"The Power of Passage" at the Reykjavík Art Museum
Unfurled at majestic full length across the middle of the gallery, stained with oily pockmarks and rusty striations, “Cloth Collapsion” looks like some kind of ancient, time-worn scroll—a key document from a not quite lost civilisation, rescued from the ravages of the elements and displayed as an artefact for curious museumgoers. The only thing missing, really, is the writing. There is a kind of history inscribed, but it’s a record of biological time, not of human civilization.
Leaving art to nature and chance
A similarly humble pose, in a more specifically art-historical context, is struck on one of the facing walls by Harpa Árnadóttir’s white paintings. Harpa coated her canvasses in layers of pigment and glue so that they would crack; the crisscross of hairline fractures maps a molecular logic too fine for any painter to replicate. The artist has forsaken all visual content save for the material properties of her medium itself. And, as with Jóhann, what results is a ghostly vision from the future. The mixtures Harpa applies to her canvas merely speed up, rather than delay, the fate they share with all paintings. Despite the heroic dedication of art restorers and the generators keeping the exhibition and storage spaces cool and dry, canvasses crack and colours dim.
Harpa is among four Icelandic artists whose work was selected by curator Hafþór Yngvason to surround “Cloth Collapsion.” All have devised processes by which nature and chance might take their course. For her “Material Landscape Project,” Guðrún Einarsdóttir blended her oil paint with chemicals so that it would, when splashed onto a canvas, stay wet and continue to disperse in unpredictable ways for as long as a year or more. Very close-up, the coagulated veins of paint look like packages of Ramen noodles. Ragna Róbertsdóttir contributes a piece of tarnished silver, like an occluded mirror, and several glass plates onto which she has poured salt water and let dry. In a more inorganic way, Sólveig Aðalsteinsdóttir prints film exposed and handled in a dark room, capturing the play of stray ambient light.
There are a number of parallels to be drawn. In his notes, curator Hafþór invokes a couple of rather cheeky predecessors: Marcel Duchamp, who allowed dust to gather on a glass plate left out in his studio, and the Icelander Kristján Guðmundsson who, in 1969, exhibited an ironing board covered in chickenshit deposited there by his hens. He titled it “Environmental Sculpture.” Removed from debates over the artistic methods and valuations, “Cloth Collapsion” also has a whiff of the archaeological grandeur of Richard Serra’s oxidized monoliths. And Jóhann’s use of industrial waste in his sculpture, and the facing walls’ patterns of decomposition, spreading oil and salt water recall J. Henry Fair and Edward Burtynsky, whose large-format photographs frame landscape-despoiling pollution as alarmingly beautiful abstract compositions.
The most inexorable process of all
Additionally, the random-access methods on display here have an inverse in the Conceptual and Minimal schools, wherein artists will sometimes surrender their decision-making process to some kind of schema, whether technological or a logic of their own devising. From 1960, François Morellet’s “Random Distribution of 40,000 Squares Using the Odd and Even Numbers of a Telephone Directory” is an obsessive, impersonal, red-and-blue static array made exactly as it sounds like it was made. Sol LeWitt produced instructions for geometrical wall drawings to be executed by installers. The point is to efface the agency of the human artist, often in the face of some encroaching impersonal technology—or else, as is happening at Hafnarhús, to contest any such timeline of succession by reverting to eternal orders.
What all these abstract pieces have in common, though, is the beautiful, uncanny impression they give of corresponding to some kind of secret law of nature, regardless of how advanced and man-made the materials. And it’s nature that all of these “material landscapes”—to borrow Guðrún’s title—evoke, as in Ragna’s islands of crystal formations, or the wavy splashes of illumination, like the Northern Lights in Sólveig’s photo prints. This natural beauty, with its minimal colour and embellishment, is spare, even weathered, and perhaps stereotypically Icelandic. In their deference to, and articulation of, natural and inexorable processes, the works in “The Power of Passage” are more than a little stoic. They genuflect towards the most inexorable process of all: time.