The phrase “allt í köku” is one of the Icelandic language’s many interesting, old-fashioned aphorisms. It roughly translates as “everything in a cake,” and while that might not sound like such a bad thing, the phrase is actually a way of saying “everything is in a mess.”
Ísafjörður-born, Akureyri-based artist Dagrún Matthíasdóttir uses textual interplays like these as a starting point in her work. “Allt í köku” is a series of self-portraits that act as the centre-piece in Dagrún’s new solo show, in which her sugar-dusted face is surrounded by fruit, cream and meringues. The gesture turns out to be layered with sweet and sour meanings.
“I wanted to embody the expression “allt í köku,” Dagrún explains. “These works are actually a little bit about the situation in Iceland generally, and how life is here today—the banking problems, and the crisis. Things were all cute and fine on the surface, but not underneath.”
Charting Political Trajectories
Dagrún uses foodstuffs to chart societal and political trajectories. “After the bubble burst in 2008, people started to go back to basics,” she says, “like slátur, the Icelandic haggis. There was a comeback for the old foods.”
Indeed, the first works that the audience see upon entering Dagrún’s handsome solo show at the Akureyri Sjónlistamiðstöðin (trans: “Visual Art Centre”) are paintings based on that most traditional Icelandic foodstuff: salted fish. As the viewer traverses the large, light space, and up the stairs to the airy balcony gallery, both the types of food and the art media used advance through the years in a thoughtfully curated narrative.
“I’ve been thinking about how the work would fit in this space since August last year,” Dagrún says. “I wanted to start with traditional Icelandic foods, so when you first enter there’s something familiar to welcome you. So, first come the hardfiskur pieces, named “Lifið er hardfiskur” (“Life is dried fish”). Then it moves on, and then again.”
Her thought processes were very fluid and natural, in a way that seems particularly Icelandic somehow. “The ideas just developed,” she explains, “as things tend to do. It’s hard to explain how the mind works. I just did it, it came together. I gave a lot of thought to the different forms I could use, and how they’d be positioned and sequenced, and this is the result.”
Using the universal imagery of food turns out to be an entry point into other issues that people from many different walks of life can relate to. “An elderly man came to the exhibition, an eighty-something,” smiles Dagrún. “He was a former banker, and one of my pieces touches on the subject of money—it’s a painting of a king giving cakes to a woman. And in the next one, she is returning the cakes. I’m thinking about the broken system here—beneath the sweetness, these subjects are there. The ex-banker, he loved it, he said, “this is true! You are telling the truth!”
Opening In The Art Valley
This show is just one of several that open on the same day. They all sit on the street nicknamed Listagilið, or the Art Valley, by locals. “Once a month, there’s a day of openings,” she explains. “We try to have them all the same day, to create a festival feeling. A lot of people are just interested in art, it’s very fun.”
And just how many spaces are there on Listagilið? “Well there’s the art museum, the Ketilhús, then the home of an artist, with openings sometimes, plus the Art Association which has an exhibition room too. And then also guest studios for artists to work in, and my Mjólkurbuðin gallery.” So she runs a gallery too? “Yes—my first gallery was just my workshop, with a little room for openings. Since then, I can’t stop, so I moved into this new space.”
Many of the smaller galleries are labours of love with a little help from culture funds. “There is funding, but you’re lucky to get it,” Dagrún says, “and it’s not a lot really. This solo show is the first I’ve had funding for. I’m hoping to make a catalogue for the exhibition. I called the printer and told him how much I got, and he just laughed, but he says we can to make a deal… it’s a start, a good start. Maybe after getting this one, I’ll apply for more.”
At Home In Akureyri
I wonder how it feels to have a hometown opening like this, in the view of friends, family, colleagues and the local community all at once. “I was surprisingly calm about it,” smiles Dagrún. “A little high on the opening day, stress-energy perhaps, but I’m happy with how the whole process ended. There were supportive comments and lots of great company. People came with open minds. It was magical.”
Such a warm reception explains why Dagrún is content to live and work in Akureyri, far from the heightened and saturated art scenes of London and New York. “I tend not to think about that side of things much,” she says. “I think I’m more in the moment. Of course, if I get a chance I jump on it and take part, so I have exhibited abroad. It’s not that difficult I think. The travelling to go an opening cost is the only issue. But there’s something about this town, my family prefers to be here. I like Reykjavík, but it’s just very nice to live and work in Akureyri.”
And after all, Akureyri is as connected to contemporary life as anywhere. In the show’s striking finale, Dagrún continuously vomits candy-coloured liquid of various neon hues in a projected video, the subject being the very current problem of internet hate speech.
“The title of this one translates as “the common talk,” she explains. “This piece relates to what’s going on with feminism online. There have been some very ugly comments, abusive and sexual comments, on feminist sites. The internet is a great place to express yourself of course, but you have to think about what you are saying. Some people really just, excuse the language, talk a lot of shit. They should be more responsible. Racism and sexism is not okay just because it’s online. I mean, online or offline—people should be responsible for what they are saying, wherever it is.”
“Gomsætt / Delicious” is open at Sjónlistamiðstöðin Akureyri, April 12 – May 18.