Chapter Two: Istanbul and Venice

Tomorrow The Suitable World heads out on a 12 day trip to Istanbul and Venice.    Same suit (which emerged from a dry cleaner in Cahors respectably clean and crisp), same rules. 

We planned this almost a year ago but the itinerary feels timely.   Venice and Istanbul (née Constantinople) have a storied history of commercial, artistic and military exchange that shaped the Mediterranean.

Both cities have art biennales happening at a time of chaotic regional struggle and self-reflection. At the very least I hope to take-in how art is perceiving the existential crises (whose causes and consequences are deeply connected) happening both in Europe and the Middle East.

The suit will often be stripped down to accommodate warmer weather  

This journey will be more casual which means fewer posts, fewer pics and certainly no gallery show at the end.  I will try to post daily to Facebook and Instagram with longer forms posts coming when the spirit moves me.

Thanks for staying tuned.


Leaving The Suit.  Done… but not Over

We have now been back from Iceland just over a month.  It was illuminating, inspiring and physically exhausting.    We have been working on a proposal for the next (possible) version of the project  and that work has taken me away from posting here on this blog.   In that interim I have received emails and a few FB messages asking questions about how the project ended, what’s next etc.  I thought I would post responses to the most common questions here.

Did you end with the fancy dinner?

Yes.  We went to arguably the nicest restaurant in Reykjavik.  The idea was to place to suit in a context where, after all of the adventure and outlandish contexts, it was finally in its environment.

The reality however is that we found ourselves camped alongside visitors wearing the ubiquitous North Face, REI, and Jack Wolfskin attire.    There is much to say about this phenomenon - the “casualisation” of our world - and how every traveler now wears an adventure uniform.   For the most part I applaud the shift towards specialty gear and freedom of choice to wear what one wants.  On the other hand this project has caused me to lament the loss of “occasion” and ceremony,  the donning of clothes to signify a moment… that territory seems to have been reduced to weddings, funerals and perhaps job interviews.

How did the suit hold up?

All in all the suit held up beautifully.   It kept me warm for the most part - even in snow - and the padding and linings are all still robust.   It hid dirt and wear admirably and suffered nothing that a good dry-cleaner cannot undo.  I think the fabric weight and pattern were ideally suited to the Icelandic “summer” climate.  If the itinerary were to expand across warmer climes I would need to reconsider but the suit was made for Iceland and it did its job well.

What was hardest on the suit?

The horse.  Followed by kayaking (I was soaked).   Working on the farm held the most potential for damage but luckily I didn’t fall into the mud.

Did it feel strange to take the suit off?

Oddly no.  I love the suit and it feels like a comrade but taking it off wasn’t difficult at all.    It was harder to acclimate to  the onset of our first dark night after 28 straight days of constant sunlight.   

Yvette and I made it home Sunday evening after a full month away from home.    We had routed through London in order to attend a surprise birthday party for a friend…  The invitation read, “gentlemen in suits, women in dresses.”   Thus it was that I finally took the suit off on day 29 (June 27) in order to climb into a fitted, aubergine, tonic mohair suit.  

What would you do differently?

My overcoat was a small disaster (not really water resistant and aesthetically it dragged the outfit down) but my socks were the worst.  They didn’t hold their shape and often slipped down into the boot.   Terrible.

What is next?

We are done with the journey to Iceland but The Suitable World is not over.   

  • Yvette and I are  refining the material we gathered into a book 
  • The Suit will be taken to a cleaner and made ready for its next outing in October… This won’t be as extreme as 30 days in Iceland but we will continue to extend the premise and blog about it.
  • There is a proposal in the works to do The Suitable World on a grander scale.  The chances are small but we shall see.
  • We will update the web site with work shown for the exhibit at Mengi in Reykjavik

We wanted to thank everyone for the engagement (on this blog, via email and on Facebook). More to come!

Josh and Yvette 

Leaving Iceland

We have now returned from Iceland.  I will be posting several follow ups - not always in chronological order.

We flew from Reykjavik to London on Thursday (June 27), completing the final leg of The Suitable World.   Day 1 and Day 28 were thus bookended by airports.

Clean-shaven in a pristine suit at Gatwick airport.  May 29th.  

We were obviously “over-dressed” as fellow travellers in the obligatory uniform (tennis shoes, jeans, brightly coloured outdoor jacket and backpack) flowed around us like so much water from the same river.  

Moving through the terminal I was reminded of my grandparents when they would fly south to visit.  My grandfather dusted off the only suit I ever saw him in;  a coffee-brown, two-button number with white shirt and a turquoise bolo tie. My grandmother put on her finest.   They were California farmers and commercial flight had developed during their lifetime.  To the end of their days flying was an occasion and it warranted the respect of wearing fine clothing.   

A rather crumpled but still-dignified return to London...   

Lost In The Supermarket

We tend to have a proprietary feeling over the music that has made an imprint on our lives and so it is a curious sensation to hear the songs of our childhood played in faraway places.  

That being said, I salute the groceries of Iceland (Bonus, Kronar, Netto) for their impeccable taste in music.  A small sampling of what we have heard across the island:

  • Nick Drake:  River Man 
  • Beach Boys: Good Vibrations 
  • Elton John:  Benny and the Jets
  • Al Green: Tired of Being Alone 
  • Radiohead: High and Dry 
  • Crowded House: Don’t Dream It’s Over
  • The Beatles:  A Little Help From My Friends 
  • Beck:  Lost Cause

If that is what you are hearing… this is what you are seeing; the sweet temptations and savoury, tinned delicacies at the grocery.

I think you could make a TV show out of going grocery shopping in different countries, the packaged foods they sell, the protocols, history and, most importantly, their taste.   They are as much a part of the culture as the restaurants.  They are intimate, the things we take into our homes; the guilty pleasures and moments where convenience trumps preparedness.  I would watch that show.  Would you?   

Bourdain… are you in?

I would, of course, also want to know how they choose their soundtracks.  Is it the caprice of some hipster food-stocker or is this some mega-corporate, focus-group initiative ("people buy more seafood when hearing Nick Drake…")?

 

Time and Light

Summer solstice at 65 degrees Northern latitude.   Twenty-three hours of daytime.  It is a deception that wreaks pleasant confusion upon the senses.   Time comes unmoored.   It moves past us unobserved when light remains constant.   Here we stay up until 2AM.  Rookies.   The rest of Iceland falls asleep while we toil away on our project like neurotic spiders. 

11PM - Near Asbyrgi Canyon

11PM - Near Asbyrgi Canyon

Last night the sun set at 12:03 and has risen a scant 3 hours later.   A five hour twilight reigns over the wee hours.  Sheep gorge 24/7 in the crepuscular light.  The schedules of birds and insects elide in a blurred cacophony.   The city gains a youthful exuberance, soaking up solar power.   

From here begins the long tilt into night

Those of us in the milder latitudes take our moderate but consistent darkness for granted.  It is a predictable ally, a reprieve from labour.   

The Suitable World at Mengi

Last night we had a show at Mengi.   

For those who couldn’t make it to Reykjavik (we forgive you) we will be posting it online.  

Many thanks to Mengi - a magical venue with music at its heart.    Our show was followed by a classical performance and subsequent improvisation that was one of the highlights of 2015 for us.   Inspired, beautiful, manic and joyous. It began with an elegiac rendering of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.

The show looks beautiful in the space and will remain up for a few more days.   Special thanks to Kristján for connecting us with Mengi and to Izzy, Ragga and Caitlin for all the care and support in putting the show on. 

Eating Fermented Shark With A Viking

One of the exoticisms of travel is tasting cuisine that challenges your notion of edibility.  I call it food theatre.   We love to taste something “awful", pull a face and then have a story to tell.  This is one of those stories.  Warning, don't read this aloud to the little ones... it gets graphic.

Ulfur and Annska hosted us on their farm outside of Isafjordor today.  Their friend Orri had just come from a Viking ceremony put on for a group of German tourists.  He was still clothed in traditional  attire: woollen overcoat with wrought-iron brooch, linen tunic and pants.   Thus it came to pass that our food-sampling took place looking out over the calm inner-sea of the fjord in the company of a Viking.  

I will quote from Orri whose descriptions lacked any gilding.  They were delivered with elegance and a matter-of-fact economy but they seemed to me remarkably apt.   And if you think Orri doesn’t like some of the dishes he describes  you would be wrong.  He is an avid eater.

Regarding the Shark...

Regarding the Shark...

Hákarl - putrescent shark.  Orri says of the particular batch we tasted, “this is only rotten but not rancid.”   I will need to trust his guidance on this since my palate lacks such nuance.  Rotten it was - with an ammoniac aftertaste that climbs up into your sinuses and digs its own graveyard.  

We drank a mysterious whey as a kind of sadistic chaser.  It is a sharp and sour drink that had been diluted with water, giving it a milky translucence.  Oddly I didn’t mind it too much but perhaps this is because it followed the shark? 

Lumpfish smoked using a process call Tað (pronounced “toth").  This is a fish that is smoked using a compounded mixture of sheep manure, hay, wool and urine that accumulates in the barn over winter.  It is hard-stuff that comes out in bricks.   At this point you might already be sensing that something smoked in such a substance can never find its way to goodness.  You are right my friends... read on.

Orri says, “Its like, ‘let’s shit in an ashtray and feed it to people!'”   Well said.   I actually tasted this a few days ago, mistaking it for regular smoked fish.   It took all my powers of dissociation to get through the ordeal.  Yvette kept asking me what it tasted like while I was chewing.  I couldn’t answer her.  At one point, my mouth still chock a block with this vile matter, I cried  “I just need to get through this… I can’t think about it!"

Orri reminisces:   “My uncle made a very strong tað once and the taste of shit was lingering in the mouth for days.” 

Good times. 

The Artist-Farmer

We have had remarkable support finding people to meet with during this project.  (This will be the subject of a future post).   

One of the more inspiring visits was to Havari - a farm in the East Fjords run by Berglind Häsler and Svavar Pétur Eysteinsson.  

The first thing that hits you is what a beautiful location it is.  A lazy green slope to the sea, sheep and lambs fitfully mowing an endless lawn, a yellow lighthouse at land’s end.   Birglind and Svavar are both musicians, have their own successful brand of vegan sausages (Bulsur) and are starting a new line of rutabaga chips/crisps.   They run a guesthouse they have renovated and an artist's residency… Amongst all of this they have three children and are managing an active farm.   

Svavar and Birglind moved here from Reykjavik and epitomise what I can only term the “artist-farmer”; artists using farms as their base of creative operations. What a beautiful concept.   We toured their enterprise, ate Bulsur,  held baby lambs in their barn, and left with that uplift that comes after meeting people who reconfigure your notions of what is possible.

Svavar’s musical alter-ego is Prins Póló - he and Berglind are in a band together. The two CDs they gave us are now on endless rotation and have become the soundtrack to our experience here.   If you want to hear what we are hearing as we move across Iceland you can get them on Spotify here 

Getting Soiled (Not Dirty)

Nothing could be further from the suit’s natural environment than a farm.    So of course we wanted to get to one and get our hands dirty.   We had been given a recommendation to visit an organic farm while in the East.  And so it was that we did what seems to be the typically Icelandic thing;  we called Eymunder as we were driving out to his farm and told him we wanted to stop by in an hour.   Sure thing. 

Vallanes sits near a wide stretch of river at the base of a mountain range that separates the East Fjords from the interior.   The place was in full swing with people planting in the fields and processing vegetables in the kitchen.   Eymunder and his wife, who run the farm together, showed great Nordic stoicism when confronted by two people dressed as we are asking if they could do some work.  This kind of thing must happen to them every day.   

Only during this journey has it become clear to me that “the suit” in The Suitable World is also a metaphor for the body.   The constraints of being given one to care for (for better or worse), managing its inevitable decline and the matter of fitting in vs standing out.  

Thus we faced a metaphorically existential choice as we went out into the field.  Yvette asked me if I was really going to get into the muddy ground and risk seriously staining the suit.  But what is a body for if not to be used completely? How and where do you draw the line between preserving something you love - and using it to the fullest?  

Off we went, Yvette and I,  compacting the earth with our boots, punching holes for the seedlings and planting rows of parsley and red-leaf lettuce.   In fairness I was careful.  I did not kneel in the furrow as the others did.  I squatted somewhat daintily - but I did get my seedlings planted and kept pace.   We then cut beets in the massive kitchen, pulling them out of giant tubs of barley husks where they had been stored.    

The farm is actively engaged the reforestation of Iceland (Eymunder has planted one million trees), and is part of the international WWOOF movement .    

Farming is elemental.  All other human pursuits are luxuries granted through its largesse.  So I am always slightly amazed at how often farmers we meet here are gracious and willing to get in on the act by supporting a bit of conceptual art..  Thanks to everyone at Vallanes from Yvette and I. 

The Suit in Doubt

Suits project confidence and capability.  At least they are supposed to.  They square the shoulders, add symmetry to the body, and hide the less-desirable parts of your physique.  They tell people you know what you are doing.  You are in control.

In exchange for these gifts, the suits asks very little.     You are not supposed to be clumsy in a suit.  You are not supposed to be dumb.  If and when you violate these rules the suit betrays you utterly.  

Case in point.   We were at a gas station in Hofn and I was filling the tank.  I was distracted.   When done filling I placed the green petrol 95 pump back in its place.  Only then did I have the nauseating realisation that I had just filled our diesel rental car with regular gasoline.  

It was Sunday.  It was also Fisherman’s Day, a holiday at Hofn.    Screwed.

We spent the next three hours going through the long ordeal to fix things.   Fix them we did, but the psychic scars will last longer.  I must tell you it is harder to inform the station attendant what you have done when wearing a three-piece suit.  It is harder to laugh it off with the kindly mechanic who left his family on a Sunday to help.  It is even harder to tell the DIY farmer  you are staying with.   On that last point Yvette helped.   

My humiliation is documented below.  Shoulders sag, hands in pockets like a schoolboy and I mostly look at the ground - projecting confidence!

The Beshatted Suit

“Tis a misery… being shat upon”   Anonymous 

Warning: Our sound gear failed today so the wind is a bit strong in this one.

We can now add being shat upon to the list of violations and abuses endured by the suit.   It happened like this.  We were hiking in to a remote lodge in Skalanes.  Along the way we were warned that arctic terns were guarding their eggs and might be a bit distraught to have visitors.   At this stage in the writing Yvette wants to assure everyone we were on a marked footpath and presenting these fearsome beasts with no danger. 

We came in peace.

Yet the arctic terns had other plans.   Savage and filthy plans.   You may think yourself manly and self-possessed.  But when these chirping, screeching, shrieking, winged and sharp-of-beak menaces begin their dive-bomb routine you are faced with a more primordial set of feelings.   These are best expressed in one impulse.   Run.

We did get some video of the sad event.  My favourite section of film clearly shows all composure lost.  The camera swings wildly from ground to brush at an angle that definitively shows all regard for filming has been lost in the urgency of escape.

On a peculiar side note I can tell you that arctic tern droppings have a markedly pleasant odour.  I rank it well above Patchouli and should I ever have a mind for another career turn (tern?) I may just bottle the stuff and sell it in hipster shops. 

Wear and Preservation: The Suit At Middle Age

Every act of preservation… succeeds only temporarily.  It is a brief swirl in the relentless flow of dissolution
Glenn Kurtz - Three Minutes in Poland

This is no longer the suit I set out in.

It is losing its creases.  The wrinkles have set in behind the knees. The trouser cuffs are discoloured by repeated long hikes and the trauma of a horse-ride.   After  soakings from rain and waterfall, the waistcoat has developed warps and buckling.  I have re-sewn a loose button on my right cuff.   Tonight, a shoe cleaning is in order to remove the dirt and the gravel that has embedded itself into the commando sole.   I will brush the mud from the the trousers and place them on the hanger for the night.   

From a distance, at the right angles, the outfit still holds its own.   

However no amount of mending will return things to new.  The rituals of care we employ here - sewing, polishing, brushing -  are soft protests against impermanence.   The act of wearing something is the act of wearing it out.  We  employ any number of stratagems to slow that process down.  But these are delaying tactics.   Like all things facing the solvent of time, we are headed towards dissolution.

There is a poignancy in the act of caring for things; standing in the moment against that mountain of time bearing down on us and carrying on.  It is enough, if only for a while, we stave off wear.   We care for the things we love and we try to preserve them in the time we have.  

Standing Out and Fitting In

People we meet continue to stare, smile or sometimes cast a frown.    Perhaps the most surprising element of this project has been the discomfort I feel in the morning when I need to don the suit and face scrutiny.

I have gained a measure of sympathy for those of us who can’t help but stand out, can never really hide among the crowd.   Now curious gazes  follow us wherever we go (remember Yvette is following the same rules).  When I tell people, “This (gesturing at the suit) is an art project” there is a visible relief on their faces quickly followed up with “I was wondering…”  

We are question marks moving through this place.    

Time and Scale. Day Eight

If we could accelerate the flow of time we would see the violence of nature’s most beautiful work;  canyons carved from water,  massive eruptions of stone rising straight from flat ground, glacial floes grinding their hard way to the sea.  There are epic contests being waged on a timescale so vast we can only perceive its inner precincts.   Man is not in his element here.  Man does his best to work within a greater nature.    

The scale of things is difficult to capture on camera.   It is difficult to process in one’s own mind.  Today we passed a massive rock formation, it’s top covered in a whorl of dark cloud.  Vistas like these are surreal.  They feel like something cooked up in Hollywood (“This is where the dark lord bides his time!”).  

Such an expansive and wild-feeling place makes one feel smaller in every way… our precious few years among the ageless rock and water, our plans measured in months, perhaps years; our ambitions and capacities placed against mountain-carvers and molten giants.   Wearing a suit here smacks of the ridiculous at times.   Not just being out-of-place, but  the vanity of plans.   What can one possibly expect when set among such immensity and drama?

Oddly, I find it comforting and hopeful.  Despite our size we labour on in the time we have.   We are a part of, and apart from, this landscape.  Everything about the suit here is a kind of hopeful defiance; a dream of renewal, beauty and meaning against overwhelming odds.  

 

The Suit Grows Up. Day Seven.

The outfit has been christened by the elements; water, mud, dust, fearsome wind and sunshine, boulder climbing, steep ascents and even some snow as we hiked through wondrous Thorsmork. Of course we all remember "the day of the horse."  Ruinous.

Today I was soaked-through three times.  Once in the blast-zone of a massive waterfall (Skogafoss - and entirely my fault),  once while walking the black-sand beaches of Dyrholaey nature reserve and finally hiking through the primordial canyon-land of Fjaðrárgljúfur.

At day seven the outfit begins to feel like an old friend.  

The shoes say "good morning, it's good to see you again."   Though we see one another daily the waistcoat  greets me with a hug and the coat an agreeable handshake while the braces are the strong, silent type.   The trousers are easygoing, content to let the others do the talking.   Like all old friends there are disagreements - moments where I want some time apart.    But  we know one another; our limits and what to expect.   There is comfort in this.

Sound and Light

Despite the near endless daylight the sun is still wan this far north… A surge of incoming clouds turns the sky dark.  Your senses tell you night approaches.  But there will be no night.  Not in any sense that I am familiar with.

This is what it looks like on the other side of midnight.  1AM with a full moon.

This is what it sounds like.  

If you are at work, put on headphones and imagine yourself in another place.  Birds are singing, apparently never having troubled to go sleep.   Insects are looking for love or a territorial rumble. The nocturnal and diurnal elide in a great Northern confusion.

I have brushed the dust off the suit, wiped, scraped and polished the boots.  Time for bed.  

The Wind. No Really... The Wind

When you think of coming to Iceland you read about the wind.  When you meet people who have been to Iceland you hear about the wind.   Then you come here and, like a moron, you think “Jesus Christ… it’s windy!"

At times today it was so extreme it was impossible to walk a straight line.   I thought it was going to blow me off this cliff.  Yvette, heroically behind a camera, and standing on the other side of the precipice kept asking me to get closer to the abyss.  I kept shouting (over the deafening wind) “are you trying to kill me?" 


In Praise of The Gaiter: Hengill Thermal Zone

We are entering day three (technically speaking).  It is beautiful here in a way that makes you feel like a small and vulnerable thing moving through the landscape.

We hiked into the Hengill geothermal zone - furiously boiling mud pots, sulfurous cauldrons and steaming vents among the screes.    Everywhere you turn nature here is kinetic.    It is in the act.

The suit took quite the beating yesterday.  Today I was chastened and wore my gaiters (a protective sheath for the lower leg).   Tonight I sing in praise of gaiters.     

Being out of Place

This will be the subject of a more thoughtful post in time...  But for now let me say that the suit provoked quite a few reactions today; from the curious, to the mirthful, to the occasional disdainful glance.  

Being "suitable but out of place" has always been core to the project; what happens when you don this costume that is loaded with meaning and place it in contexts where it no longer belongs?   I asked for it.   That said, I felt shy and at first found it hard to respond to the attention.   Being out of place is something I am not used to. 

Panorama photos: J. Ross (on my dated iPhone 5!).  All other photos: Yvette Molina

I Smell Like Horse, Of Course

I would like to say today is day three of The Suitable World.  Hell, I would like to say it is day ten. That would at least mean the suit had made a soft entry into Iceland.  However, we rode the fabled Icelandic horse today and my horse had other plans for the suit.   Here is a brief video we shot at the end of the day.

In this video I make the horse out to be a villainous culprit.  He was actually a lovely and rather docile character.   I simply have zero skills.  

This place is like a new earth… with lumpy, moss-covered lava-fields, glacial floes stripping out new canyon-land and fierce blue lakes and streams everywhere.   I am writing this at midnight. The sky is a milky-dusk.  By the time this project ends - on solstice - there will only be about a 2 hour window where the sun just dips below the horizon before returning.    Even with all that sunlight it is cold and made colder by the wind.   We will begin including more visuals soon.

Everyone in Iceland that has encountered the project has been wonderfully supportive and enthused.  It is early days but despite the suit getting hammered, we are feeling great. 

Many thanks to the indomitable Kristján for the incredible experience today and for helping us sort through many of the logistics before getting on the ground here.   He has been an anchor (and he knows how to ride a horse!) 

The Suitable World is Under Way!

After seven years of loose consideration, ten months of planning and four months of serious preparation, The Suitable World is under way.   We arrive today, May 29th, and make our way around the island over the course of a little over three weeks.  The project ends at a fine dinner in Reykjavik on June 21.  Suitably attired (we hope)!

While the project has evolved and gained depth, the core premise has always been; one man, one suit, 21 days across a set of extremely different conditions.

Throughout the trip we would like to meet local poets, farmers, historians, artists, scientists, storytellers and eccentrics.   

If you can connect us to people feel free to email directly: info@thesuitableworld.com or put your thoughts in the comments.