Shauna Laurel Jones: Originally from the US, Shauna Laurel Jones has been living and working in Reykjavík since 2007. She holds a masters degree in art history from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and works independently as an art historian and writer, focusing on contemporary Icelandic art.
Anna Júlía Friðbjörnsdóttir: Anna Júlía Friðbjörnsdóttir is a trained artist and founding editor and co-publisher of the lauded bi-annual, bi-lingual (English and Icelandic) arts magazine Sjónauki. She also works for gallery i8.
Sigurður Magnús Finnsson: Sigurður Magnús Finnsson is a man about town and has been a mainstay in the 101 Reykjavík arts and culture scene for over a decade. Sigurður is a founding member of the Rafskinna DVD arts and culture magazine team, and also managed the Útúrdúr art book and artist bookshop.
Shauna Laurel Jones: There are some big things on the horizon for 2009 that have been coming together this year: Aside from the major art history project – a five-volume comprehensive encyclopaedia of Icelandic art history due for publication next December – another anthology about fifty contemporary Icelandic artists, called Icelandic Art Today, is also coming out this spring. It’s a collaborative effort by the Center for Icelandic Art and Listasafn Íslands. Neither of these types of work has been done before and both are much needed, but they’ve both also been stirring some controversy.
Anna Júlía Friðbjörnsdóttir: There’s been a lot of arguing and discussion about that in the art-world here.
SLJ: For instance who’s in it and who’s not, and why. But I would generally say that this past year has seen a big increase in publication about Icelandic art in general, there was also Project Iceland by Charlie Strand…
AJF: The book on Guðrún Einarsdóttir, which is first in a series of books on contemporary artists by the publisher Crymogea is worth mentioning. It is a really professional and well-done publication. They are planning further instalments to the series, so that will be exciting to follow. Hopefully none of this increase in publication will get affected too badly by the economic troubles.
Sigurður Magnús Finnsson: We at Útúrdúr are in the next year going to publish at least four or five titles. Everything we do is on such a minor grassroots scale that it can’t really be affected by the situation.
SLJ: I see both the grassroots and more commercial publications as filling a gap that has needed filling for a long time. Icelandic art as a whole is in a period of adolescence, as some people say, a period of maturation and growth. More people here are realising that there is a need for arts writing and critical discourse on the arts, and more people abroad are recognising that there is something going on here that deserves attention. This is a progression that will continue regardless of the state of the economy.
SMF: But it’s still one thing you come back to. When you ask me what stood out in the art-world in 2008 and what was newsworthy, the economic situation and its consequences is what immediately comes to mind, as in every square of society. Nevertheless, we had an interesting year.
SLJ: In terms of memorable exhibitions, I personally enjoyed Art Against Architecture at Listasafn Íslands. It featured works by Steina Vasulka, Elín Hansdóttir, Finnbogi Pétursson and a couple of foreign artists. With Finnbogi’s piece as well as Elín’s, there was a sort of formalistic simplicity and elegance. Finnbogi placed a candle on a pedestal in the centre of a room, with four convex lenses on each side, and the lenses cast an upside-down image of the lit candle on the walls. It was very meditative, and there was also something subtly and personally spiritual about it. Elín made a labyrinth in one of the upstairs galleries, and once you went in you followed its long, angular path through this narrow corridor. The lighting was such that you couldn’t always tell the walls from the passageways; it played tricks with your senses. There was a sort of simplicity of being there by yourself in this dim space, this kind of meditative, contemplative aspect. Maybe that was what I needed this year, some quiet.
SMF: My memory doesn’t go far back, but I do remember seeing Hlynur Hallson’s exhibit at Listasafn Reykjavíkur and really liking it. For some reason I hadn’t heard about it, so I was surprised when I started seeing pieces of art in various places around town. Like Eggert Pétursson’s piece on the roof of 10-11 and Ragnar Kjartansson in the window of Hársaga. I was pleasantly surprised when I realised what was going on – that Hlynur had placed artwork from the Listasafn’s collection in various shops and institutions around town, in exchange for their own items and decorations that he exhibited in Listasafn. He really played on this idea of “art for the masses”, which can be very banal and obvious, but he managed to go behind you and surprise you a bit. So I liked that.
Another exhibition comes to mind, even if it’s only on some stupid nationalistic level, the Icelandic show in the Augustine Gallery in Chelsea, New York, that featured a lot of really interesting works from contemporary Icelandic artists. The context of finding myself in this Chelsea gallery viewing the works of people I’d been watching for a very long time appealed to my stupid nationalistic instincts. But the pieces spoke for themselves, of course.
AJF: There was some fantastic work in that exhibition. I want to mention the Magnús Sigurðsson piece, a chamber of salt that was reminiscent of snow, with fans blowing it around. That was a really good one. Sólveig Aðalsteinssdóttir’s show was also moving. The archival work being done at Nýlistasafnið is admirable and refreshing, especially since the project was inaugurated at the height of the prosperity-years. The shows they put on in conjunction have been very interesting as well. But probably the one I felt stood out for me this year was Egill Sæbjörnsson’s private show at i8. It was somehow spot on. Another good thing this year is the “new” 101 Projects the old 101 Gallery now under curatorial direction. The shows there have been a good input into the local scene for example the last one by Mathilde ter Heijne.
SLJ: Rúrí’s work at Hafnarhúsið is also worthy of mention. She was the honorary artist of Sequences Real-Time Arts Festival and put on a multimedia installation and performance in collaboration with composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. It was really epic, I would say.
AJF: Sequences has become a good sort of fixed point in the calendar.
SMF: I like how it has evolved and conceptualized over the years. It’s grown more independent and strong since its inception as an annexe to Iceland Airwaves.
AJF: It was also more focused this year. A more concentrated, territorial display.
SLJ: Which has had positive effects. I felt the quality of the pieces at Sequences overall this year was significantly higher.
-Speaking of quality, what are your feelings on the state of local art criticism?
SLJ: Since I’ve come to Iceland, I’ve heard plenty of talk about the need for fresh perspectives on Icelandic art. That the scene here needs outside eyes and more critical discourse to evaluate itself. At the same time, I haven’t felt like many people are truly open to or ready for that. Part of it stems, obviously, from the fact that this is a very small community of artists and art professionals, where everything you say has repercussions. But there is also this aspect of Icelandic art being in this transitional period, and sometimes it seems that we haven’t necessarily defined in our minds standards or ideas of what makes art “good” or “bad”. These standards are always subjective, but it seems like we don’t always give enough thought to this, or aren’t vocal enough about it.
AJF: I think there should definitely be room for a more critical discussion. Unfortunately the media is cutting down on arts criticism, writing and broadcasting and this wasn´t much in the first place.
-Swerving back to the economic situation, do you believe that we will see an increase in political art now that artists aren’t being sponsored by banks and businessmen? Do you feel the last decade saw self-censorship from the artists so as not to scare away the money, as some critics have been claiming?
AJF: I am sure there are going to be some different things coming out of this new situation. I hope so. People aren’t going to be answering to their sponsors, and I think it’s going to affect the situation.
SMF: In my experience, the people around me making art were so relieved when it all went down. Of course they were worried in one sense, but the sense of relief is greater. It’s like so many artists and art related people are coming out of a spell that’s not there anymore and entering a new situation. It’s not necessarily that these people were controlled by money, but the situation and the atmosphere was just related to money and banks and finance in such a way that it was almost tainted.
AJF: The atmosphere has definitely changed, and will likely change more. Perhaps people will become more relaxed and maybe artists are going to have more time and space to contemplate their work.
SLJ: …but no studio space. Earlier this year, before the kreppa, the Center for Icelandic Art, the Iceland Academy of the Arts and the Nordic House sponsored a conference called Reinventing Harbour Cities, on urban planning and art in public space. We tried to raise questions and awareness about the issue of sustainability in Reykjavík in terms of urban development and planning, which Reykjavík has really lacked. There has been so much growth, but it has been in the form of a sprawl: none of it has been focused.
But we didn’t so much touch on the subject of artistic sustainability. There has been all this growth in the arts, but no one saw the need to think about it in terms of sustainability, per se. That’s something we have to think about now. I am not necessarily saying artists should be more political in their art, but maybe more conscious of how their work fits into the context of sustainability in Iceland. And since the foundations of an artistic sustainability weren’t laid, we are now faced with all these questions about certain festivals, awards, and publications that are all up in the air next year due to the sudden lack in funding. And without the sense of a long-term platform for exhibitions and for acknowledgment of who’s doing what, if all these new platforms for discourse die out, then we have to question what was gained by them.
AJF: One thing we have to mention, talking about the kreppa: the ironic thing about it and one very positive development is that all the art collections of the banks are suddenly back in public hands. All these amazing artworks that had been accumulated over past decades while the banks were public – art went as bonus to their buyers a few years ago – is back in the hands of Listasafn Íslands. And that in turn raises the profile for the dire lack of housing that the museum faces.
- Where? Grapevine conference room, just before New Year’s
- The Mood: Somewhat strained