Published March 10, 2017
At the very end of Reykjavík’s windblown concrete harbour, Grandi, stands a hulking white building known as the Marshall House. It was purpose-built as a fish processing plant in the 1950s, with several tall vertical spaces that once held towering herring oil tanks. The large windows were designed to blow outwards in the event of an explosion, allowing the stone structure to stay intact. But as Grandi began to flourish in recent years, with studios, workshops, cafes and boutiques springing up in its once-desolate streets, this monument to the area’s industrial past stood empty.
Today, the building is a hive of activity as it reaches the end of a year-long renovation. Workmen stride over the icy car park between the entrance and container units, pushing trolleys of timber and carrying armfuls of tools and cables. One figure stands out amongst the bearded, dusty construction workers. Dressed in a colourful shawl and wearing a big smile, she waves hello, brightly. It’s Ingibjörg Sigurjónsdóttir of the Kling & Bang gallery, one of three arts organisations who’ll soon bring a new type of combustible energy to this cavernous repurposed space.
Energy and spontaneity
Ingibjörg is a calm presence, but clearly excited as she shows us inside. The renovations are approaching completion—the wide halls now have smooth grey floors, slick and modern doors and windows, and shiny new elevators, reminiscent of London’s Tate Modern in feel. “The ground floor will be a restaurant,” says Ingibjörg, gesturing to the back wall where some glowing bottle shelves are being installed. “Flott ljós!” she shouts to the workmen (“Cool lights!”, in English).
The spacious hallway leads up a wide, airy staircase, with pristine new handrails gleaming in the bright winter sun. “The first floor will be NÝLÓ—The Living Art Museum,” says Ingibjörg, gesturing through an open door, “and Ólafur Elíasson will use the top floor as a private studio with a showroom.” She leads us up another flight of stairs, smiling: “And then, here we are.”
We tread lightly into the pristine, virgin art space. It’s still and quiet, with views of mountains, sea and city on all sides. Ingibjörg shows us around two large galleries, a box-strewn office area, and a windowless video projection space. Everything about it feels brand new.
“That’s one of the things I find interesting about this project,” smiles Ingibjörg. “The question: ‘Can you run a place in a fancy building and regular rent, with the same mentality as you would a grassroots basement gallery?’ Because when you’re not perfectly planned in every way, it leaves room for energy and spontaneity. And I think we can keep that.”
Energy and spontaneity are two of the hallmarks of Kling & Bang, which functions both as a nomadic gallery organisation and a proactive collective who are actively involved in staging and producing their exhibitions. Their aesthetic is sparky and innovative, with a sense of theatre that often results in celebratory multidisciplinary happenings.
One such event included exporting the shell of the late, great Reykjavík party bar Sirkus, and rebuilding it at London’s Frieze Art Fair in 2008. This dark, noisy space hosted a series of crowded live events, leading Guardian critic Adrian Searle to write: “This is no ordinary Icelandic clip joint. It is art… or something like it.” During the Reykjavík Arts Festival in 2014, Kling & Bang was transformed into “Spasms”—an installation by Kolbeinn Hugi Höskuldsson in which assorted musicians and artists sat half-naked in makeshift bathtubs, improvising a musical drone that was broadcast online by E.S.P. TV. Even this wasn’t enough, though—”Spasms” was just one of four episodes in their programme for the festival.
“I remember one time we took part in an art fair, in Berlin,” says Erling Klingenberg, the svelte, gray-haired, vape-huffing Icelander who first initiated Kling & Bang. “We had a space between two booths, but we brought forty artists and some bands, and somehow squeezed everyone in together. What I remember most about it was just trying to stay alive and get through it… we had some loud music performances, and we were almost asked to leave after the first night.” He pauses, and smiles. “Someone pulled some strings, and we got to stay.”
A pack of wolves
The project was born in the pre-boom, pre-crash Reykjavík of 2003. “I’d been living in Copenhagen for a few years,” says Erling. “I’d wanted to start a gallery there—it was at a time when you could still get a building for cheap. There’d been lots of meetings, but no action… it was going too slowly for me. Then I came back to Iceland, and there were really no artist-run galleries left. Nothing was happening for younger artists.”
Then a space on Laugavegur came to his attention, initially for studio use. “It was such a perfect space for a gallery,” says Erling. “It reignited that old idea. I asked if we could find a studio somewhere else, and use it as a gallery, then called up some people who were doing interesting things at that time. And so it began.”
One of the ten multi-tasking artists he contacted was Daníel Björnsson. He was living in Berlin, shortly after graduating, when his phone rang unexpectedly. “I got a call from Erling,” he recalls. “We were acquaintances—the Icelandic art scene is quite tight, so everyone knows each other. He told me that he and Gurra Benónýsdóttir had acquired a house at Laugavegur 23. They wanted to start a collective, and make a platform for young artists. The only artist-run space, at Hlemmur, was closing down, and NÝLÓ was between houses. There was nothing. It was bleak.”
“What Erling did was quite brilliant,” he continues, “in that he didn’t ask all his closest friends to be a part of it. He asked people he’d met and been interested with working with over the years, until there were ten.”
That ten has evolved over the years, but five of the original members remain on the board alongside five newer recruits, including Ingibjörg, who joined in 2010. “You never really quit, though,” says Daníel. “The older ones are always popping up. Some art institutions have strict procedures on doing things. But Kling & Bang is more like a pack of wolves.”
Kling & Bang’s first location was at Laugavegur 23, on the first floor above where the Macland store is today. “It was kind of at the beginning of the boom,” remembers Daníel. “There was a tension in the air—contractors were buying up all the houses downtown and talking about tearing it all out to build strip malls. Laugavegur 23 was one of those houses. The contractor rented it out to us cheap on the condition we kept it nice.”
Kling & Bang’s arrival was well-received by the art scene of the city. “We built up the walls, and Börkur Jónsson had an exhibition ready,” says Daníel. “We just did it. People—especially those who are entwined in the art scene—are usually really grateful when someone does this in Iceland. It’s important, this collectivising. NÝLÓ has a collection about all the past artist-run spaces in Iceland. It’s been happening throughout the last century, but it’s usually something that’s forgotten.”
From the start, Kling & Bang’s focus wasn’t on showing work by members of the collective, but on curating, facilitating and promoting exhibitions by other artists. “We all have an interest in broadening dialogues, and building things as a unit,” explains Daníel. “That’s also why we started executing shows by foreign artists. It seems to be possible to make things happen quickly here in Iceland, that couldn’t happen as easily elsewhere. People are closer together here, and they’re willing to just do something.”
The collective Erling assembled also had myriad connections to other scenes, through their individual careers and extended social circles, and through studying abroad. “Everyone in this ragtag collective was coming back to Iceland from somewhere else,” says Daníel. “That was the traditional way, back them—to do your foundation course in Iceland, then to do your degree abroad. That gave us the ability to show and mobilise other artists.”
To Erling, it was a mixture of instinct and serendipity. “It was all quite spontaneous,” he explains. “I asked people who were doing something interesting, and many of them had been studying in different places, so when we all came together, we had a good, wide network. That became a strength—these bridges to other places.”
All the way to the BanK
A year after opening, Kling & Bang were approached by Landsbankinn, who had an empty building available for use by Hlemmur in Reykjavík 101. Unbeknownst to the gallery, Landsbankinn had been keeping an eye on their progress.
“They said they’d been watching us for a year,” says Daníel. “They didn’t really know us, but they’d done a survey, asking people who could pull off a project like this. And apparently we came out top. So they offered us the house—not really any money, but the building, and to pay the real-estate taxes. We had it for nine months, to do whatever we wanted.”
What resulted was an explosive coming-together of people in various creative disciplines. Kling & Bang placed ads in the newspapers, and selected 140 artists from 500 applicants to use the space however they saw fit. The building was dubbed KlinK & BanK, and quickly became a labyrinthine hub for of all sorts of happenings, openings, collaborations, parties, seminars and blow-out events.
Erling described the project for a 2007 Grapevine interview: “What happened in KlinK & BanK was that people from different fields like music, visual art and dance got to know each other, and it influenced their artistic work. One could see all kinds of art in the same space. People started working together on projects, and it acted as an inspiration to see what other people were working on. The house created a conversation between different types of art, and opened up new types of collaboration. That inspiration and communication continued to develop after people had moved out.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by artist Ragnar Kjartansson. His first ever solo show took place in Kling & Bang’s Laugavegur location, and he was one of the artists who took up residence in the KlinK & BanK building. “That period had a profound effect on me,” says Ragnar. “I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if I hadn’t had those months working there. It completely changed my whole world view. It felt so natural, and unforced. It was interesting to not just mingle with other artists in the bar, but in your working space. I’d be practising with my band in one room, and then doing visual art next door. It leaked into the DNA of the scene, and it became the model of how I work today.”
Butt plug factory
After eighteen months, the KlinK & BanK project came to an end, and the building was eventually torn down.
“We really got shamed for it later, after IceSave happened,” laughs Daníel. “We got annihilated for the collaboration. But if I could go back in time, I’d do it again. It had such an intense effect on Reykjavík cultural life. We had the option to put people from theatre, music, art and design all under one roof without having to pay anything. We had spaces for concerts, exhibitions, workshops. We even had seminars in civil disobedience from the people who started the Pots & Pans revolution. In a space funded by Landsbankinn!”
Ragnar remembers the mood during the controversy. “Some artists were patting themselves on the back for not being a part of KinK & BanK,” he says, “criticising us for compromising our art and humanity for cheap rent. I remember feeling it was like the danish resistance in World War II—it was mostly after the Germans left that the Danish resistance really woke up. Their reputation is not that they were brave when it was happening. It felt a bit like that. So yeah, KlinK & BanK got some shit—but honestly, I think most people were happy that it happened.”
One highlight from the sprawling programme was a show by German artist Christoph Schlingensief. “There was a lot of mayhem around that show,” smiles Ragnar. “Schlingensief came with his retinue, so the town was full of dwarves and giants. I was watching it come together from the sidelines. It was an environment that you walked through—like, when life becomes more than a Fellini movie.”
Another memorable exhibition was a collaboration with international art star Paul McCarthy and Jason Rhoades. “We built a factory in there, to the dismay of everyone else in the house,” remembers Daníel. “We were making soap into the form of oversized butt plugs, from sheep fat and lye. We had five tonnes of sheep. The whole place reeked.”
“It was a shame when it ended,” says Erling, “but on the other hand, it was almost a relief. Doing three events every week for almost two years was quite intense.”
The Reykjavík ghetto
In 2008, the gallery relocated to the central downtown street of Hverfisgata. At that time, it was yet to be developed into the smart, bustling shopping street that it is today.
“When we were offered the space, there were a couple of rollerskating guys living in the house,” says Daníel. “I think they were home-growing weed or something in the space. The owners threw them out and offered us the space if we would clean it up—playing that gentrification card.”
“It was quite gritty,” he continues. “There were shooting galleries. It was just fifty metres from the other house we’d been in, where we sometimes even forgot to lock the door, and never had any trouble. But on Hverfisgata we were broken into twice in the first week.“
Growing pains aside, this location quickly became synonymous with Kling & Bang, and was where they hosted a vastly popular exhibition of Ragnar Kjartansson’s ‘The Visitors’. Ragnar, by now, had become arguably Iceland’s biggest art star, and a well known figure on the international art scene.
“Ragnar is an old friend of the gallery,” says Daníel. “He had his first private exhibition in Kling & Bang. He wasn’t taking his art career seriously then—he was a pop star, and working in an advertising agency. He gradually got quite involved in various group exhibitions. The reason that ‘The Visitors’ ended up in Kling & Bang was maybe more that Raggi was doing it as an homage to us. We’ve always stayed in these run-down houses, so it was really something to have 30,000 people or so coming through that show. We extended the run by three weeks. I remember I had to make people wait in queues.”
For Ragnar, Kling & Bang was the natural option. “‘The Visitors’ is really a portrait of that generation of the Icelandic music scene—my peers,” he says. “It was made in the spirit of KlinK & BanK. It had to be in Kling & Bang. But also, I wanted to show it where it would be cool to show it. Where the cool kids would come, and think it was cool! It was as basic as that.”
Given this history of memorable happenings, powerful creative outbursts and hit ‘n’ run success stories, it seems fitting for Kling & Bang to take a swing at living in The Marshall House. Yet still, the step up from derelict basements to a shiny new museum space is a noticeable change of gear for the organisation.
“We’re a little bit shy about the step of moving into this physical palace,” laughs Daníel. “For thirteen years we had the idea that Kling & Bang would be a period in our lives. Now, there’s a lot of interest—both local, and global—on this new arts house. The possibilities are limitless, really. But the core element of letting things fall as they may—it’s important that we cherish that.”
It could prove to be a decisive move not only for Kling & Bang, but for the city’s art scene in general. “Icelandic art history is not that long,” says Daníel. “Up until 1940, it’s a history of individuals. You had Einar Jónsson, Kjarval and Ásmundur Sveinsson, all not really speaking to each other. After that, it became a small, tight-knit community—like a dysfunctional family. It was basically the grassroots, and then the museums. But now, for the first time in this history, you have something that’s between. That’s the Marshall House. It’s a total game-changer in some ways, and it will be interesting to see what impact it has on the local community.”
All of the people involved in Kling & Bang are mindful of maintaining the gallery’s atmosphere and approach, despite their fancy new surroundings. “We did discuss becoming a commercial gallery,” says Daníel. “That option was there at one point. But nobody had that ambition, I think.”
“The question of Kling & Bang being a commercial gallery rolled on for years,” continues Erling. “It comes up every year or two, and goes back and forth, but it never leads anywhere. We have sold works—it’s just never been the focus. It would be nice if someone in a suit would pop up and take care of all that stuff. Because Kling & Bang is artist-run: we are all artists, more concerned with making things happen than selling them.”
The gallery doesn’t maintain a collection, either. “If you go that way, it’s a huge responsibility,” says Daníel. “You become like a snail with a huge house on its back. But we have still three of the “Sheep Plugs” by Paul McCarthy and Jason Rhoades, and some other interesting things. We’re still trying to figure out what to do with them.”
Instead, Kling & Bang continues in its original core mission: to offer an outlet to the youthful and experimental side of Icelandic art. “The gallery’s mission has never been properly defined,” says Ingibjörg, “which is our biggest disadvantage, but also our biggest advantage. I’ve been most comfortable describing it as a platform. The exhibitions and gallery space are the core elements of Kling & Bang, but then, we’ve been offered shows as artists in our own right, as a collective, even though we don’t necessarily collaborate that way. So, it’s sort of a… force. An alliance of people that really care deeply about art.”
“There’s a lot of experience that accumulates over fourteen years of running an artist-run space,” she finishes. “It felt like it was worth trying to use that experience on a different level. We thought it was worth a shot.”