How is history written? And by who? Is just anyone capable of writing it? Or should the task be left in the hands of specific individuals and entities: historians, institutions, the authorities and the markets? These are some of the questions raised—directly and indirectly—by Katrín Inga Jónsdóttir Hjördísardóttir Hirt, whose solo exhibition ‘The 6th Volume’ is currently on display at NÝLÓ, The Living Art Museum in Reykjavík.
The exhibition draws its name from ‘Íslensk listasaga’ (“History Of Icelandic Art”), a five-volume book on the history of Icelandic art from late 19th Century to the beginning of the 21st, published in 2011 by publishing house Forlagi› in collaboration with The National Gallery of Iceland. Described by the publishers as a “huge cultural contribution,” its aim was not only to “tell the history of Icelandic visual art but also to strengthen and shape our ideas about the nation’s art, our common heritage and identity.” The 1,400-page-long book and its authors were, however, not free from criticism. Among the flaws mentioned was an embarrassing lack of women as well as a number of other key artists, and the exclusion of a whole genre, that is photography; some critics even called for the two latest volumes to be rewritten.
Most critical of the 5th volume—certainly the most sensitive one as it deals with contemporary art up until last millennium—Katrín took the historical and curatorial matters into her own hands. So, instead of putting her own works on display when invited to show at N†LÓ, she decided to attempt to put together what she calls “an exhibition of all Icelandic, contemporary artists.”
THE IMPERFECTNESS OF HISTORY
“I contacted about 120 artists and scholars,” Katrín tells me, “and asked them to give me an artwork or a text in exchange for a sculpture that I made.” The process brought forth a number of questions: “What is contemporary art? Is it centred on a certain age or a certain generation? Do any currently active artists fall under the definition or does it matter what sort of art theirs is?” The result is now standing in NÝLÓ: a versatile collection of art ranging from the avant-garde SÚM generation—dating back to 1965—to artists recently graduated from Iceland Academy of the Arts.
“But this idea was doomed,” she explains, “as I can never touch on everything.” As if to prove it, an artist who was not asked to take part in ‘The 6th Volume’ walks into our conversation. “In fact, you should have been there as well,” Katrín tells him and after a brief explanation of the idea behind the show, the complexity of history-writing becomes the topic. “One is never able to touch on everything—history-writing is so imperfect,” the artist who wished to remain anonymous says. “And when it comes to publications and retrospectives, there is always something missing,” Katrín adds.
The two agree that no “one” history exists. “Who brings in the money? Who’s the publisher,” Katrín asks and the other artist continues: “Who are their friends and collaborators?” Katrín also maintains that ownership of artworks plays a big role here. “The owners, of course, want their works to be included in publications because thus the financial value of their property increases.”
Alongside the market, funding is also an issue here. “When applying for grants,” Katrín says, “artists often have to conform their projects to the funds and their rules. In a way, this could be described as some sort of censorship of the development of art.” In order to broaden the range of funding options, she now hopes to sell her exhibition as a single artwork, using the money to start her own fund, “an anti-rule fund” she calls it, planning to keep it free from the formalities most often included in typical grants applications.
MAKING AND BREAKING THE RULES
Rather than seeing it as a result of anger and frustration toward the 2011 book, Katrín maintains that ‘The 6th Volume’ is more of a philosophical response: “This particular version of history has been published and one is simply forced to think about it. And while I was happy about the publication, I also agree with much of the criticism.”
She also points out how the lack of art publications makes a book like ‘Íslensk listasaga’ seem so important. “If there were more publications—alternative ones, with a focus on specific media and methods—this one might not have to weigh as heavily as it now does.” Responding to this lack, ‘The 6th Volume’ is also being produced as an actual book, published in three parts parallel to the progression of the exhibition.
Katrín admits that from the beginning she knew that she might hurt some of those not asked to take part. “But then again this is only my exhibition—my version of history—and no-one should be hurt for not being there. I make the rules and I break them as well.” The anonymous artist agrees, adding that “as each version of history contains some truth, everyone should write history.” As he leaves, Katrín and I continue our conversation and cannot resist asking ourselves if the planning of a 7th Volume—hitherto unheard of—has started.”