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A Group Exhibition in Iceland Trades Local Character for International Appeal

Many of the works in Iðavöllur are big and chock-full of issues and socially engaged ideas, like so much art elsewhere.

by Gregory Volk

REYKJAVIK — I first visited Iceland in 1999. I immediately fell in love with this unique island nation, with its remarkable landscape. I have since visited many times and have twice backpacked the renowned Laugavegur trail, which starts at Landmannalaugar, with its hot springs and colorful rhyolite mountains, and continues to otherworldly Þórsmörk in the south. 

I was also riveted by the country’s contemporary art, which wasn’t quite like anything I had encountered. The art scene was much smaller at that time, yet vibrant, with a DIY vibe. With precious little infrastructure to support them, artists were making adventurous, distinctive, intelligent work that was not beholden to art from big foreign countries. 

While diverse, this work had shared characteristics: more understated than flamboyant; more minimalist than maximal, more quiet than loud. Most of the artists were extremely sensitive and precise with materials. While often austere, the artworks were spirited and lively. Sometimes they were funny — ironic, with an absurdist streak. 

I noted how much of Iceland was in these works, as a subject, a trove of images, materials, and references, and as an energizing force. In my opinion — granted, I am an outsider — the best Icelandic art (including literature and music) has always come from artists engaged with their very particular, and very special, homeland.

The group exhibition Iðavöllur: Icelandic Art in the 21st Century — actually, it’s more like 14 solo shows — at the Reykjavik Art Museum suggests things are changing. With some exceptions, Iceland seems not much of a generative force. Many of the works, mostly sculptures and installations, are big and chock-full of issues and socially engaged ideas, like so much art elsewhere.  

The exhibition’s lofty premise is to showcase 14 artists, all but one Icelandic, in their 30s and 40s who are redefining Icelandic art. All have experienced Iceland’s substantial changes (including several crises, such as the 2008-10 economic meltdown, climate change, and COVID-19) and its increasing globalization, with 15 percent of the population now foreign born and with millions of tourists. (The pandemic has changed this, but mass tourism will no doubt return.) 

The art scene, in which these artists are prime participants, is also substantially larger than it once was and more professional: This exhibition highlights the rise of the professional artist.

Arnar Ásgeirsson’s exceptionally small sculptures installed on two walls are eccentric and engaging. Most feature one or two people in domestic settings, in front of a glass of water that stands taller than them, and with a colorful squiggle on the wall.  

Surprisingly, Ásgeirsson sculpted these figures from drugs, for instance “Ibuprofen Girl and Panodil Man” (2021), which shows a seated woman and standing man, both contemplative. Iceland, the artist told me, is a great gobbler of pills, especially remote East Iceland. These mini sculptures, however, are overwhelmed by the artist’s nearby installation Scenario (2021). A huge photograph (perhaps stock) of the sky, with two streetlights in the foreground, covers most of a wall. On the floor are six aluminum objects, four with bent poles and two with straight ones, resembling traffic signs; each sports an eyeball that gazes at viewers. Size and spectacle predominate in this attention-grabbing, Instagrammable work. 

Across this space are Elín Hansdóttir’s architectural interventions (“Fractal,” 2021). Using assorted materials, she inserted six convincing new gray concrete pillars among the actual structural ones. These extra, oddball pillars make the space feel askew, unbalanced, suddenly strange. Inkjet prints on the walls purportedly show the pillars in situ. One does, but others are of models, in various sizes and states, that the artist built. Actual, altered, and simulated architecture combine in a work that both fits with and disrupts its surroundings.

Many artworks here are packed with ideas; research-based art has clearly come to Iceland. Often these visual works require verbal explanations. I wonder about this. For her room-filling installation Phosphorous (2021), illuminated by black fluorescent tubes, Anna Júlía Friðbjörnsdóttir used chalk made of bone ash to draw trees and the solar arrays of satellites and space vehicles on the walls. Phosphorous in the bone ash makes the images glow, while NASA recordings of Venus’s electromagnetic spectrum fill the room. The explanatory text lists folklore, science, anthropology, philosophy, Phosphorus from Greek mythology, and numerous other reference points. The work is extraordinarily complex.  

Dodda Maggý’s three-channel video and audio work is also complex, referring to Pythagoras, mathematics, and Venus, among many other subjects. Colorful bits — physical materials altered on the computer — form complex, ever-shifting patterns in response to tonal music. The work is entrancing, also dizzying, and exudes expertise, but somehow it doesn’t quite move me emotionally, as much as I would have wished.

With “Herbarium (cosmology)” (2021), Bjarki Bragason has joined a long list of international artists, including Herman de Vries, working with plants, and of artists working with archives. He covered the walls in a big room with sheets of paper, each featuring an exposed plant, from an archive a German family gave him; this archive of major German plants was compiled by the family’s 19th-century pharmacologist ancestor. On the floor are two videos of a huge compost heap where old soil from gardens is discarded; one shows new plant life emerging. History and the present, classification and wildness, are juxtaposed.

Based on other smaller and more subtle works by Bragason — including one referring to this plant archive, exhibited in 2019 — he is clearly a compelling artist. For me, this huge work is problematic. The sheer volume of dead plants makes it impossible to take everything in; instead, the labelled plants become a blur. Also — and maybe this comes from my ardor for the Icelandic outdoors — Reykjavik is surrounded by powerful nature, including looming Mount Esja across the harbor. Here, one is surrounded by 19th-century German plants. 

With her sizable installation Compasses (2021), Anna Rún Tryggvadóttir has also joined a long list of artists incorporating trees, sometimes dead ones, into artworks, including Robert Smithson’s “Dead Tree” (1969), Mark Dion’s “The Life of a Dead Tree” (2019), and some of Katharina Grosse’s painting installations. 

In Tryggvadóttir’s nature-technology hybrid, six dead horizontal trees (they were not cut down for this work, but instead during normal forest maintenance), which fill much of the space, slowly rotate counterclockwise, confronting viewers and restricting their movements. This work has a slow-motion grandeur and it’s great to pay attention to trees themselves as sculptures, and their shadows. I heartily endorse how this work questions the uneasy (at best) relationship between nature and humans. Still, while likely novel in Iceland, it is linked with many works (albeit most not motorized) from outside of the country.

Hildigunnur Birgisdóttir’s elemental installation Unfortunate Produce (2021)is a total standout; it’s smart and poetic. The room initially seems almost empty, with a few enigmatic objects on pillars and white walls. Then the magic takes over. The artist collected water that maintenance workers used to wipe away graffiti and applied it to the walls (“1:1,” 2021). With dirt, bits of paint, twigs, and other residue, the walls look semi-scruffy, but also — oddly — cosmic. A blue discarded gym mat has been transformed into a structure resembling a huge bread clip; it is also a compelling abstract work (“1:40,” 2021). With “1:48 (confetto)” (2021), a single, absurdly large piece of confetti, made of many small pieces of confetti, protrudes from a pillar; it is striking and strange. Birgisdóttir enlarges quotidian things, some very small (the titles disclose how much the thing has been enlarged), and transforms them into objects of mystery, wonder, and humor. She also has a keen sense of space. This installation feels inviting. It welcomes one to its inquiries.

Casual line drawings, altered and distorted on the computer, are the sources for Arna Óttarsdóttir’s handwoven tapestries, which are also standouts. With hands, faces, doodles, sometimes bits of language, and multiple colors, each is a thoroughly updated take on Iceland’s centuries-old engagement with textiles. These works are thoughtful and delightful. “Fuzzy Notions” (2021), with circular purple tufts, a quizzical face, and a lumpy, white form makes me swoon.

Eva Ísleifs’s sculpture, on wheels, is based on a child’s drawing of a turf house that the artist accidentally found. It turns a symbol of old Iceland — turf houses were prominent in the 18th and 19th centuries but have largely disappeared — into a mobile theater prop (“Memory is a Circular Notion,” 2021). Rebecca Erin Moran’s (the sole non-Icelander) extremely dark installation, based on so-called dark rooms in clubs where people can have sex and feel free, seems teleported from somewhere, maybe Berlin (“DARKroom,” 2021). For me, this claustrophobic space, with a special scent, techno music, and the artist’s recorded instructions, feels more like a dungeon than a liberated non-binary zone. 

The four videos in Páll Haukur Björnsson’s mythology-minded installation show the work’s site transformed, for instance with a fire on the floor, or leaves swirling about. They are thoughtful and quietly magical. Several small sculptures, however, including a cat’s tooth dangling from a chain, are, for me, mystifying; I wonder if they are necessary.

It is refreshing to encounter Guðmundur Thoroddsen’s oil paintings (the exhibition’s only paintings), with their soft colors, earth tones, and often horizontal brushwork; they suggest Icelandic landscapes, or rather a mix of landscapes and abstraction. Keep looking and a weird figure emerges, a dog smoking a cigarette, or smoking something. Also refreshing are Styrmir Örn Guðmundsson’s fantastical, brilliantly colored ink on paper drawings, including the surging and swirling “Eruption” (2021). 

The catalogue focuses on how Örn Alexander Ámundason is involved with institutional and art system critique, but for me the strength of “The Museum is Broken” (2021) is its humor and verve. Ámundason has altered the museum’s windows and glass partitions with transparent film and adhesive tape so that they appear to be cracking. These interventions look good; some are dazzling — the museum really does look broken. Reykjavik has recently experienced many earthquakes so it is entirely possible that the museum’s windows could crack. I’m not sure if seismic power was on Ámundason’s mind. I hope that it was. 

This exhibition leaves me with a question, concerning artists in a very small country (beloved by me) and their relation to the very big art world. It seems to me that there may be some pressure to go big, get more complex, more professional, and to fit in with much of the mainstream art world. 

Why not make, instead, idiosyncratic art from Iceland with potentially international significance, born of an engagement with a very particular country, culture, history, and natural environment, rather than trying to make international art?

Iðavöllur: Icelandic Art in the 21st Century continues at the Reykjavik Art Museum (Tryggvagata 17 101 Reykjavík, Iceland) through October 17. The exhibition is curated by Aldís Snorradóttir, Markús Þór Andrésson, and Ólöf Kristín Sigurðardóttir.