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Street Art at Nat Geo Travel

My story on street art has just been published at National Geographic Travel: 7 Cities to See Powerful Street Art

Given a limit of seven places and the intent of geographical diversity, many deserving cities could not make the cut. So here are a few more favourites.  Continue reading “Street Art at Nat Geo Travel”

Tbilisi at Fodor’s

At the crossroads of east and west, the Republic of Georgia is a place that has long absorbed opposing influences, and its charming capital, Tbilisi is no different. With its crumbling Neoclassical buildings and winding streets, Tbilisi is filled with history. But as it emerges as a hot travel destination, the city is also embracing modernity as it strives to move beyond the cultural stagnation of the Soviet era.

Read my recommendations for getting a taste of Tbilisi’s booming creative scene at Fodor’s Continue reading “Tbilisi at Fodor’s”

Papa Westray at BBC

A walk around Papa Westray – a four-square-mile island on the northern edge of the Orkney archipelago in Scotland – is a walk through history.
From the 5,600-year-old Knap of Howar, northern Europe’s oldest standing house, you can walk up the coast to St Boniface Kirk. One of the oldest Christian sites in the north of Scotland, the church’s graveyard is filled with lichen-covered headstones indicating generations of families and shipwrecked sailors. Further on at the wind-battered northernmost point, where the Atlantic crashes into the North Sea and daunting cliffs are deeply ridged from centuries of erosion, a stone cairn marks the site where Britain’s last great auk – the now extinct ‘northern penguin’ – was killed in 1813.

But Papay, as the island is locally known, is not lost in the past. Thanks to its forward-thinking residents, it is thriving.

Read the rest of my article about the Orkney island of Papa Westray at BBC Travel.

(All photos ©Karen Gardiner) Continue reading “Papa Westray at BBC”

Arctic Superstar at the Village Voice

Poster for Arctic Superstar at Scandinavia House
Poster for Arctic Superstar at Scandinavia House

Last week, for the Village Voice, I interviewed the Sámi rapper, SlinCraze. Nils Rune Utsi, as he is bestter known in his tiny Arctic hometown of Máze, was in NYC for the U.N Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, a gathering of 1,200 indigenous people from around the world, where he was invited to play a concert. He also appeared at Scandinavia House, alongside Aili Keskitalo, the President of the Sámi Parliament of Norway, and Simen Braathen, the director of a documentary film about him, “Arctic Superstar.”

The story of Arctic Superstar began in New York, where, in 2013, Braathen produced a photo exhibition of Norwegian rappers and the places they represent. SlinCraze played his first NYC gig at the Mothership in Brooklyn afterward. “SlinCraze’s story stuck out to me,” Braathen told me, “because of his raw ambition, yet impossible starting point. Language is obviously important in rap, yet there he was rapping in a language that is considered endangered by UNESCO. And killing it!”

Utsi’s language is Northern Sámi, understood by only 20,000 people. Not only do Norwegians or Europeans or anyone else not understand Northern Sámi, but many Sámi people don’t understand it either.

As he told me: “There’s no numbers on how many Sámi people there are, because of a history of the Norwegian government trying to wipe out the Sámi language. A lot of kids, from at least two generations before me, learned that speaking Sámi is taboo. So they forgot the language. There’s no real numbers on how many people are actually Sámi, because a lot of people work really hard to hide it.”

I was reminded while speaking to him of an artwork I saw last year in the Stormen cultural centre in Bodø, Arctic Norway. By Edvine Larssen, who lives and works on the Lofoten islands, the piece comprises a found vintage photograph of a Sámi couple. The people in the photograph had scratched out their traditional Sámi footwear.

Edvine Larssen at Stormen. Photo by author.
Edvine Larssen at Stormen. Photo by author.

Why? Because at this time Norway had a policy of forced assimilation, known as Fornorsking, or Norwegianisation. Sámi traditions and clothing were banned, as were the Sámi languages, one of which SlinCraze is helping revitalise through his music.

Read my interview with SlinCraze here. And enjoy his thought-provoking video for Suhtadit (or, “fighting”).

 

The Art of the Faroe Islands

"Nation Building" by Edward Fuglø
“Nation Building” by Edward Fuglø

I arrived in the Faroe Islands fairly well-versed in the islands’ musical and literary heritage, but with little grasp of the visual art scene there. In fact, the only encounter with Faroese art that I can recall previously was Tróndur Patursson’s glass bird installation at Reykjavík’s concert hall, Harpa a few years ago.

Tróndur Patursson in Harpa, Reykjavík
Tróndur Patursson in Harpa, Reykjavík

Upon arrival in the Faroe Islands I met some of those birds again, this time fluttering across windows and hanging from the ceiling throughout the tiny Vagar airport.

Tróndur Patursson at Vagar Airport
Tróndur Patursson at Vagar Airport

Always working with the nature he lives with in the Faroes, Patursson’s glass work appeared again at The Nordic House, this time taking the shape of the mountains. In the photo below, outside the window, Hans Pauli Olsen’s bronze sculpture, “Pilot Whale Killing,” plays with depths and explores that controversial Faroese tradition, the annual pilot whale hunt.

Tróndur Patursson at The Nordic House
Tróndur Patursson at The Nordic House

The Nordic House is filled with art works; paintings, sculptures, lithographs and glasswork, by Faroese artists who also include Guðrið Poulseon, Jóhannes Geir and Edward Fuglø.

Fuglø’s work, “Microstate Hiker” was unfortunately on loan when I visited, but I was able to see more of his work at the hotel I was staying at, Hotel Føroyar. “Nation Building” (in the photo at the beginning of this post) was the first to strike me as I saw it hung over the staircase to the hotel’s restaurant. In it, the Faroese flag is created out of food packaging, most of which seem to be imported. The piece seems to comment on ideas of independence and self sufficiency in a nation not wholly independent and (because of the rugged terrain where vegetables do not grow easily) dependent upon imported foods. It’s worth remembering that the practice of pilot whale hunting came to be because it was once a real struggle to find food to eat here.

I was soon seduced by Fuglø’s work, filled with surreal elements and comments on Faroese identity. The below piece, in the hotel’s lounge, is called “Cosmic Event” and superimposes a flying saucer over a vintage wedding scene.

Edward Fuglø, Cosmic Event
Edward Fuglø, Cosmic Event

This one, in the reception area. I don’t have the title of as the third panel had been removed when I went to take a last look and photo of it. Again, though, Fuglø is obviously playing with ideas of identity.

You can see more of his work here: http://www.edwardfuglo.com/works.html

Edward Fuglø at Hotel Føroyar
Edward Fuglø at Hotel Føroyar

Reykjavik Winter Morning Wanderings

When I visit Iceland in the winter, my favourite time to stroll the streets of Reykjavík is in the morning, when, until late morning, the city is concealed beneath the long winter night’s cloak and tourists are few and far between.

I left my hotel after nine, while the streets were lit only by lamp posts and shop windows. I wandered through the town all the way to the old harbour, where I waited for the dark to slowly lift and for the sky to turn that ghostly winter blue I love so much.

ReykjavikMorningGallery

ReykjavikShopWindow

ReykjavikOpen

ReykjavikHarbourMorning1

ReykjavikHarbourMorning

ReykjavikMorningHallgrimskirkjaHarpa

Reykjavik-Harpa-Hallgrimskirkja

Reykjavik-Cafe

 What I was listening to:

Uni Stefson (MTV Iggy)

Sadly the music publication MTV Iggy closed down late last year — and took all of the writers’ work with it. So that my articles may live on, I am going to publish a few of them here. Beginning with this profile of Icelandic artist, Uni Stefson from July 2014.

Uni Stefson Finds Inspiration in the Icelandic Landscape

–Karen Gardiner

For his first solo outing, Unnsteinn Manuel Stefánsson has taken quite a departure from the frantic bouncy electropop and infectious hooks of Retro Stefson, the band he has fronted for eight years. Performing as Uni Stefson, his new release, titled Enginn Grætur (“Nobody Cries”) is an evocative, slowly building composition, built around a 19th century poem and backed by an emotive string arrangement by Viktor Orri Árnason.

Stefánsson first learned the poem, Stökur (“Quatrains”), when he performed it, set to a different composition, with his high school choir. “Eight years later”, he says, “I was in Berlin over the winter, writing music for the new Retro Stefson album. I wasn’t meeting anyone; I spent days, weeks by myself so when I had to do the vocals I couldn’t use my voice, I felt I had nothing to say so, out of frustration, I took up the guitar and started playing random chords and sung a melody to this poem.”

The poem’s author was Jónas Hallgrímsson, romantic, naturalist and advocate of Icelandic independence. Hallgrímsson wrote the poem during his last year of life while living in Copenhagen and suffering from a great depression. “He’s one of the great Icelandic poets”. Says Stefánsson. “It is said that if his mother tongue would have been English, he would have been one of the most famous in the world.” That’s not to say that Enginn Grætur is yet another Icelandic landscape-inspired cliché. “It’s more a personal poem I could relate to rather than another ode to the Icelandic nature”. He says. “You can get sick of that. People who look at Iceland from the outside are a little obsessed with the Icelandic musicians being inspired by the nature, but I think Icelandic musicians are just inspired by each other.”

Indeed, Stefánsson credits the size of the Icelandic music scene for fostering the environment in which musicians can experiment more freely than perhaps they could in bigger cities. The downtown neighborhood of 101 Reykjavík, where he estimates 90 percent of Icelandic musicians live, is “kind of like a village. That’s what makes Icelandic music special. It’s totally different to other cities.” Moreover, he says, “If I was in a band in Central Europe, I would have to go to an expensive studio. I would have to write something that sells. I would have in the back of my mind that I have to write a hit song that will get played on the radio. In Iceland, you never earn any money from music, so you can forget about that from the get go and just write a good song that you want to hear yourself.”

Still, while Enginn Grætur is an interesting contrast to the more global sounds of Retro Stefson, Stefánsson did not set out to write something quite so Icelandic sounding. “I was a little afraid of having the lyrics in Icelandic because of the nationalist political parties that are coming up in Iceland. Singing a 19th century poem, a romantic poem, seemed kind of off for me.” He spent six months working on the track, but halfway through, during the period of Reykjavik’s mayoral elections, the specter of nationalism entered civic life with highly publicized Islamaphobic comments made by one of the leading candidates. While Stefánsson claims Iceland is the least prejudiced country he has lived in — he was born in Portugal to an Angolan mother and has lived in Germany — the controversy affected him. “I was quite sad and it slowed down my process. But, in the end, I said that as a half-African and half-Scandinavian, I can sing this poem just as anyone else could. That was the way to be true to myself. I don’t want to mix too much of a political message in my music, but if I can release a song that has a personal statement, then I am happy.”

Stefánsson is will be releasing more of his solo “minimal” tracks over the next few months. He will be playing at Iceland Airwaves and in Toronto later this year. As for Retro Stefson, they will start recording a new album in January.

While Stefánsson doesn’t put much stock in naturalism, he says that the crescendo that the track’s three minutes slowly build up to is meant to sound like a volcano erupting. What’s a more Icelandic sound than that?

Photo by Saga Sig

Faroe Islands: Tórshavn to Kirkjubøer

On my first morning in the Faroe Islands, I woke up to the winter dark. The night before, driving from the airport to Tórshavn, I could only just trace the lines of the mountains; all the houses, meanwhile, aglow, outlined by festive lights.

I set out in the dark morning from my hotel high about the town, the lights of the harbour twinkling in the distance and just a dusting of snow underfoot. In the gradually lifting dark, I followed the blue dot on my phone’s map, making sure to stick to the trail up and over the mountain all the way to the village of Kirkjubøur. Once I set foot on the mountain I had no more use for that blue dot, guided by a series of cairns and a happy dog who’s name tag read Bella. Bella walked with me — bouncing ahead but always returning to me if I fell too far behind — until I safely arrived in Kirkjubøur.

The two-hour walk stretched and was expanded by my compulsive stopping and gawking at the scenery around me; the warm golden glow of the rising sun casting a heavenly glow over the mountainscape. To the right, the islands of Hestur and Koltur rose gracefully from the surprisingly still sea, basking in the soft light that revealed just enough of their forms to arouse curiosity.

The sights of Kirkjubøur are of great historical significance — the ruins of the 14th century Magnus Cathedral, the Faroes’ oldest still functioning church, and the world’s oldest still-inhabited wooden house. But my memories are of untangling the horns of a sheep that got itself stuck in a football net, gently pushing its poor, bleating head as I unwound and unwrapped the net; piles and piles of seaweed washed ashore, thick and sturdy as hockey sticks, the relentless crashing of the waves, and the soft snoring of the bus driver coming from a small room just off the pristine bus shelter where I waited until the designated time for the little red bus to take me back to Tórshavn.

Tórshavn. 9:30am
Tórshavn. 9:30am

Torshavn Stream

Torshavn Sheep

Torshavn Red Houses

Torshavn Dog

Torshavn

Torshavn

Torshavn

Torshavn

Torshavn Islands

Kirkjuboer

What I was listening to in the Faroe Islands:

Lynda Benglis: Water Sources at Storm King Art Center

Lynda Benglis: Water Sources
Lynda Benglis: Water Sources

I was recently invited to attend a preview of a new temporary exhibition at Storm King Art Center, an open-air sculpture park in upstate New York.

In the Hudson Valley, about an hour north of New York City, Storm King sits on more than 500 acres of rolling hills, fields, and woodlands, and is home to a collection of more than 100 large-scale sculptures by artists including Alexander Calder, Maya Lin, Louise Nevelson, Isamu Noguchi, Claes Oldenburg, and Richard Serra, David Smith.

Its two special exhibitions for the summer season are Lynda Benglis: Water Sources and Outlooks: Luke Stettner. With more than a dozen outdoor sculptures, as well as more inside the museum’s building, it is the first exhibition to display a major grouping of Benglis’s large-scale sculptures and fountains, which she has been producing since the early 1980s.

Lynda Benglis: Water Sources
Lynda Benglis: Water Sources

This piece, North, South, East, West, features a crustacean-like piece called Crescendo, which sits atop the very first water fountain she made in 1983-84 for the New Orleans World Fair (it was lost for a long time after the World Fair went bankrupt.)

The surroundings of her early life influence her work. Benglis grew up in Louisiana, always around water and a witness to oil spills in bayous.

Lynda Benglis: Water Sources
Lynda Benglis: Water Sources

This 2014 piece, named Pink Ladies, is inspired by a kite Benglis saw at a kite-flying festival in Ahmedabad, India. Benglis reminds us that pink is a natural colour, though we may not see it as such. The texture, she says, is inspired by the brain coral she sees on her frequent scuba diving trips.

Lynda Benglis: Water Sources
Lynda Benglis: Water Sources

Hills and Clouds, her most recent work, glows after dark. Natural phosphorescence, such as in bioluminescent waters and phosphorescent caves, in another of Benglis’ indfluences. She also cites the glow-in-the-dark displays at funhouses in the South that she visited as a child.

Storm King are offering special evening visits to see this piece glow in the dark. Even without the full effect, in a blazing hot June sun in my case, it is well worth the visit for the rare opportunity to see these pieces.

One World Observatory with Walks of New York

One World Observatory
One World Observatory

The One World Trade Center’s new observation deck has recently opened and I visited as part of a Walks of New York tour.

Led by local New Yorkers, these small group tours hone in on specific subject (say, photography) or neighbourhood (eg. the Lower East Side) and go deep, but not too deep–less facts and figures, more personal histories.

The main draw of Walks of New York’s WTC Tour & One World Observatory tour may seem to be the pre-reserved tickets to the observatory, but prior to entering the WTC the guide leads a fascinating two-hour tour of the surrounding area. I rarely visit this area myself, feeling there’s something not quite right about gawking around the disaster sites, but I was very glad to have taken this tour and to have learned a more personal side to the events of that day–and the weeks, months and years afterwards.

The tour began at St. Paul’s Chapel, New York City’s oldest public building, which, amazingly, was not damaged at all during the attacks. Even these 18th-century chandeliers were left intact.

St Paul's Chapel
St Paul’s Chapel

The church soon became a refuge for the rescue workers who couldn’t get home after their 12-hour shifts. Messages of support came in from around the world–including these cranes from Nagasaki and Hiroshima survivors.

St. Paul's Chapel
St. Paul’s Chapel

This bell was presented to St. Paul’s in solidarity from the Mayor of London.

St. Paul's Chapel
St. Paul’s Chapel

The new transit hub at Fulton Center has recently been completed.

Fulton Center
Fulton Center

The mix of old and new architecture in Lower Manhattan is striking. This is the Woolworth building, completed in 1913, parts of which are being developed into luxury apartments.

Woolworth Building
Woolworth Building
Woolworth Building
Woolworth Building

Speaking of luxury apartments, here is “New York by Gehry,” the tallest residential tower in the Americas.

Frank Gehry
Frank Gehry
Modern and Romanesque
Modern and Romanesque

Santiago Calatrava’s World Trade Center Transit Hub is years overdue and millions of dollars over budget. Still, here’s a look at the Oculus in construction.

The Oculus in construction
The Oculus in construction

And the PATH station’s Platform B.

PATH Station at WTC
PATH Station at WTC

Brookfield Place, when it was called the World Financial Center was terribly damaged on 9/11. The Winter Garden, which had all the windows blown out, has been beautifully restored and has been expanded to hold a variety of great food vendors, including Le District, a kind of French Eataly.

Brookfield Place
Brookfield Place
The Oculus from Brookfield Plaza
The Oculus from Brookfield Plaza
Waterfront Plaza
Waterfront Plaza
Memorial
Memorial

So to the observatory. Super high-speed elevators whisk visitors 102 floors up in about 40 seconds. During that brief time, video screens inside the elevators show a CGI timelapse of New York City history–the landscape of Lower Manhattan from the year 1500 until today. It was one of my favourite parts.

Then, upstairs you are obliged to watch a bit of a kitschy video celebrating NYC before the screen goes up to reveal the skyline to cheers from the crowd.

Thankfully that is the only cringey part of the experience and you are then left alone to wander the observation deck and take in the 360-degree views at your leisure.

One World Observatory
One World Observatory
One World Observatory
One World Observatory
One World Observatory
One World Observatory
One World Observatory
One World Observatory
One World Observatory
One World Observatory
One World Observatory
One World Observatory
One World Observatory
One World Observatory

Thanks to Walks of New York for hosting me on their tour.