency).

Björk - daring to create some Total Art/Nature/Science/Life/Artist and Performer vehicle. And on her own terms

Björk – daring to create some Total Art/Nature/Science/Life/Artist and Performer vehicle. And on her own terms

What is so pertinent about both ventures – the cinema-in-the-sticks initiative and the Björk Biophilia project – is how down-to-earth they are. This is really is a case of art aimed at communities both large and small with the aim of creating a better world. One could claim that that’s the purpose of all art, but, Björk’s project invites comparisons with the classic Gesamtkunstwerk (or total work of art) concept synonymous with Richard Wagner whilst lacking any overbearing Wagnerian grandiosity (or any of the familiar discomforting connotations of Wagner’s work).

Maybe there’s a case for talking about the Icelandic equivalent, a heildarlistaverk* that is even more eclectic in scale, not least because it embraces the idea of our very ecosystems. Reinhardt would have almost certainly acknowledged some debt to Wagner; there’s a fair case for saying that Björk, in her own idiosyncratic yet exhilarating Björky way, has very much done all of this on her own terms.

*heildarlistaverk being my attempt to come up with a translation of Gesamtkunstwerk. My Icelandic is certainly not watertight and I’m on a learning curve, so forgive me if there’s a better (and more grammatically accurate) description. Of course, one could argue that  as Björk’s project incorporates more than art, it is a heildarlífsverk (whole life work) of sorts.


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