High and Low

If the purpose of art is to inspire, where is all that inspiration to be found in Reykjavík? Certainly not in its art galleries. Wandering around the streets of the city, it struck me that the best works of art in the city live on its streets.
16.4.2010
Words by Arnar Vuþa
Reykjavík is a city that keeps it secrets. All the best things about it are hidden away off the beaten path. The best food here is not in the fine restaurants, it is in the carts and little shacks. The best book deals are in the flea market and small bookstores, not in the obvious bookshops. And so it is with all the best pieces of art in Reykjavík too. You have to pry those secrets out or blunder into them blindly. The way I found myself suddenly staring at Einar Jónsson´s mind-altering sculpture "Outlaws", in a forgotten corner off a busy highway with not a sign to mark it as one of this island’s greatest works of art. I guess that’s Reykjavík for you. First exhibited in 1901, "Outlaws" marked Einar's radical departure from notions of sculpture at the time, to blaze his own independent path. Today though, modern art in Reykjavík seems not to be blazing very much at all.

One might imagine that a land this grand would inspire equally grand works of art. Instead, grey soulless concrete monstrosities erupt out of the ground and tepid paintings line the walls of the galleries. Intellectually profound they may be, high culture even, but they are no fun at all. Indeed, the most enjoyable paintings in the National Gallery are the ones in the kids' workshop in the basement. In this land of weird midnight colours and vibrant volcanic hues, are dozens of canvases covered with inane lettered scrawls really the best you can do? Really, Reykjavík? Where is all that colour, where is all that life?

Remember, I said this city has secrets. Well, if you keep an open mind and follow your feet, it turns out you blunder right into it. Again and again. Everywhere. It is all over that abandoned plot off Skólavörðustígur, it is half a street away as you stroll down Laugavegur, it’s splattered on forgotten walls by the seafront, it is on the walls of official buildings by Laufásvegur. Like strange wild flowers, it sprouts where you least expect it and it can just as tenaciously return if you scrape it off. Evil clowns in pink and green, silly grey cats with attitudes, sprinting skeletons, deviant fish, they are all out there and more. All you have to do is stop and look. A menagerie exploding in Technicolor somewhere near you.

Wait a second, you might say, this is just graffiti isn’t it? The work of nameless vandals who deface buildings with their meaningless caricatures. How can something like this be profound, or even in any way interesting? Well, think about that question when you stumble across the thought-provoking phrase "If..." painted on a humble hydrant. Or when you see Jacques Cousteau in a diving helmet waving a flag under water on the side of the French embassy. The most enjoyable, hilarious and intelligent paintings in Reykjavík I’ve seen have been on the walls of buildings.

Maybe all of this just says something about my mental (im)maturity. Or maybe I just have a soft corner for people who are unseen, unheard, yet manage to brighten up drab corners of the world without expecting recognition and cocktail receptions for their art. Whatever it is, I’ll take that witty cartoon instead of a pretentious painting any day. Freedom, after all, is the ability to say "to hell with that". And nothing quite says "to hell with the high brow" better than a simple scrawl on an abandoned wall.  

Arnar Vuþa is not an art critic. He wouldn’t know a masterpiece if it walked up to him and hit him on the head, shouting, “I’m a masterpiece”. Any artists who feel their work has been slighted should know that he intends to leave the country as soon as he finishes that hotdog.

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