‘The house was very kind to me’. In defiance of the building’s derelict state, Hjörtur smiled, ‘I love this house’. Known locally as, Vík , the dishevelled cottage sits along Skagaströnd’s coastal road, in rural North West Iceland. Whispers of tragedy, loss and scandal shroud its bedraggled wooden exterior. Afforded access by the building’s recent purchaser, I was free to explore Vík ’s dark interior for myself.
With all lower access points now boarded, the ground floor lies under dusty shadows. An upper front window, its dirty net curtains frozen in time, peers over the Greenland sea. Dank air grows thicker with every step inward, filling your lungs with a sweet, damp rot. Snow and ice curiously collect on the inner sills. An initial exploration of the first floor’s artefacts revealed a school atlas, with its owner’s name childisly scrawled on the cover. Inside, a sodden map of Ireland and Britain had been circled in red marker. I traced the owner of the book. Hjörtur is now in his 60’s.
‘It was my grandfather who built the house’, I was informed at our first meeting. Having fathered 16 children, Hjörtur always found it strange that his mother’s father didn’t like kids. ‘Or maybe he just liked to make them’, he giggled. Two of these children were lost at sea in 1961. Heartbroken, his grandfather spent his final, silent years alone in the upper room. ‘He was just lying in bed. He didn’t speak to anyone’.
His eyes glinting, he told me of snow drifts that would reach the top of the house. As children, they’d clamber onto the roof and slide down. ‘Sometimes, we would end up in the sea’ he joked. With temperatures of minus 15 degrees Celsius, he recalled ‘frost roses’ and drawing pictures on the single paned windows with his fingers. ‘It was kind of fun, but it was a bit cold’.
Over the coming weeks, I familiarised myself with the sun’s movement through the building – from rise to fall. Observing its rays travelling over peeling daisy-print wallpaper, partially covered by later coats of pink and yellow paint, I imagined generations of children – cousins, brothers, nephews, daughters. Regardless of the emptiness, this frozen space still found light. With the sun’s travels the only movement left within these lonely walls, I became inspired to capture its daily reach. To the bemusement of local passers-by, my visits increased to a daily regularity.
I met with Hjörtur a second time. ‘My favourite part of the house was the kitchen’. He reminisced warmly, of cosy evenings spent with his father’s stories. ‘Either you had to listen to your dad or the radio’ he laughed. ‘You were excited to wait for the next chapter’. His kindly painted memories were illuminating Vík’s dark rooms. ‘Everything was nice in the summer time – lots of kids always’ – he paused and smiled. Like the sunlight I was recording, his words were melting frozen walls. Hjörtur’s memories were directing my lens to the light.
Shortly after his father’s death in 1992, teenaged vandals demolished much of the interior. ‘But you know – kids are kids’ he said, looking to the ground. ‘I don’t want to go inside, I think it will ruin my memories’. Never far from a positive thought, he added ’There’s a little bench outside the house. I sit there with my dog sometimes in the summer and I think of the good memories’.
’Me and my younger sister’ he said, handing me a black and white image of two children by the stairs. Five days out to sea, he had received a phone call, telling of his youngest sibling’s tragic passing. With these dreadful words left hanging, the line had cut dead. ‘I wasn’t there’, he said, mournfully, the loss still etched on his face. Hjörtur’s only other physical momento of the house is his bedroom door, which he used as a guest book throughout his teenage years. ‘I didn’t want much but I took the door, and I keep it with me.’ It sits in the garage of his current home.
Finishing our last interview, I asked Hjörtur what he would like to see happen to the building. He said he wanted to see the garden taken care of and to ‘see all the windows glancing in the sun again’. As my final piece for the NES artist residency, with Hjortur’s permission and accommpanied by his voice, I projected my recordings onto the building’s southern end. Even the darkest places find light – and on that chilly night in rural Iceland, I believe Hjörtur’s pride and openness in his childhood home, let Vik’s truest colours shine once more.