Sicily 212 BCE. General Marcellus sends a soldier to find the mathematician Archimedes and bring him to his court, out of sheer curiosity. Archimedes was renowned for his science, but had also lent his mind to inventing war machines, which Sicily used to resist the general’s invasion. The soldier finds Archimedes on the beach, doodling geometry in the sand. “The general wants to see you”, the soldier says, to which Archimedes’ only reply is to go on doodling. “General Marcellus wants to see you”, the soldier repeats, and Archimedes keeps on drawing. Completely perplexed by the mathematician’s lack of understanding the soldier says for the third time: “Don’t you understand, general Marcellus himself has summoned you to his court?” Archimedes looks up and replies: “Let me finish my equation.” The soldier waits a while, then runs out of patience and lifts his sword and strikes Archimedes who falls dead. Or so it went according to French philosopher Alain Badiou, who uses this anecdote to explain his concept of a ‘philosophical situation’: Between state power and arts (in this case mathematics) there is no relation. Nothing in common. Confronted with this lack of relation, we must invent, we must think, but we must also, he insists, take sides.
Reykjavík 2011 CE. “The arts, conflated with the creative industry, are increasingly associated with societal services and marketing agendas, and are governed by the State and municipal bodies, as well as by business agents, planners, directors, and entrepreneurs—all of whom favour utilitarian outcomes to art, such as international networking, nation branding and economic growth, to name a few. Artists become agents, part of the ‘managerial class’ suited to solving socio-cultural problems. They are soft versions of the technocrat and the bureaucrat.”
So write the curators of Koddu, an exhibition that opened in two spaces in Reykjavík on April 16. The text strikes a note familiar to anyone even only briefly familiar with the humanities during the last two decades, but completely new as an agenda from within the local arts scene. The curators go on to state their main goal: “[…] to create an account of the relations between iconography/images/language and ideology in contemporary Iceland before and after the meltdown and, further, to address core ideas of national identity and its construction within a small nation.”
Koddu is not just the most controversial art exhibition in town, it’s the only art exhibition that’s been controversial in this town since 1970, I’m told. It’s somewhat unexpected key selling point is an ongoing debate between the publisher of award-winning monstrously luxurious € 620 12 kg. coffee-table book of illustrations, ‘Flora Islandica’, and the team of three curators who made an installation of the book smeared in food, from dairy products to salami. The illustrations are smeared to the point of being unrecognisable, whereas the identity of the book itself remains clear. The curators borrowed the publisher’s blurb and named the installation ‘The world’s most beautiful book’. In this work, Icelandic food products, i.e. nature as a smelly cycle of rot and filth, strikes back at the lusciously colourful and detailed gift-item imagery of nature commonly utilised for nation-branding.
Now, this somewhat standard, even banal, work of iconoclasm has become such a minefield of insults and offences given and taken that even merely attempting to describe the narrative surrounding it means risking a libel case. So much, however, is clear: The exhibition was at first to be opened last fall in a museum in the small town Hveragerði, famous for its greenhouse harvest of cucumbers and more recently a marginal neo-Nazi scene. The museum directors then took offence at the exhibition’s direction and wanted to soften the tone somewhat. According to the curators this amounted to censorship. The museum directors, however, insist they were simply acting responsibly: museums are ‘based on traditions’, must ‘preserve a certain image’ and so are ‘naturally conservative’—from this standpoint the curators over-dramatised the whole affair, for the sake of publicity and self-aggrandisation. From the standpoint of authority so was, of course, Archimedes’ stupefying martyrdom.
A BRUTAL WEIGHT
In comes Nýló: Reykjavík’s Living Art Museum, established and run by artists since 1978, as ‘a platform for progressive exhibitions and critical discussions on experimental art practice’. Nýló took on the exhibition, in cooperation with Austrian patron Francesca von Habsburg. The opening took place in two locations simultaneously: In Nýló’s own exhibition space and in the Alliance-house, right west of the city centre, which has served various art-related purposes in recent years.
It is a performative exhibition, an attack on a collective imagery, and the sheer amount of works involved gives it a brutal weight that suffices to explode the silent consensus about the function and utility of images in this country. Sure enough there are individual works within the exhibition that conquer their own space and open up more interpretive or non-interpretive dimensions: I will name only Þorvaldur Þorsteinsson’s video installation, which resembles Alan Clarke’s 1989 short film ‘Elephant’ but takes his imagery of meaningless serial murder to a place all its own. The strongest impression, however, remains that of the exhibition in whole, as one collage. As such the exhibition succeeds: those who intend to continue using the thoughtless imagery of Icelandic ‘children of nature’ for nation-branding cannot claim innocence in so doing from now on. Their motives will already have been revealed.
The exhibition is an act committed on the collective visual consciousness of a country. In these terms the success of this bountiful exhibition will be partly determined by the number of visitors. Enter Kristján B. Jónasson, representative of Crymogea publishing house, who two days after the opening had not yet seen the exhibition but either asks (according to himself) or demands or threatens a lawsuit (according to Nýló) if the gallerists do not instantly remove ‘The World’s Most Beautiful Book’ from the exhibition, claiming a breach of the author’s moral rights.
Now, Nýló was founded by the artists who caused uproar during the 1970 Reykjavík Arts Festival with a pile of bread erected and displayed on Skólavörðuholt (artist: Kristján Guðmundsson). That controversy, only one of many surrounding the groundbreaking SÚM-group, reached far beyond the arts scene and became the matter of actual church sermons on degeneracy before being removed by the city’s health authorities (Archimedes vs. the Surgeon General). Today Nýló seems to be going through a midlife identity crisis, facing itself having become an institution. They hesitate in the no-man’s land between State logic and artistic dedication.
Nýló succumbed and removed the work on the April 20. The curators demanded that the work be decensored, and that the museum should remain closed until the book was back in place, as the totality of the exhibition had been violated with the item’s removal. The curators reinstalled the book themselves, while Nýló closed its part of the exhibition over Easter. It remained closed on Tuesday thereafter, and then sent out a plot-thickening press release: the ‘World’s Most Beautiful Book’ had vanished.
WHAT IS AT STAKE IS AT STAKE
The book reappeared inside a black square container installed at the centre of the exhibition space in the Alliance house, i.e. outside Nýló’s own premises. Visitors can no longer leaf through the book but merely observe it through a glass pane at a moderate distance. Crymogea now demand that the curators destroy ‘The World’s Most Beautiful Book’, in the presence of the publisher’s representatives, at the end of the exhibition. Nevermind the potential market value of the most disputed piece of art in Iceland for decades: given the spirit of the feud and the principles at stake it is unlikely that the curators will give in.
What is at stake? Precisely the definition of what is at stake is at stake: according to the publishers it is legality and respect for authors’ rights. According to the curators it is art’s role within or against the capitalist nation-state. Curiously enough it seems that the Koddu curators are more willing to take the case to State courts in order to force forth a principled ruling, which might set an example, whereas Crymogea seems intent on reaching ‘an agreement’ about destroying ‘The World’s Most Beautiful Book’. Various cynical perspectives remain open: that this is old money (Francesa von Habsburg) attacking the Icelandic boom nouveau-riches’ lack of culture; that it’s all just a personal affair between curator Hannes Lárusson and illustrator Eggert Pétursson; that it’s an interesting legal paradox where authors’ moral rights meet with private property rights (the exhibition bought this copy of the book…); that it is a feud between the dominant patriarchal book world against the feminine/feminist subversive tactics of visual arts; or, as publisher Kristján B. Jónasson trivialised the case when someone asked if ‘people can’t handle a dialogue’: “A dialogue about what? Food?”