Iceland in the wintertime is exactly how one might imagine. When the dark does give way to light, however faint or fleeting, a smooth white world presents itself; it is a world that is at once panoramic and totalizing and offers, if you will, a perverse sort of sensory deprivation. Returning home after a trip to Iceland, then, seems to induce heightened sensitivity in all respects. Sounds seem louder, skylines are somehow more colorful. In short, everything is turned up a bit too high. But staying in Iceland, calling it home, as I did for three years, unlocks a different type of experience altogether.
I made my home in a tiny village four hours north of Reykjavík, in a village whose roads regularly closed during blizzards and left me stranded, in a village whose sole grocery store was only open three days of the week, and for three hours a day. It was a village whose minor practical inconveniences, for a while, were charming to me and conjured a sort of utopian ambiance. I often could not help but gape at the sight of the Northern Lights, for example, or peel my gaze away from the vast, almost ethereal view from my living room window. But like every utopia, mine too was a fundamentally unreal space.
Loneliness’ arrival was somewhat expected, then. A year went by, two. Long days alone in a house, its windows plastered with snow, its very foundation rattling in the raging wind, came to accentuate the distance I felt between myself and the community that surrounded me. Without the ability to speak Icelandic or play a meaningful part in society, I became further removed from it over time, perhaps even creating for myself a Foucauldian sort of heterotopia—a kind of inverted utopia wherein I was able to see myself where I was absent; I saw candle-lit dinner parties through foggy windows as I drove slowly down my ice-coated road; I heard the waves of a crowd’s wine-drunk laughter through my bedroom wall at night. Needless to say, my own private heterotopia was nothing remotely similar to a utopia but rather a deeply insular, lonely space that only served to remind me how divided I truly was from the rest of the village.
Like many, I turned to a screen for solace. Instagram became a virtual exhibition that allowed me to feel a part in all its pixelated immediacy. Of all the artists I followed, the work of Ishii Nobuo, a Japanese painter (b. 1952), particularly struck me. His work—series of thin-lined drawings often combined with watercolor paint—evokes a playful, childlike sensibility that elevates into the realm of the surreal through the absurd, dream-like figures it often depicts. Nobuo paints figures whose feet protrude through mouths, or eyes that budge and twist out of heads and into a starry, yellow-skied wonderlands, for instance.
What strikes me the most about Nobuo’s work is not necessarily its engrossing aesthetic, but rather the playful way in which it investigates the division between inside and outside. This division, often portrayed by way of figures who are placed directly beneath a line—whether a wall or a horizon—invites commentary about the ever-present divides within our world today. And yet, unlike our world today, neither “side” offers greater riches in Nobuo’s work. Rather, the interplay between the two ultimately creates a fantastical world, a utopia all its own, and without which the work would risk becoming overtly self-referential, even morose.
But of all of Nobuo’s wild, often absurdist paintings, there was one that especially affected me during my time in Iceland. Ironically, it was one of his more subdued pieces, a simple line drawing of two figures embracing within a room whose walls and floor are clearly depicted with clean lines and angles. Though we are led to believe that there exists some kind of cosmic connection between the two figures—evoked by a stippling of star-like white dots bursting out from behind one of the figures, and by the way their two heads are entwined with the puzzle-like fit of star-crossed lovers—only one is fleshed out in full color. The other, blackened as if a shadow, almost seems to dissolve into the very wall they stand beside (within?). Curiously, my attention was drawn to this figure’s feet, which simply do not exist as standalone objects, but rather meld into the other’s, becoming part of them.
The piece, fittingly titled “All the Self-Projection” (全ては自己投影), is both mesmerizing and heartbreaking in its simple depiction of loneliness. And whether the shadow represents a lost lover or simply a projection of the colored-figure’s internal terrain is not the question needing to be asked. What matters more is what their entwined embrace signifies: how easily we’re given to surrender ourselves to an other (an outside, if you will) that might fundamentally and even permanently change who we are. These others are everywhere. They are forces. They are people. They are behaviors. And they are places. And when they are gone they are never really gone but rather invert into vacancies—just like the blackened figure in Nobuo’s piece—leaving us to feel, among other sentiments, all the loneliness that remains.
After three years in Iceland, my experience there felt as though it were reaching the extent of its lifespan. Slowly, everything that had once appeared magical lost its luster; the dance of those wild, pulse-quickening auroras no longer awed me, and the acute sense that I had found a utopia noticeably shifted into something else entirely. In short, I was falling out of love with Iceland, recognizing that my life could go no further there and that my future was meant to carry on elsewhere, that is, outside of Iceland. But my eventual departure from the country did nothing to mitigate the sharp pain of its absence from my life that I could barely fool myself into thinking I didn’t feel.
Where Nobuo’s work is concerned, the dialectic of inside and outside presents a comforting opportunity to notice the ways in which the divide between the two is less prominent than we might expect. What gives the work an edge is that we never know precisely what is outside, and what is inside. More importantly, whatever might exist “inside” is no greater or lesser than what’s “outside”; vast, twinkling skies bleed into vast, twinkling bodies, bodies of sky and skin literally blown out of proportion and rendered bulbous, swollen, elongated, pregnant, melding into what’s both within and beyond in fantastic, spurting arrays.
This purposeful muddling of the divide between inside and outside was especially refreshing to me as I sat on a plane heading westward across the Atlantic, heading home; a trip that literally transversed the line between two continents, and also two fundamental moments in my life. But I had been doing it all wrong for three years, I realized, thinking in terms of lines and divisions and such. Why had I gotten so fixed on the idea that being a part of the “inside” was so much better than existing outside of it? And what made me think that I had even been on the “outside” at all? Did the community beyond my rattling apartment’s walls ever hold the promise of greater satisfaction than the world I created within them?
Gaston Bachelard once posed the question, “Where should one live?” with regard to this so-called drama of intimate geometry. If we are inside, we want out; if we are outside, we want in. Humans are a fickle species, so it seems. And though inconclusive in both Nobuo’s work and my own experience in Iceland, perhaps it is only once we equate inside with outside that we might clearly understand how their division blinds us to the inner wonders we needn’t cross any line to see.
Foucault, M (1967) “Of Other Spaces”. In: Mirzoeff, N (Ed.) The Visual Culture Reader. New York: Routledge, pp. 229-36.
Bachelard, G (1958) The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon Press, p. 218.