18th October, 2008

Despite apparent bankruptcy, Iceland can still fly an entire pub to London

Yesterday I found myself sat once again in one of my favourite Reykjavik bars. I sipped a cup of cold Thule, served by an Icelandic lady, half-conversing in my rusty Íslenska. “Kemur þú oft hingað?” I asked. She laughed, politely. I suppose this would all make some kind of sense, were it not for the fact that I was about 30 minutes walk from King’s Cross.

Sirkus - image from Lina at bjorkdotcomFigure 1: Sirkus in Reykjavik.

You see, I found myself and my hangover wandering around the 6th Frieze Art Fair in Regent’s Park, London. Some of you will be aware that I designed and built the Frieze websites last year, yet its taken me this long to actually visit the enormous and enthralling art fair - the biggest and most important of it’s kind in Europe.

So anyway, how does Iceland fit into all of this? Well, when I first lived there, back in 1998, I drank (and drank, and drank…) in the long-lost and simply wonderful Cafe Frank on Laekjagata. Later, stuck for a new and down-to-earth watering hole, my Icelandic friends and I began to frequent a tiny and idiosyncratic shack called Sirkus - a bar on Klapparstígur where things often didn’t work; lights would flicker, it was generally a bit scruffy, and if more than twenty people turned up it would be crowded. It was a bit indie, a bit arty, a bit weird. The musicians and singers you have heard of would be at the bar. Everyone loved it.

Earlier this year, Sirkus was (along with loads of old and shonky Reykjavik buildings in that area) torn down. It is no more. Gone. So, Icelandic arts collective Kling & Bang not only helped the owner, Sigga Boston, save the bar’s facade and interior, but they managed to bring the entire thing to Frieze Art Fair, rebuilding Sirkus bit by bit, and as authentically as possible, for five days.

The result is stunning, and strange. I hadn’t been to Sirkus for four years, but once inside the London clone, all my old memories came flooding back. All the quirky bibelows and furniture were in place, as were the vibes (how did they bottle those?). As I sipped my beer, I forgot where I was, and was half-expecting to walk out into Reykjavik. The shock of the art fair as I stepped back out was startling. Kling & Bang did an incredible job, and top marks to their sponsors (such as Iceland Express who stumped up 90,000kr).

I’ve taken my eye off the Icelandic arts scene over the last few years, but it appears to be as lively as ever. Whichever way you look at the Sirkus transplant, it is art that seeks to please, not bemuse. It’s pointless brilliance suddenly has an ironic point in these times of economic crunch. It is funny and beyond cynicism - I think.

I know that Frieze are a big client of ours, so you’d expect me to wax lyrical about the art fair, but honestly this event is incredible, exceptional, incomprehensible. The scale of it all is mesmerising, and the Frieze team (not least founders Matthew and Amanda) deserve masses of credit for pulling it together year after year. I know firsthand how stressed they all get as October approaches, but the effort is clearly worth it.

It might also be worth noting that the current international economic woes seem not to be affecting those wishing to trade in art, which is comforting in some way. Nor is Iceland’s supposed bankruptcy preventing that nation’s ability to fly an entire pub to London for five days. On reflection, it seems very timely and entirely appropriate.

Photo credit: It seems I have no useful photos of Sirkus, nor did I take any of it at the art fair, so the image used is from Lina at Bjork.com, which is handy, as many of you will have expected a Björk reference.

Update: Frieze have added further information and a video of the Sirkus project.

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