Published May 28, 2012
Some works of art take longer to finish than others. And some are perhaps never finished. Hreinn Friðfinnsson’s House Project is a case in point. The story begins a hundred years ago, in the summer of 1912. That summer, a character in Þórbergur Þórðarsson’s novel ‘Íslenskur aðall,’ (“Icelandic Aristocracy,” published in 1938), built a house inside out. The character, Sólon Guðmundsson, is based on a real person who lived in Ísafjörður, but “we know next to nothing about him,” Hreinn Friðfinnsson told me over the phone from Amsterdam, where he has lived for the past forty years. “He was a common worker at the start of the twentieth century, an eccentric outsider, but in Þórbergur’s mind outsiders were the Icelandic aristocracy.”
Building a house inside out
What captured Hreinn’s attention was the house, called Slunkaríki. “A house built inside out—that was the concept I wanted to play with,” he told me. “You could say that in this way you turn the whole world on its head.” And that is what Hreinn did in the summer of 1974, when he built a house inside out in the lava fields near Hafnarfjörður. “It’s a small wave to Sólon,” he says, and then recalled the building process in more detail. “This was when I didn’t really have a penny to my name and needed to borrow all over the place. So, when I had scraped enough money together, I found a professional carpenter and we drove into the lava fields; it was important to build the house where no other man-made structures were visible. We left the car and hadn’t really walked that far before we were all of a sudden at the edge of this crater—and we knew this was the place.”
After the house was built, it was photographed, and this became the real artwork. “It was built to be photographed,” Hreinn says. “So we built it, took pictures, and then we just let it be, and it has just stood there, abandoned.” Hreinn himself didn’t visit it again until the early 2000s. “By that time there were a number of holes in it. They were gun-made; a shooting association had a cabin nearby,” Hreinn says. Otherwise it was in pristine condition until the turn of the century; no vandalism had been committed.
Returning it outside in
The little house in the lava would however not be his last house. In 2009, Hreinn was asked to build a second house in a French sculpture park, and this time it would be different. “I had long toyed with the idea of turning the house back around, into a normal state. The house had been open to the world so long, so when you turn it inwards, it takes with it all its history,” Hreinn says.
“The first house itself never became a sculpture or official work of art; it was just a house hidden in nature where random travellers might encounter it,” he says, “but in France the house became a sculpture in a sculpture garden. You can’t enter it, but you can look around it, and you can look through the windows and see what’s inside. There are pictures on the walls and a copy of the first house as well as a model of a third house. There is also an unusually big asteroid found in Argentina, in Campo del Cielo.” Hreinn explains: “By having the asteroid there I reach as far as I can to take something from the outside world and put it inside the house.”
Capturing the world
Finally, the model of his third house, which could be seen floating around in the second house, premiered at Hafnarborg in Iceland this month. It has no walls. It’s simply a 3-D graphic—an outline of the original house in the original size, at the place where the original house stood. “Those boundaries between inside and outside have served their purpose. It’s sort of a question; it doesn’t have walls, there is no shelter, and you can be both inside of it and outside of it. You can ponder it; unlike the first, this house makes no statement,” he says. And what statement did the first house make? “It captures the whole world, except for itself. It turns the world on its axis.”
I wonder if the ghost houses left behind by the bubble years have altered the meaning of his house, but he brushed that suggestion aside: “There are no political connotations. Perhaps there is a philosophical meaning, threads that can be spun in all directions.” And thus concludes the story of the three houses—for now. Or five, if you include the original that Sólon built and the fictional one Þórbergur wrote about. And now those houses will return to a book published by Crymogea, and an exhibition in Hafnarborg, an art gallery in Hafnarfjörður.