The gallery is situated within a cluster of old structures which, in the diffused evening light, add an aesthetic contribution of their own. An abandoned wool factory looms authoritatively near a building which houses an old swimming pool, a recording studio utilized by Sígur Rós and, in an attached structure, the newly renovated Þrúðvangur gallery and workspace recently opened by Ólöf Oddgeirsdóttir.
In rooms where the factory workers once ate their grub, the artist has created a hospitable show space and has gathered many of her female colleagues to contribute to this initial exhibition which honors the 60th anniversary of Iceland’s independence on 17 June. It’s an evocative setting for this collection of work which celebrates the evolution of Iceland since its relatively recent political independence, a tribute to both the nation’s expansion and its cultural stability.
Each artist’s work is in some way intimately connected to Iceland whether it regards the nation’s unscathed natural environment, its people or its politics. The show presents a broad spectrum of photographs, video and installation pieces. A piece by Hlíf Ásgrímsdóttir uses a combination of all of these. Large sheets of plastic are draped across the floor, on top of which sits a monitor with a film of the artist removing the plastic from a river in nearby Álafoss. Behind this display are several photographs in which similar pieces of plastic have drifted into natural settings and have become entangled within pristine settings.
The photographs fluently attest to the supremacy of nature, its capacity to integrate and overcome. Small branches have wrapped around the debris, incorporating the otherwise offending plastic into their form. It is a testament to the persistence of nature against the change instigated by human forces.
One of the most gripping and simultaneously entertaining pieces is one entitled “Portrait”, created by the exhibition’s organizer. It is shown on a television which sits in a small corner between two rooms of the gallery and presents various teenagers from Mossfellsbær discussing their ideas and aspirations for their own futures. We see each teenager close-up as they sit for an initial portrait-like shot, not speaking, looking into the camera. There is an instant intimacy with these faces as we see all their imperfections and insecurities, the restrained apprehension about what they are meant to be doing for the camera, and the innate timidity that is generally paired inextricably with the teenage years.
One face is that of a classically pretty girl with long blonde hair, a lovely face, and a mouth full of braces. She smiles hugely, looking mostly into the lens, but her smile fades intermittently as she briefly looks to the artist’s face behind the camera in order to gauge what she should do next. And in this brief close-up look we feel that sharp contrast of innate beauty living side by side with human awkwardness and uncertainty.
Each discusses various aspirations: the girl with braces wants to go to America to learn to be an orthodontist. Another would like to be a doctor, to go to Norway for a couple of years and then return home. One says that he would definitely like to eventually end up still close to Reykjavík because, well, everything is in Reykjavík, and he will probably consider being a psychologist or an artist because those are the well-paid jobs (not all artists in Reykjavik are rich. I just thought you should know -ed.).
Another girl wishes to become a master hairstylist to the stars in Hollywood. But even as the words leave her mouth she begins to smirk and giggle, saying that a life like that is really just a dream and she will probably stay in Mossfellsbær instead. She smiles openly at herself, and we might be smirking alongside her, not necessarily at her teenage buoyancy, but at the recognition of how silly our early dreams can be, how common and implausible such wishes are, and still how blissful.
Each has their own scheme about career and travel and purpose, but the one thing that all eleven reveal is an ultimate intention to return to Mossfellsbær or a similar location in Iceland. And this is the piece’s deepest connection to the theme of the exhibition. The video is a portrait of Iceland today, the newest generation who are fully prepared to take on the entire world while retaining everything of their country. This is the great storehouse of potential and possibility, the younger years that show, through all the overt inelegance, their true belief in their lives as Icelanders. This is Iceland 60 years later.