Union of the North
Barbarous nuptials in an Icelandic shopping centre. Written by the world-renowned contemporary artist Matthew Barney, this is performative video of disturbing brutality.
The Sumerian goddess of creation Nammu is now a waitress at a Dunkin’ Donuts in a shopping centre in Reykjavík, getting ready to celebrate the sacred union of two lovers. In the frozen food aisle: harsh fluorescent lighting, orangey uniforms, Homeric chants, tribal dances. In this art movie full of disturbing brutality, the celebration of the marriage will be grandiose.
Written by the world-renowned contemporary artist Matthew Barney and directed by the choreographer Erna Ómarsdóttir and the musician Valdimar Jóhannsson, Union of the North is radically removed from the Icelandic cliché of the great outdoors, embracing an air-conditioned, consumerist modernity. Performed by Iceland Dance Company, the film unfolds at times like a majestic opera, at times like a strident reality TV show. The scenes pack a punch, striking through the cerebral cortex: rites of passage full of noise and fury, violent sacrificial cults. A blood-soaked, frenetic wedding, between the sublime and the trivial. A sacred union.
Produced by Iceland Dance Company
Directed by Valdimar Jóhannsson + Erna Ómarsdóttir
Script and lyrics Matthew Barney
Choreographed by Erna Ómarsdóttir in collaboration with the performers
Performed by Þyrí Huld Árnadóttir + Hannes Þór Egilsson + Friðgeir Einarsson + Lovísa Ósk Gunnarsdóttir + Aðalheiður Halldórsdóttir + Sofia Jernberg + Dóra Jóhannsdóttir + Valdimar Jóhannsson + Raven Laxdal + Ásgeir Helgi Magnússon + Erna Ómarsdóttir + Hjördís Lilja Örnólfsdóttir + Elín Signý Weywadt Ragnarsdóttir + Inga Maren Rúnarsdóttir + Sigtryggur Berg Sigmarsson + Anna Guðrún Tómasdóttir + Halla Þórðardóttir
Music Valdimar Jóhannsson + Sofia Jernberg
Text Friðgeir Einarsson
Director of Photography Tómas Örn Tómasson
Editor Frosti Jón Runólfsson
Set Design Guðni Rúnar Gunnarsson + Ari Birgir Ágústsson
Costume Design Rebekka Jónsdóttir + Hrafnhildur Hólmgeirsdóttir
Hair and Make-up Harpa Finnsdóttir
Sound Recording Agnar Friðbertsson + Ari Rannveigarson
Camera Anní Ólafsdóttir, Frosti Jón Runólfsson + Viktor Orri Andersen
Giant donut Design Matthew Barney
Assistant Director Anna Gunndís Guðmundsdóttir
Assistant Cameraman Victor Bogdanski
Assistant Set Design Vilhjálmur Pétursson
Assistant Costume Design Kolbrún Sigurðardóttir
Assistant Hair and Make-up Kamilla Kristín Auðunsdótti
Production and Co-ordination Heba Eir Kjeld + Hulda Helgadóttir + Kata Ingva + Bjarni Jónsson + Ragnheiður Skúladóttir
Customers at the mall Hekla Elísabet Aðalsteinsdóttir + Elísa Lind Finnbogadóttir + Anita Ísey Jónsdóttir + Bjarni Jónsson + Kristín Manúelsdóttir + Erla Rut Mathiesen + Sigurður Andrean Sigurgeirsson
Kids on bikes Baldur Björn Arnarsson + Katrín Eir Ásgeirsdóttir + Arna Geirsdóttir + Freyja Geirsdóttir + Anna Kolbrún Ísaksdóttir + Brynjar Óli Ísaksson + Geir Örn Jacobsen + Elísabet María Jónsdóttir Kjeld + Hekla Kristleifsdóttir + Vaka Tómasdóttir +Valgerður Gríma Sigurjónsdóttir + Elmar Sölvi Steinarsson
Co-produced by Spring Festival (Utrecht) + Kunstcentrum BUDA (Kortrijk) + tanzhaus nrw (Düsseldorf) + Reykjavík Dance Festival
With the support of Icelandic Ministry of Education, Science and Culture + Kulturkontakt Nord – Nordic Culture Fund (Helsinki) + City of Reykjavík + Shalala (Reykjavík) in co-operation with Reykjavík City Theatre + LÓKAL Performing Arts Reykjavík
Presented in association with Festival du nouveau cinéma + Cinémathèque québécoise
Written by Diane Jean
Translated by Neil Kroetsch
Matthew Barney (Reykjavík + New York) Iceland Dance Company
One of the most celebrated visual artists of his generation and the recipient of several international awards, Matthew Barney is an artist who works in sculpture, performance art, drawing and film.
He is particularly well known for his series of five films made between 1994 and 2002, The Cremaster Cycle, where he plays several roles: Houdini, a young satyr, the murderer Gary Gilmore, etc.
Drawing Restraint 9 (2005) is a commemorative film about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and features both the artist and his former long-term companion Björk.
Hijacking history, genres and myths, the 2014 project River of Fundament, freely inspired by Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings, plays with both Egyptian mythology and the rise and fall of the American car industry.
Valdimar Jóhannsson (Reykjavík + New York) Iceland Dance Company
Initially a sound engineer and then a composer and a musician, Valdimar Jóhannsson is a lighting designer, performer, dancer and filmmaker, according to his desires and the projects he is working on.
Like Ómarsdóttir, he has worked with Sigur Rós, Ben Frost and Krist Verdonck.
In 2008, both founded the performance group Shalala, which in 2009 presented Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness at the Reykjavík Arts Festival.
In 2011 the duo presented We Saw Monsters and The Tickling Death Machine at the Kunstenfestivaldesarts in Brussels. The couple also established the metal opera performance band Lazyblood.
In 2017 they devised and, with Iceland Dance Company, produced Sacrifice, “a festival of common things made holy”, an event that featured shows, happenings and exhibits, including the closing presentation, the film Union of the North.
Erna Ómarsdóttir (Reykjavík + New York) Iceland Dance Company
The choreographer and dancer Erna Ómarsdóttir is known as a performer for leading choreographers such as Jan Fabre, les ballets C de la B and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui.
She collaborated with renowned artists like Björk, Damien Jalet and Gabríela Friðriksdóttir. In 2015 she was appointed artistic director of Iceland’s most important dance troupe, Iceland Dance Company.
The film is part of a larger event entitled Sacrifice, a festival where you present different performances based on the theme of the sacred and featuring dance, music and visual art works. Why do you find that theme attractive?
Valdimar Jóhannsson: We wanted to get married, but didn’t want to knuckle under to tradition. Matthew Barney is a friend we met through Björk. We really admire his work, particularly the Cremasters Series. When the idea of marriage came up, we wanted to do it in our own way, even to create a work of art or a performance for it, because marriage itself is a bit of a performance.
We wanted to make the ceremony more personal, to ask great artists to direct, to make music, to join in. Artistic creativity is an important, almost indivisible part of our daily life, it is our engine. When we asked Matthew to create a new ceremony, the idea immediately appealed to him.
Erna Ómarsdóttir: We also wanted to explore rites of passage practised in certain societies, for instance events that mark a child’s becoming an adult. From there we discovered that in our western society these confirmation rituals are very easy going compared to those of certain African tribeswhere young boys, are supposed to supposed to survive some days alone in the wild nature in order to be accepted as grown-ups.
With Matthew we worked on the marriage ritual. At first it was supposed to be performed on stage but he was very uninspired by this idea, so when we told him the shopping mall was next door to Reykjavík City Theatre, were Iceland Dance Company resides, he got really interested and things started happening. Then he came up with the idea of using both ends of the shopping mall: the supermarket on one end was were the men prepared and the sports store was where the women were. The movie is a lengthy journey between these two stores, with the Dunkin Donuts at its center.
It would have been perfectly natural to film a ritual in the grandiose landscapes of Iceland. Is that the cliché you wanted to avoid?
V. J.: In music videos, there are always shots of the group in front of lava or a geyser under the northern light, whereas in a supermarket at night under artificial light, with no clients in the store, the site becomes sacred. It is transformed by the situations we impose on it.
When we started thinking about the film, the Dunkin’ Donuts outlet in the middle of the shopping centre didn’t exist. We decided that a particular space in the centre would be the altar where the wedding, the sacred ritual, takes place. Two months later we returned to the space to continue preparing and saw that it was now home to a Dunkin’ Donuts. Instead of freaking out and changing our filming location, Matthew thought that this was even better.
How would you describe the particular aesthetics of this film?
E. Ó.: Matthew Barney wrote the story line, determined the moments of choreography, the sites where we would shoot and the entire visual aspect. We wanted something raw, like reality TV, a fluorescent ambience.
V.J.: The music is inspired by the body’s breathing, rhythms and droning, all of which have some connection to ancient religious practices. We wanted to modernize those sounds by working with the dancers, in particular with the singer seen in the film, Sofia Jernberg, whose unique voice has a saintly element to it.
E. Ó.: As far as movement is concerned, the idea of a sort of trance was important, a way for dance to release our consciousness. We created so-called masculine and feminine movements and swapped them between genders. We used primitive movements and juxtaposed them with cheerleader movements. Since it marked a transition toward a new cycle of our lives, we imagined a new version of the bachelor party or celebratory rite for a young couple the day before the wedding.
In some situations, rituals have lost their significance. The fact of creating something together brings us to invent new rituals that we find appropriate for us today. Creating something together, whether dance or music, is for us a way of truly living. It provides us with our system of beliefs.
“Bizarre, often darkly funny and extremely messy.”
Siobhan Murphy, The Times, 2017-08-22
“The imagery is surreal.”
Zoë Anderson, The Independent, 2017-08-21
“There’s the rich Nordic humour [ …] in this blithe resolve to boredom and suffering.”
Isobel Harbison, Frieze, 2017-08-22
“One of the most important experimental films the Icelandic national cinema has received in a long while.”
Björn Þór Vilhjálmsson, lecturer in film studies, University of Iceland