Cirkus at Fireze:
The Bar, the Scene, the Legend
Memories of Reykjavík nightlife are being preserved and presented to the international art world at Frieze Art Fair in London this October. A downtown bar, Sirkus, which was closed down by developers earlier this year is being lovingly recreated with original furnishings and decor as part of the Frieze Foundation Projects by the artists of Kling & Bang Gallery in Reykjavík.
For nine years, the bar served as home to the younger gerneration of artists and musicians – a place for partying and socializing, discussions and dancing. Although the locale was not much larger than a suburban living room, it had a beer garden out back which somewhat eased the pressure of late-night and weekend revellers and, at least in summer, allowed Sirkus to host concerts and events. Gradually, the place acquired an aura that dwarfed the actual site. Its fame spread through the international underground of young artists and drinking at Sirkus became de rigeur for any foreign visitors wishing to look cool.
The legend grew to even greater proportions in 2005 when Björk released a long video to her song Triumph of the Heart from her album Medúlla. The video features a long scene filmed at Sirkus where Björk is seen drinking heavily in a sweaty crowd of dancing, singing regulars. A DVD release even features a "making-of" documentary where the regulars have an even larger role.
The tiny house has survived almost a century of development and redevelopment in Reykjavík's city centre. Older people remember it as a small general store but already in the late 1980s – after standing empty for several years – it became a focus for the younger crowd. The first bar to open there was called N1BAR, an orthographic pun which when read in Icelandic turns out to mean "Yet Another Bar". N1BAR attracted an 1980s crowd of post-punk musicians, film makers and new-wave hipsters and even hosted concerts by several well-known acts of the dayy. It was a home-away-from-home for members of The Sugarcubes, HAM and other bands that have now passed into legend themselves. N1BAR was forced to close down as developers planned to build a shopping centre on the highly desirable site. Nothing came of their plans, however, and soon another bar had opened in the tiny building. This was Grand Rock, a place where serious drinkers from all walks of life gathered and formed a close-knit and remarkably active community. The Grand Rock Chess Club, for example, rose in a few years to the top of the game, winning the Icelandic Championship at all four levels of rating (this in a country that has more chess grand masters per capita than any other and where the game is taken very seriously indeed). After a few years, Grand Rock was forced to move under pressure, again, from developers. Setting up in the next street, it has continued much along the same lines and even hosts an annual arts festival and is home to an active theatre group, in addition to hosting concerts and other events.
The plans of the developers, again, came to nothing and so Sirkus was born in the old house, run by landlady Sigríður "Sigga Boston", a veteran of 1970s counter culture who has now become a legend for a whole new generation of counter culture-types. Sigga will be accomanying Kling & Bang to Frieze.
Also featured in the installation at Frieze will be a new film about the Sirkus scene, made by artist Gabríela Friðriksdóttir (Iceland's representative at the Venice Biennale in 2005) and film makers Þorgeir Guðmundsson and Bjarni Grímsson – all regulars of the bar.
When Sirkus was forced to close last spring, the artists running Kling & Bang Gallery – regulars, too – decided to help Sigga, the landlady, to preserve the furnishings and decoration. When they were invited by the Frieze Foundation to bring a project to London, it seemed most natural to bring the bar.
Ironically, the plans of the developers (to build a hotel this time around) have again come to nothing and, given the current economic climate, it seems unlikely that anything new will be built on the site any time soon. Perhaps history will repeat itself and we will see a new bar rising from the ashes of Sirkus to serve yet another generation of alternative artists and musicians.
Meanwhile, the Dead Horse Gallery in Reykjavík mustered a group of artists in the summer to create works and decorate the outside walls and the now exposed beer garden. Somehow, the place just refuses to die.
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