Hafnarhúsið, on Reykjavík’s waterfront, is a beautiful building. Once home to the city’s harbour offices, it’s now the largest of the Reykjavík Art Museum’s three sites, dedicated to contemporary art in its manifold forms. Past the large sliding doors and airy lobby and up some stairs, gallery number six is a particular hive of activity. Behind an “installation in progress” sign, Korean-American artist Kathy Clark bobs around busily, leading an industrious crew as they transform the white cube space into another world entirely.
The show is Kathy’s first major solo show in Iceland, her adopted homeland of the last ten years. In contrast to the minimalism of Hafnarhúsið’s architecture, her installation is an explosion of shapes, textures, colours and sounds. The gallery is teeming with tall heaps of teddy bears, hundreds of which have been individually coated in wax, giving them a pale, spectral appearance. In one corner, lights are being hung behind some hanging gates, creating an enclosed bear heaven; in another, a pot of wax bubbles away beneath a wall-mounted tree sculpture dotted with bear cocoons. Even at the half-built stage, it’s already a sensory overload on an ambitious scale.
Teddy bears know things
Kathy started collecting bears three years ago. “I stumbled across a crate of them at the Good Shepherd,” she recalls. “I like objects that have a history, when you can see the age and the deterioration. I use my storeroom as my palette, and go out to charity shops looking for things that inspire me.”
In particular, the intense connection that children have with their early toys sparked Kathy’s interest. “These bears aren’t new,” she explains. “They’re used, once-loved, once-cuddled bears that were a very high priority in a child’s life. They were taken to bed, and talked to—they consoled children when they cried. They each have a story. These bears collected the presence of the child. They know things. I thought about what they would tell us if they could. The show sort of became an exploration of that secret life, amongst other things.”
Kathy walks me around the resulting world. Against one wall lies a row of emptied furs, each one inverted and stitched with a line of poetry that reveals a glimpse into the story of its former owner. “These are the observations of the bears,” explains Kathy. “The stories are perhaps based on people that I know, or have been a part of my life. These are the bears’ secrets. Some are nice, but some are not so nice.” She surveys the skins, gesturing to each, and reading them out. “This one says ‘My human child never questioned life and was not resistant to influences.’ And this one says ‘My human child suffered with complete composure.’”
Finding a path
The room is dotted with cairn-forms, of the type found in Iceland’s landscape, all made from waxed bears. It’s a neat metaphor for finding a path, whether it’s the bears finding their way back from charity-shop abandonment, or the viewer finding a path back into their personal childhood experience through Kathy’s work. But either way, the endpoint of some bears’ journey is in the exhibition’s cemetery corner. “These are the carcasses,” says Kathy, gesturing to more emptied, crumpled furs. “Each one has a memory marker… I took out their stuffing, and shaped it into these bears up here.” She gestures to some clouds of shaped stuffing, suspended amongst lights. “They are the ghost bears, going up, and the carcasses stay below.”
The exhibition’s different sections reveal a long train of thought about the potential of abandoned toys as both a language and as a medium, with all the permutations connected by the internal logic of the exhibition’s world. A larger bear covered in black lines represents a guide, accompanied by recorded bear growls; another piece is a crib that’s embroidered with a quote from Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’. The room is lined with bears that have been distorted, dissected, or bound tightly into unrecognisable shapes, offering darkly psychological glimpses into what can befall children on their path into adulthood.
“As an artist, I have many things I want to share,” explains Kathy. “A lot of it is deeply psychological and emotional, using this metaphor of the bear. I have other works I want to make—a plant, an animal—but always the underlying aspect of work about being human, and what it entails to live, to have a day-to-day life and an emotional life.”
God damn it you have to be kind
The exhibition is the culmination of three years of work. I ask how it feels to be bringing such a large project, especially one that touches on such tender, personal subjects, to fruition.
“I’m excited,” smiles Kathy. “I’ve been excited the whole time making the work. It’s been fun to be so industrious, I love making things. I have so many more things I wanna do. Installation was my passion when I was at the Art Institute in San Francisco. I made some really big works, almost as big as this one, but I started branching into other work, making smaller paintings, and eventually stopped altogether, for financial reasons. I mean, I was always making on the side. But now, I feel like I’m a re-emerging artist.”
The effort has paid off: ‘bears; truths…’ is a simultaneously complex and accessible piece that rewards sustained attention with rich layers of meaning. “It’s really all about us humans, how we travel the path of our life and the lessons we all learn,” says Kathy, brimming with enthusiasm. “What I’m hoping is that people take the time to not just see the work, but to experience it. Maybe they’ll come away having been reminded of something from their own childhood.”
As we finish our tour of the show, I realise that by shining a light onto difficult psychological states, perhaps Kathy’s work also illuminates the first steps to understanding, and even recovery. It seems suddenly like a generous undertaking. “Well, thank you,” she says. “I do so love to give, in every way. Not just in my art, but in life. It’s so important to give.”