The Sun Voyager
History and museums
Sun Voyager (Icelandic: Sólfar) is sculpture by Jón Gunnar Árnason (1931 - 1989). Sun Voyager is a dreamboat, an ode to the sun. Intrinsically, it contains within itself the promise of undiscovered territory, a dream of hope, progress and freedom. The sculpture is located by Sæbraut, by the sea in the centre of Reykjavík, Iceland.
In 1986, the district association of the west part of the city funded a competition for a new outdoor sculpture to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the city of Reykjavík. Jón Gunnar’s Sun Voyager won the competition, and the aluminium model (42,5 x 88 x 36 cm) was presented to the city for enlargement. The full-sized Sun Voyager was eventually unveiled on Sæbraut on the birthday of the city of Reykjavík, August 18th, 1990.
The work is constructed of quality stainless steel and stands on a circle of granite slabs surrounded by so-called “town-hall concrete”. It was constructed in accordance with Jón Gunnar’s enlarged full-scale drawing of Sun Voyager and was overseen by Jón Gunnar’s assistant, the artist Kristinn E. Hrafnsson. The engineering of the sculpture was supervised by the technologist, Sigurjón Yngvason, in close cooperation with Jón Gunnar himself, the building itself was carried out by Reynir Hjálmtýsson and his assistant.
In an interview published in the newspaper Þjóðviljinn on June 11, 1987, Jón Gunnar describes the genesis of the work as being part of the Scandinavian art project, Experimental Environment, which conducted various artistic experiments in Iceland, Denmark and other places in the eighties:
In May 1985, a group of artists, members of the Scandinavian art project, Experimental Environment, gathered to take part in the Saari-Vala Environmental Art Action in Bockholm, Finland. There I experienced a sense of the history of the origins of Icelanders, something which is also related in the present exhibition at the Nordic House in Reykjavík.
I had an uncanny feeling that I had been on this island before, when travelling on my way from Mongolia to Iceland, hundreds of years ago.
As you know, there have been speculations that the Icelanders as a race originated in Mongolia. I have discovered the history of their migration to Iceland, which runs as follows: Many centuries ago, a mighty warlord, let’s say it was Alexander the Great, was living in the centre of the known world. He dispatched his bravest and most experienced warriors, along with some women, scribes and other followers, on an exploratory expedition to the cardinal directions, the north, west, south, and east, in order to discover and conquer new, unknown territories. Those who headed east followed the rising sun until they reached the steppes of Mongolia. There they settled down and lived in comfort. Those scribes who accompanied the warriors were expected to document the expedition for the king. Several centuries later, when the documents written by the scribes eventually came to be examined, the people discovered that they had another fatherland in the west. They therefore decided to gather together their belongings and head back west towards the setting sun. We followed the sun for days and years, walking, riding and sailing. We enriched our experience and our determination grew in strength as our journey progressed, and we recorded everything that we saw and experienced. I remember endless pine forests, mountains and waterfalls, lakes, islands, rivers and seas before we eventually reached the ocean. We then constructed huge ships and sailed on westwards towards the setting sun. Yay.
As a result of this vivid experience of my participation in this expedition while on the island of Bockholm in the Finnish archipelago, I carved a picture of a sun ship into a granite rock by the sea. The sun ship symbolizes the promise of new, undiscovered territory. It is also being exhibited here at the Nordic House, made of aluminium.
There has been some dispute about the eventual location of Sun Voyager on Sæbraut in Reykjavík. Some people have complained that the ship does not face west, towards the setting sun in accordance with the concept behind it. The original intention had been for Sun Voyager to be situated in the west part of Reykjavík, for obvious reasons. Jón Gunnar’s original idea had been for the ship to be placed on Landakot hill, the prow facing the centre of Reykjavík and the stern Landakot church. Another possibility was that it could be placed by the harbour in the centre of Reykjavík on a specially constructed base. The coastline by Ánanaust nonetheless eventually came to be Jón Gunnar’s preferred location for the ship. Unfortunately, changes in the town planning for Reykjavík came to rule out this location. In the end, the final decision was taken (with Jón Gunnar’s consent) that Sun Voyager should be located on Sæbraut on a small headland (which the artist jokingly called Jónsnes: Jón’s Peninsular). Jón Gunnar was well aware that when bolted to its platform, Sun Voyager would be facing north, but felt that that made little difference when it came down to it.
As noted above, Sun Voyager was built in accordance with the artist’s hand-drawn full-scale plan. Its irregular form with the ever-flowing lines and poetic movement which are a distinctive feature of so many of his works make it seem as if the ship is floating on air. It reaches out into space in such a way that the sea, the sky and the mind of the observer become part of the work as a whole. As a result, Sun Voyager has the unique quality of being able to carry each and every observer to wherever his/her mind takes him/her. Few of Jón Gunnar’s works have a simple obvious interpretation. As he stated himself, all works of art should convey a message that transcends the work itself. It is the observer who bears the eventual responsibility for interpreting the works in his/her own way, thus becoming a participant in the overall creation of the work. Jón Gunnar’s works frequently make such demands on the observers, giving them the opportunity to discover new truths as a result of their experience.
It is a common misunderstanding that Sun Voyager is a Viking ship. It is quite understandable that many tourists think like this when travelling in Iceland, the land of the sagas. Nonetheless, it should be stressed that this was not the original intention.
Jón Gunnar was himself very ill with leukaemia at the time that the full-scale Sun Voyager came to be constructed, and he died in April 1989, a year before it was placed in its present location. Some people have thus suggested that Jón Gunnar conceived the work during this period, at a time when he might have been preoccupied with death, and argued that Sun Voyager should be seen as a vessel that transports souls to the realm of death. While this is a nice idea and might be imagined to have some validity, it actually has little truth (at least from the point of view of the artist). As noted above, Sun Voyager was essentially envisaged as being a dreamboat, an ode to the sun symbolizing light and hope.
Galdur (Magic) is another outdoor sculpture that Jón Gunnar was asked to design during this period (1988). It was planned to be situated outside the main entrance of the City Hospital in Fossvogur, Reykjavík. Jón Gunnar made drawings and a model of the sculpture in a workshop he set up in an unfinished wing of the hospital during the time that he was a patient there. In an interview published in the newspaper Morgunblaðið on December 4, 1988, Jón Gunnar made the following statement about this work:
The pattern is a magical symbol of healing …. The trident is an international symbol for the sun, and the symbol of the sun is present in all magic. … The sculpture will be constructed of stainless steel which will reflect the rays of the sun like a mirror. It will be bathed in the reflection of the sun, and send its rays in through the windows of the hospital.
Galdur was the final work of art to be envisaged by Jón Gunnar. This work symbolizes hope and healing rather than conclusion or death. The same applies to Sun Voyager.