One hand in front of me, one at my side following the wall as it mazes at 30-degree angles, the already opaque darkness grows. The walls, what I can see of them, seem to shift in panels from bright white to deepest black. Like much of Liberty Avenue, Downtown, number 943 once housed a peep show: a great place to seek redemption. Reaching the end of Elin Hansdóttir's immersive installation "Path," engulfed by claustrophobia and dread, I turn around to see that the ghosts that haunt this place have laid breadcrumbs of ethereal light to lead me home: a faint ambient glow, originating nowhere, illuminating nothing.
In "Path," a series of angles and twists takes viewers -- one at a time, shoes off -- through an ever-darkening maze until, in blackout, they reach a dead end. Turning around to leave, the viewer discovers that the tiny cracks of light are now, to fully dilated eyes, hazy mists of primal glow, like only country-road dusks and mottled forest dawns can create. Entering it is a flirtation with basal fear. Leaving it is holy.
The best work in Long Are the Days, Short Are the Nights (housed, aside from "Path," at Wood Street Galleries), all by contemporary Icelandic artists, shares this patient rhythm. Where the exhibition strays, it erupts; boils over into a hodge-podge reflecting the modernity of its artists' media: an Internet's-worth of burning retinas and cultural nods. Which only reinforces the quieter artists' tones: glacial rumblings and electrical outbursts; reflective whites, consuming blacks.
Finnbogi Petursson is no stranger to Wood Street Galleries, having contributed challenging installations to this year's White Light-Black Light. His piece "Flame" in Long Are the Days similarly uses an object -- in this case, a slow-burning beeswax candle -- ceremonially mounted on a plain white plinth in the center of the room. Surrounded at cardinal points by lenses on shoulder-height brass stands, the candle's light is naturally projected onto the four walls. The candlelight's shape becomes four spires, surrounded by the shadowy circles of the lenses, lowering oh-so-slowly as the candle burns. It's haunting and beautiful in its obscene patience, a racial sense-memory of the first time man held up fire for light.
Darri Lorenzen's "Converge" is a similar experiment in tempo, light and balanced grandiosity and subtlety. Entering a bare room illuminated by a single bulb, the viewer is warned that the door will lock for five minutes once it is shut. The echo-rich white room dims as a grumbling static noise rises. Over its course, the light moves from imperceptible changes to rapid dimming to complete darkness before re-erupting fully bright. "Converge" mediates between our fears and our comforts, playing with our own natural claustrophobic impulses, pulling at melatonin like marionette strings.
But while one floor of Long Are the Days contains such patient and universally compelling work, the lower floor of Wood Street Galleries presents us with a very different side of Icelandic art today. At its heart sits Hekla Dögg Jónsdóttir and Kolbeinn Hugi Höskuldsson's "The Return to Innocence," a sculptural installation that consumes most of the floor and dominates the exhibition's landscape. Surrounded by room-height venetian blinds, geometric neon shapes light up in sections in unison with electrical-burst sounds and guitars from Höskuldsson's nearby piece, "Euronymus's Dead, Euronymus's Dead, Miss Him, Miss Him." In that projection, Höskuldsson pays tribute to the murdered guitarist from Norwegian black-metal band Mayhem in a video of pentagrams and digital diamonds, with an audio track of electric guitar in Euronymus's cold style.
Along with a dozen other videos and projections, this floor of Long Are the Days seems to be a reaction to the slow pace and geological themes of its counterpart. Artists such as Hoskuldsson and video artist Snorri Ásmundsson, whose "Video Portraits" map Icelanders onto the concept of Warhol's Screen Tests, make work packed with cultural references, bright lights and jarring sounds.
There is a conversation between the various loud-and-bright works, their audio tracks blurring into a minimalist cacophony. And there is another conversation with their upstairs neighbors. As one wall of the lower gallery is filled with Ásmundsson's portraits, its corresponding wall upstairs is filled with Hrafnkell Sigurdsson's photographs of tents in stark white fields of ice. Each speaks -- one through motion, the other through visual brevity, the tents' pastel openings in an otherwise white landscape appearing like doorways to another plane. But even in this conversation, it is stillness and endurance that seem to have more to say.
LONG ARE THE DAYS, SHORT ARE THE NIGHTS continues through Sept. 11. Wood Street Galleries, 601 Wood St., Downtown. 412-471-5605