Their arrival did not go unnoticed. They were greeted at the harbour. They were asked whether their suitcases were full of rocks. Yes, they were. And no further questions were posed.
At night one of them dreams about the shape of the island, its contours seen from above. A circle divided to the left of the centre. The rest of the night revolves around the question: how do you divide a circle exactly down the middle?
The island is two islands connected by a 30 metre long bridge. island bridge island. A sprinkling of islets around the islands. The geometrical reflections of last night’s dream are carried into the language of the day. The letter I bears a graphic resemblance to the bridge connecting the two islands. From now on, the islands are therefore referred to as I.
To rent a room at the inn, you must make a reservation a year in advance. There are six rooms. They stay in the Drawing Studio; they’ve been allowed to rent it because they’re creating an exhibition on I. The Drawing Studio once housed marine artists. It’s a yellow lime-washed house with a red wooden roof, sloped like the keel of a boat.
This isn’t what we came to see, says an elderly woman on behalf of a larger group visiting on a daytrip from the mainland. Where can we find this man? she shrilly demands, jabbing her finger at a page in the brochure. The nail of her index finger scratches rhythmically at a picture of a man with combed-back white hair and a shirt unbuttoned to reveal his bare chest. He’s holding a paintbrush above a canvas as though it were a magic wand.
Beneath the Drawing Studio is a doctor’s office. It’s closed due to holidays, it says on a note, and the doctor can’t be sure what day he’ll be back, because after his holiday he has a dentist appointment on the mainland, and you never know whether it’ll be too windy to sail. In the harbour is a rescue boat which can reach the mainland quickly in emergencies. In the middle of I is a place where helicopters can land.
The library is open four hours a week, distributed across two days. I is not part of any municipality but is still included in the country’s association of libraries so that the residents of I can reserve books, which are then sailed over with the mail boat. The librarian is referred to as that woman who’s usually there. She also works as a mail carrier, a care worker and whichever other odd jobs crop up. You must be able to support yourself in order to live on I, and jobs are limited. In many cases, the husband does manual labour, and the wife is a freelancer and works from her computer. Currently there is a job listing for a handyman, preferably one who can bring children to I’s school. There are no homosexual couples on I.
At the grocery store, a man rings up their groceries. In addition to him, there are two women who work there and another man, who carries goods from the boat up to the store in a pushcart. They’ve been told about this man. He’s an artist. He came for a summer job on I and never left, then got married and later divorced on I. Moved, island bridge island. He’s strange, it’s said. Surely all artists are strange, they say. But this one, he’s especially strange. They hear one of the ladies at the grocery store talking about the new family who has only lived on I for a month. They’re very nice, but their suitcases were certainly heavy after they returned from their weekend on the mainland. The grocer says the new family spent a grand in the store last week. But those suitcases did look heavy, that’s for sure; they could hardly haul them up the stairs.
On I, you’re almost always visible, and you can’t say anything without being overheard. Walls are thin. They become aware of their own need to talk about others, that is, about the others who live on I. One evening they walk out to the easternmost point of I and climb out onto the rocks, which are still hot from the sun. Finally, they feel they can speak freely. What was it they wanted to say?
The sun has not yet reached the harbour, which faces west, when they are awoken by noise at 7:20 AM. A handyman walks, island bridge island, with a plank over his shoulder. There are no cars on I. Only a forklift, which is used to drive the rubbish containers aboard the boat. One day, a military ship docked and people in uniform walked around on I. They didn’t manage to ask them why they were there before their ship had left again. Someone must know.
I is under the administration of the country’s ministry of defence. I has an administrator who makes the overarching decisions. He controls I’s economy and employment. He is also the police authority. The secretary at the administration office is not particularly chatty, but she looks efficient. They assume she is under pressure due to the limited opening hours: two hours a day, during which she probably has a lot to do. They’ll have to save their questions for someone else.
The exhibition space is a wooden shed which was originally located on the harbour and served as a doctor’s clinic. New arrivals were examined for infectious diseases. Now it’s located at the end of the street. In the summer months, artists exhibit there in turn. Each week a new artist arrives. They were the only ones who came as a pair. They exhibit a series of watercolours, a bronze sculpture, a graphic print and a stone sculpture. The artworks show other islands than the ones they are currently on.
In a neighbour’s garden, one of them sees a bird and stops to point it out to the other. What’s so interesting? calls a deep female voice from above. It’s the garden’s owner, watching them from a little bridge. The one replies that there’s a bird that looks a bit strange. The other can’t see it, doesn’t want to get caught staring. That bird, it’s sitting there eating. It shouldn’t be disturbed. They hurry onwards.
Each morning they wake up terribly thirsty. The water tastes salty and sticks to their skin, coats their throats, they say. It isn’t salt they taste. The water is full of minerals, they’re told. There’s a waterworks on the harbour where the water is desalinated and fortified with the necessary minerals. Many of I’s residents collect rainwater and filter it. It tastes wonderful, it’s said. They see others walking back and forth to the harbour carrying big jugs.
On their way to the grocery store, the neighbour stops them; are you the ones with the bathing suits? And you could indeed call them that, because on their first evening here, they were seen on the pier in their bathing suits and later committing the crime of swimming in the harbour. She says: that bird, it was dead. And your exhibition closes before people get off work. She turns her back to them before they can think of what to reply.
At the grocery store, the door to the back room is open, and they can see seven men gathered around a table with a red gingham tablecloth. They ask whether it’s a private gathering, and the grocer tells them they’re welcome to buy a beer and join them. It’s the harbour master, his brother, who works at the harbour, I’s binman, a retired fisherman, a young handyman, the gardener and a man who introduces himself as I’s Casanova, in case they couldn’t tell. He is 86 and a half and has still got it. Are you exhibiting bathing suits? Adjacent to each step of the staircase leading up to the grocer’s flat is a shelf. On each shelf is a beer next to a name sign. The harbour master’s wife comes in and takes her beer from her step, sips from the bottle and sends them a scrutinising look. The harbour master has arranged two cushions on the stone staircase for them to sit on. The binman tells them about their sorting system. All residents of I have their own compost bin. Concrete and leftover drywall as well as extra compost is taken to land’s end. They’ve been there, a wild courgette plant had sprouted from the compost pile. The sorted waste is sailed to the mainland. No, we’re exhibiting artworks about islands. Other islands.
On the street where the artist lives, and where most everyone lives, you share a utility room with others. When we walk into the utility room, a woman appears from the neighbouring flat who thinks we’re here to visit her. The door was open, and she doesn’t look surprised to see us. The ones with the bathing suits. That’s us. He’s standing in his kitchen with his back to us, looking out of the kitchen window across the harbour. On the table is a bottle of liquor, a pale green liquid which is also in the glass he holds in his hand. He invites us into his studio. We’re told to take a seat on a bench along the wall to the kitchen. His walls are full of pictures, oil pastel on paper, in the same colour scheme and of similar subjects, but with variation in their lines, a river flowing with no fixed course across the walls. On the rear wall there are pictures of rocks, on the wall facing the bedroom the lines flow among islets, women and birds. Between them, photographs of a blonde woman and postcards of Baroque paintings featuring bare, meaty upper arms belonging to various bodies. The evening sun pours into the room, and the heat keeps us from budging on the bench. The slightest movement will make you break a sweat. Salty mineral water under your armpits and on your forehead. Beneath the ceiling hang sheets of paper on which he has tested out his oil pastels. A frieze of fringes, little dashes of the colours that dominate the pictures below. What do you see? From the bench, we think the picture on the easel looks like a piece of woven cloth, and it feels soft on the eyes. He tells us about the sharp, white light of May that forces you to squint. The spectrum of September that prompts reflection over what you see. On his worktable, his oil pastels are laid out according to hue. He works in the field between blue and red, the shades of the evening. Hard rocks and soft women or soft rocks and hard women. One subject morphs into the next. He points out a place where we can jump in the water from the rocks. There are two women out there. Now they think we’re talking about them, and he turns around and heads home. The women tell us where it’s slippery and where you can dive in headfirst. The black rocks are hot, we hug them and the water evaporates from our bathing suits before the sun sets.
After having sailed the North Atlantic with the navy for a number of years, I’s gardener decides to seek work on land. We meet him later that evening on the harbour, leaning against a yellow wall, drinking a beer. His face is red from sun, and from alcohol maybe. He lives alone on I. There is wild parsley growing all over I, an ancient kind. He mentions a few other rare plants that were grown at monasteries during the Middle Ages and used to relieve pain. We don’t take note of the names, and he mentions that they can be used as hallucinogens. We don’t ask him to repeat the names, since one might interpret that as interest. Afterwards we try to remember what he said – because of the names, which were so strange, we tell ourselves. Saltiflor? Haliflax? There are no dogs or cats on I, because the island is a bird reserve. There are hedgehogs with ticks and frogs. You sometimes see mice, too. He hasn’t heard any mention of rats. The job began in August. He doesn’t fear the winter. After many winters at sea in the North Atlantic on a ship with no privacy, he believes that he’s seasoned for winter on I.
Beneath a mulberry tree on the other island we meet two women our age. When you’re on an island, you start to look for people with whom you have something in common. The same way you look for people who are different. They were noticed straight away when they arrived with the boat from the mainland. One of them looked wild with big, curly hair, bare feet and mulberry juice dripping down her arms, now, and from the corner of her mouth. They spoke a foreign language and were busy talking to each other and not to anyone else.
On I there isn’t a lot of noise. Any sound that occurs is amplified by the silence that preceded it. A plane slashes up the sky. The clanging of the church bells. The squeaking of the boats flanking the pier in pairs. The cobblestone street beneath vehicles with caterpillar treads, early in the morning. On Wednesdays the warning sirens are tested. The things that are said. A water-filled quarry calls out with a loud, many-channelled sound. Surrounding the water hole sit a circle of frogs. Their croaking seems coordinated, it starts one place and continues around the circle until it suddenly ceases.
Each day you sit at the exhibition space, ready to greet the guests who come with the boat for a few hours only to leave again. They can’t stay on I if they haven’t arranged overnight accommodation in advance. Sometimes you get up and walk over to the fortification wall, from which you can see the southern entrance to the harbour. A swan sails past, or so it seems, its neck is a pliable mast affixed to a stable platform. It turns its head and looks around as though considering its route. It stares at the orange buoys and it makes you wonder what it thinks of them. Of the buoys. Suddenly it’s gone, just when your thoughts had momentarily blinded your vision.
While the one was upstairs making coffee, the other received a visit from Dominique. She’s someone who’s often talked about. She’s a 94-year-old French woman who lives on top of the school. She’s also an artist, not a permanent resident. She spends the summer season on I, the winter season on the mainland. She had been critical about the watercolours. And what the exhibition had to do with this island.
I’s painter, a house painter, has long curly hair and wears harem trousers made of linen. He smiles a lot, a wide open face, he says that he walks into people with clogs on, and if you aren’t familiar with the saying, and you’ve seen the sign on the meeting house which shows a crossed-out clog, you can’t help but wonder what people think of him on I. He plays with a young child in the sandbox next to the exhibition space. After separating from his partner of 29 and a half years, he sold everything he owned and bought a boat, which he sailed to the Mediterranean. At a harbour, he met a woman who joined him on his journey. When they found out they were expecting, he looked for a job on I. The woman doesn’t have a residency permit. That’s why she and the child spend three months on I and three months elsewhere. When you ask her where, her eyes look towards a faraway place called anywhere. When she was encountered under the mulberry tree, she had mentioned that the mulberries elsewhere were not yet ripe, so maybe that’s where she spent the summer. Anywhere with mulberry trees. The painter hopes they can marry in I’s church. They aren’t religious, but when the priest is sailed to I once a month, he likes to sing along to the hymns.
There is an island council that is open to all I’s residents and where events and activities are proposed. It is difficult to determine how much influence the residents of I actually have on the overarching decisions. It’s not something you discuss.
Every other day Dominique returns to the exhibition space. But she’s there for the first time. She asks about the watercolours. She says you shouldn’t criticise something which is only a beginning. Dominique is originally from Paris and carries a pink shopping bag with an illustration of a sidewalk café. At the top it says PARIS. She can’t pronounce the letter h and doesn’t ear so well, she says. She tells them about a brawl with le administration regarding the dying interest in art on I, which the administration is doing nothing to save. She arrived on I after the war with a friend from I whom she had sometimes helped out in Paris. On I, he and his sister rented out a house called Bella Vista to a group of artists who would learn from one another. Dominique often did life modelling as a thank you for what I had given her, she says. The women lived in one half of the house, the men in the other. She found it very old-fashioned to live separately. Bella Vista’s landlord, the sister, insisted that you drink tea together in the afternoon and expected you to wear clean clothes. Dominique met a painter here and married him. She needs to make it to the grocery store before it closes and invites them to come visit her. We’ll have coffee or tea, or whatever’s there, when you come.
The exhibition is about other places, other islands. About infrastructure and the transport of information. It is about grasping the society you inhabit through small traces that are part of the greater organism. The exhibition can be a starting point for a conversation through which you are able to understand something about I – and thereby a community in general. What is the view on the role of art in I’s society? The people of I want to see what they know in a new way.
A Canadian woman is on a daytrip to I to find the grave of an ancestor. He was a pirate for the state in the early 1800s but died on I, perhaps of cholera. On his gravestone there is an engraving of a skull and two crossbones, and now there’s a bouquet of flowers as well, she explains, but unfortunately that’s all the talk she has time for, because she has to catch the last boat to the mainland. Sure enough there is a bouquet on a grave, but she must have been standing at the wrong end of the grave and seen the upside-down Jesus on the cross as an elongated skull and bones.
Dominique is in her garden, speaking to a woman in a yellow T-shirt, who immediately asks them who they are. One tells her about the exhibition. Oh, that’s you, and after having identified them she speaks to Dominique. But Dominique has a friendly look in her eyes and asks them how they ended up in her garden. One isn’t sure whether she remembers the exhibition and the invitation. Her garden is carefully manicured. She takes care of it on her own. A boy from the school has offered to take her garden waste to land’s end, but he’s asking 5 kroner per wheelbarrow load. He’s going places in life, he has a knack for business, she says. One offers to take the wheelbarrow up there for her. The woman in the yellow T-shirt turns her head slowly from left to right and back again with her blue eyes wide and fixed on them. She purses her lips, and something about her eyes tells them they shouldn’t have offered. One was only trying to help. The only difficult part is getting the wheelbarrow up the two steps from the garden to the path, says Dominique. Maybe one ought to stop by later when the woman in the yellow T-shirt is gone. They slowly slip out of the garden.
There is a woman sweeping up leaves in Dominique’s garden. She doesn’t look local, her hair is done up and silky, which means she can’t have washed it in I’s water, which leaves your hair dry and tangled. But where is Dominique? She’s inside the house, she says, cooking. She sets down the rake and closes the garden gate. She runs her hands across the thighs of her tight denim trousers, as though to wipe dirt off her palms. Together they stand in front of the school. One doesn’t want to intrude or disturb. But at the same time, one knows it’s the last chance to visit Dominique before one’s departure the next morning. Does the woman think she’ll mind? She says she supposes not, if they know Dominique. We do. But we aren’t sure whether she’ll recognise us. Personally, she just came walking past and heard the wonderful French accent from inside the garden, she says. She peeked in, and after a brief conversation with Dominique she was invited over for dinner. Dominique lives on top of the school, under the roof. Between some of the rooms, her husband has installed windows with coloured pieces of glass; a technique called dalle de verre, and this term is noted. Pieces of thick, coloured glass with reinforced concrete in between. She shows them her studio, where there is a bed and a TV in the corner behind the chimney. On the walls hang both her and her husband’s paintings and posters for an annual carnival which took place in I’s meeting house. On the easel is an unfinished painting. It’s a geometrical abstraction of a skerry, maybe the one northwest of I that one can see when one swims by the bathhouse. This year she isn’t painting, because it’s difficult to transport the paintings by boat. Her attic is heated only by a stove that was already here when they moved in in the 1960s. They have lived in several different places on I, but here they were allowed to stay. On the stove is a relief of a squirrel and a branch. This summer she has only drawn and tended her garden. The lawn, various fruit trees, sage. The mulberry tree in the middle of the garden has been attacked by a fungus. In addition to the studio, she has a narrow north-facing kitchen, a dining room and a guest room where her son can stay. Two wooden beds with bedding in plastic bags, dark and cold. When he was little, he attended the school on I each year until December, when they would have to return to the mainland due to the cold. It’s a good school, she says, where even the difficult children thrive. While she gives her tour, the woman with the silky hair sits quietly on a bench beneath the window and listens, observes. At one point she asks what it is that’s reinforced. The concrete between the glass shards, is the reply, and even though she was the one who asked, the answer doesn’t seem to interest her. She was difficult to have a conversation with, says the one to the other afterwards. One can’t help but wonder what she was doing there.
Friday morning the flat needs to be cleaned. After finishing early, there is time to go outside and find a place to read until the boat to the mainland arrives. The artist walks past and says that for many years, a painter would come and stay in the attic of the library, setting up his easel outside during the day and continuing his work in the evening upstairs beneath the rafters. He hadn’t been there for the last 15 years, but he still rents the place. Cobwebs connect dusty beer bottles on the table to paintings on shelves to jars of oil and turpentine. He reaches out his right hand and says that a relationship is hereby established between artists on land and on I. The outstretched arms, island bridge island, are connected.
The one goes over to the guesthouse to buy a cup of coffee. The woman with the silky hair comes out onto the terrace, arguing loudly with the innkeeper. Her hair is no longer silky. She has stayed on I the previous day without having anywhere to spend the night. The guesthouse had been contacted and a guest had agreed to move to a room in the innkeeper’s flat to make space for her. She refuses to pay, she says she was under the impression it was a generous invitation. You ought to call the police! The woman can only pay half, she is only willing to pay half, but the innkeeper demands that she give her information and expects a wire transfer next week for the remaining amount. While the innkeeper prepares the credit card terminal, the woman looks around and asks about sloe. What do the leaves look like, the berries, are they sour? There’s not a trace of the former aggression in her voice, now she sounds interested.
The woman with the once-silky hair stands on the harbour with a duffel bag slung over one shoulder and a cotton tote over the other. A plant peeks out of her bag. She asks whether one is on one’s way home. Yes, unfortunately. One had started to feel at home here on I. From the boat they look for her, but she’s nowhere to be found. When they sail out of the harbour, they see a figure walking along the fortress wall.
Translation by Jennifer Russell