STYKKISHÓLMUR, Iceland — It’s hard to miss Vatnasafn, or the Library of Water, if you know what you’re looking for. Like most towns in Iceland, Stykkishólmur is not particularly big; no sooner are you there than you’ve hit the harbor. Gazing out at the neatly ordered boats that dot the docks and the strange little island that rises out of the water like a craggy whale, you might take a moment to turn around and observe the town. There, perched high on a hill, sits a building with large, rounded glass windows overlooking the harbor. The structure suggests a beacon of a sorts — a cross between a flattened lighthouse and a spaceship, poised between offering protection and lifting off from earth. This is the library.
It was, in fact, the local library for decades, until a plan was hatched to move the books to a larger, newer building. That left the structure on the hill without a purpose, until artist Roni Horn convinced the town (and the Icelandic Parliament) to let her create an art installation there. Under her guidance, with the support of commissioning organization Artangel, Horn enlarged the windows, installed a rubber floor stamped with words describing the weather (in Icelandic and English), and filled the space with 24 columns of water.
“Filled” is actually an exaggeration; the cylinders are clustered near the entrance like a glass forest, but once you move past them — after you’ve taken off your shoes and put on the appointed slippers, that is — the space opens up onto windows and emptiness. The columns run floor to ceiling, and each one contains water from a different glacier in Iceland, 24 in total, all of them melting and receding as our human habits reconfigure the Earth. This gives the library a kinship with such endeavors as the global seed vault, although without a similar purpose (e.g. to help save our agricultural biodiversity), it can, if you zoom out, start to veer into the territory of artistic preciousness.
Yet, in the moment, when you are present in the Library of Water, it is a beautifully tranquil place. The water and glass reflect and warp the landscape just outside, and at the bottom of each column sediment from the glaciers gathers like a version of powdery snow. The words on the floor are meant to inspire you to look outside and contemplate the weather, but they’re hardly necessary; not just the windows but the stillness of the place tie it intimately to its surroundings — a country whose overabundance of natural wonders kept me in a near constant state of awe during my travels.
When I visited, my friend and I (and the attendant, a local teenager) were the only people in sight, but the library is intended as a human space: it boasts chess tables and a writer’s residency downstairs, and it hosts community gatherings and events. When we left we wandered around outside, where the glass windows had a similar effect to the pillars of water — reflecting the town, the ocean, and the library itself, crossing the manmade with the natural in illusory composite images. Oftentimes Iceland feels as though it’s composed entirely of landscape and weather; the Library of Water is a modest but resolute intervention in that. One of the other collections Horn created for it is a series of recordings of people from Stykkishólmur and the surrounding area talking about the weather. In one, Guðmundur Lárusson, a member of the Marine Accident Investigation Board and a former skipper explains: “The weather’s like that. If you don’t ﬁght it, you become one with it and vanish.”
Roni Horn’s Vatnasafn/Library of Water (Bókhlöðustígur 17, Stykkishólmur, Iceland) is open daily June–August and by appointment September–May. See the website for details and hours.