Elín Hansdóttir stands in front of a wall of flowers. She examines them closely, leaning in to see the details, her fingers meticulously tracing the edges of the petals in each of the photographs pinned to her studio wall. “I’ve become really interested in still life from the 17th and 18th century,” she says. “I read somewhere that some of these bouquet arrangements are assembled—they’re collages of flowers that bloom at different times of the year. So it’s fictional.”
The pictures are source material for ‘Simulacra’, a piece that recently showed at Iceland’s premier contemporary art dealer, i8. Glancing through the large windows of the gallery, a passerby might not notice the intrinsic paradox of the work: a series of photographs of a large bouquet hanging in the same space that is, in reality, occupied by the room’s solid central pillar.
Upon closer inspection, it becomes apparent that the flowers are an illusion: both the bouquet and the scene were hand-painted onto glass, which was then positioned in front of the camera, creating a fictionalised photograph of the space.
“It was a strange show,” laughs Elín. “I really enjoyed working on it. For the last two years I’ve been obsessed with this glass painting method used in film. The craft grew during the first World War. There was a shortage of money and materials to build film sets, so the studios built up departments of people painting photorealistic paintings on little pieces of glass, to create these grand backgrounds.”
“It’s a beautiful attitude towards creating something so incredibly simple,” she continues. “This moment where we suspend our disbelief, set rational thought aside, and make a pact with ourselves to go with the illusion…” She pauses, and smiles. “That’s really interesting.”
Elín has made a name for herself over the last decade creating disorientating interventions like this one, in a variety of media. Her studio is littered with draft versions and remnants of previous works, from colourfully painted Voronoi tessellations, to the flower wall, to crumpled up grids inspired by the techniques of pioneering photographer Eadweard Muybridge.
“I’ve worked with installation, films and photography,” she says. “I’m a Sagittarius who needs to try new things out. It’s a risky way of working—sometimes these works succeed in becoming independent from what I have in mind. And sometimes they don’t.”
This open-ended and evolving approach means that, to some degree, Elín starts from square one each time a work is completed, and the next begins. Each piece requires a reassessment, refinement, evolution or adaptation of her artistic language. But it’s a method Elín feels comfortable with.
“It’s a way of expressing things without language,” she says. “A large part of our surroundings are text-based—news, and communication. I was so relieved to find a way of communicating not through language.”
The root of this thinking comes, perhaps, from her childhood. Elín was raised overseas, her parents having moved the family to mainland Europe when she was two years old. “I grew up in another small, strange country called Luxembourg, which is very different to Iceland,” she says. “It’s heavily Catholic, very religious, and gender roles are quite extreme. In the late 70s and early 80s, there was a lot of unemployment in Iceland. They just wanted to try something else.”
At home, she spoke Icelandic, and at school, French, German, English and Luxembourgish, meaning Elín has felt forever between languages. Both of her parents were self-employed—her father a violin maker, and her mother a creative writing graduate—so Elín also grew used to the idea of working independently. “They controlled their own time,” she says. “I got used to that way of life, with money coming in unevenly. It was very handy for an artist—you’d never go into the field, otherwise. But I didn’t know anything else.”
Elín also spent a lot of time picking things up in her father’s violin workshop. “It was in a big castle from the Middle Ages,” she smiles. “A beautiful, romantic setting surrounded by woods with huge trees. My dad taught me to use machinery from an early age. His philosophy was that if you teach a kid to use a bandsaw when they’re six, they’ll understand the seriousness and danger of it. I’m certain this is one of the reasons that I wasn’t afraid of building large things when I started out.”
Having planned to stay there for just a couple of years, it was twelve before the family returned to Iceland. “I think my parents were worried I’d become a Luxembourger,” Elín laughs. They moved into a place on Ingólfstræti. As luck would have it, a new gallery was opening on the square.
“It was the i8 gallery,” says Elín. “We got to know Edda Jónsdóttir, the lady running it. We were there every day. I had an interest in art, and started working there on weekends. I was paid in artwork, and I could read all the magazines, and look at the books. From there, studying art happened naturally.”
Elín applied for the foundation course at Iceland’s Academy of Arts. The course was undergoing a rethink at the time, and didn’t require students to specialise in a single discipline. It was perfect for Elín, who was already curious and exploratory in nature. “I’ve never chosen a medium,” she says. “It just depends on my interests at the time. Which also makes me an amateur in many things, rather than a specialist in one.”
“There were some frustrations,” she smiles, “but I was twenty, so being frustrated is normal. I realised after a couple of years that I was craving more critical thinking. And I got that in Berlin.”
The MA course at KHB Weissensee in Berlin was a stark contrast with the open nature of art education in Reykjavík. “What I admire in Iceland is this ‘get up and go, no fear, just do and see what happens’ energy,” says Elín. “But there’s also a lack of critical thinking. In Germany it was very different: my fellow students on the MA had been studying for five years and maybe never had an exhibition. They were waiting for their ideas to become rock solid. It was good to find balance, and have access to both worlds.”
As she approached the final year of her studies in 2005, Elín was commissioned by Reykjavík Arts Festival. The curator was Jessica Morgan from the Tate Modern, and rather than basing the event in downtown Reykjavík, she decided to spread the artists all over Iceland. Elín’s show would take place in Ísafjörður in a large 1890s building called The Edinburgh House. Inside a corrugated iron exterior the house was under renovation, resulting in a raw, cavernous space.
Elín had some cash on hand from selling an apartment, and decided to go all-in on the project. “I had the opportunity to do something in a huge space—and I went for it!” she exclaims. “I was like: ‘Mum, Dad, I’d like to spend a million króna on plywood and screws, do you mind?’ But they said, ‘Go for it, girl!’ That’s real support.”
She assembled a group of collaborators, including two architects, a sound artist and a vocalist, and headed for Ísafjörður. The team stayed in a tiny rented apartment for six weeks, through a snowy, stormy spring, sharing a room and working day and night on Elín’s idea: a 150 metre-long zig-zagging tunnel environment, with brightly lit walls.
“We were endlessly walking along the tunnel,” Elín recalls, “and no matter how many times we walked this distance, we never knew where we were. If you forgot a tool somewhere, there was no way to remember. The distance seemed to expand.”
During its construction, Elín had little idea what the outcome would be. “It was an experiment,” she states. “I just knew what dimensions I wanted, and the lighting, and to have it as white as possible. You walked in and reached the end, expecting to see something around the corner… but there was another corner, then another, then another. You got the feeling of being snowblind. There were no reference points, and it became a projection screen for your own thoughts.”
The results were a surprise even to the artist. “The piece took on a life of its own,” says Elín, “and became something, without me directing it in that way. That’s very exciting to me—when you make decisions, one step at a time, but in the end it becomes something completely independent.”
One of the difficulties for early career artists to create such work is the sheer logistical challenge. Elín remembers a different atmosphere in 2005, before the financial collapse. “The festival opening was so decadent,” she says. “It was an airplane ride around the island, from Ísafjörður to Akureyri to Egillstaðir to Vestmannaeyjar, with the politicians and artists and curators all getting gradually more drunk. It was fun.”
The success of the piece was a breakthrough for Elín. “It opened my eyes to a world where a space can move you, literally and mentally, without telling a story,” she says. “After that I knew anything was possible.”
Whilst constructing the tunnel, Elín happened upon another idea. Finishing work one night, she walked its length, gradually turning out the lights, when something unexpected caught her attention. “I was finishing up, pulling out the plugs, creating a darkness as I went,” she says. “I came to a sharp corner where there was a fantastic lighting situation. It was bright enough to see the structure, but dark enough for the edges to blur out and disappear. I had no sense of distance, and it fascinated me.”
That moment would become the trigger for another large scale work that came to fruition three years later at the Maribel Lopez Gallery in Berlin, entitled ‘Path’. Visitors would ring the doorbell, and enter an unexpected and discombobulating corridor, dimly lit through horizontal and vertical slits. “The lighting created a shadow play,” says Elín. “Once your eyes adjusted, you’d start seeing the structure. Everything got inverted—you might think you’re supposed to turn right, then walk into the wall. People came out the same door they went in, but thought they were on the other side of the building.”
The piece travelled next to Iceland’s National Gallery, tripled in both scale and, as it would turn out, in effect. “One person broke through the wall and ran out of the fire escape,” says Elín. “They never found them. Another—a renowned writer, Þór Vilhjálmsson—kicked through the wall. He was a critic, and a black belt. He was so angry. He didn’t think this was art, he thought it was bullshit. It was a wonderful response.”
Embracing the unknown
This momentary escape from reality—when the viewer is taken by surprise by a visual effect, an architectural interference, or the realisation that they’re looking at something other than they first thought—is a thread that runs throughout Elín’s work.
“It’s like waking up,” says Elín. “That’s what interests me: figuring out situations that can surprise us. A lot of what we experience in daily life, we expect to happen. We lose our sense of alertness—walking down a stair, knowing you’ll turn left and walk down a hill. It’s interesting trying to shake up the usual way of seeing things. It has a lot to do with embracing the unknown, whatever that is. Even I don’t know what these works will produce or what kind of experiences they will be.”
Producing such experiences touches on some bigger questions, such as how able we are to navigate the unfamiliar, how we cope with change, and even, through the widest possible lens, how we relate to death. “I like to think about that bigger picture,” says Elín. “What I experienced in the dark space of ‘Path’ was that, because there was nothing to focus on visually, all the attention was drawn to myself, and my thoughts, my fears—everything. The environment draws attention to yourself.”
This theme was echoed again in ‘Parallax’, a piece made in 2009. Whilst preparing for an exhibition at the Reykjavík Art Museum, Elín was confronted by the realities of Iceland’s financial collapse. “I was really confused,” she explains. “I didn’t want to just exhibit something, given what has just happened.”
The situation made her ask some core questions about the value and purpose of art, especially in contrast to other government-funded programmes like healthcare. “I was thinking about the role of museums, and asking what their purpose was,” Elín recalls. “So I decided to draw attention to the space itself, and its potential as a place to discuss these issues in society.”
The resulting artwork was based on a photograph of a house in Hafnarfjörður, taken by her father in the 70s, in which a modern frontage was placed over a traditional wooden house in an ineffective attempt to mask what lay behind.
“It felt so symbolic for Iceland,” says Elín. “It’s so surreal to put up a modernistic front and not consider that if you take five steps to the right, you see the old wooden house. It’s symbolic for the superficiality of image.”
The piece also contained a room that appeared normal on the accompanying live video feed, until someone moved through the space, at which point a perspective trick was revealed. “I was really interested in scale, and shifts of scale, and power relations,” says Elín, “and how they can smoothly change without you noticing.”
The show also brought home the power of art as a driver for grassroots discourse. “I think art is a social force,” says Elín, “not this hierarchical, market-driven place. We all own these spaces. They should be a place we all have the right to use, to question these systems that we have put up.”
Elín came face to face with the sociopolitical and socioeconomic aspects of art again in 2012 when, during a residency in a village in Morocco, she was invited to take part in the Marrakech Biennale. The curators were from outside of the country, and wanted to connect the artists with locals in downtown Marrakech.
“It was a beautiful idea,” says Elín, “but I wondered if they’d be able to pull it off without being patronising towards the locals. I said I wanted to make a project in the village where I lived. It was problematic at first, but in the end they realised what I wanted to do and supported it.”
Elín had arrived with just a very basic toolbox, but took the challenge head-on. She enlisted eight local masons from the village, where houses were constructed from sunbaked mud bricks. “It’s a very different culture,” she recalls. “Men and women don’t eat together, they eat in separate rooms. There are strict rules on gender roles and how you behave in public. It wasn’t easy for me to come in—a blonde foreign woman with blue eyes—and hire eight men, tell them what to do, and try to gain their trust.”
Between Elín’s French language skills and lots of improvisation, she got the workmen on board to create a tall spiral of mud brick walls with large mirrors on the inside. “They asked about why I was doing it, and who it was for,” says Elín. “I was facing the fact that the cost of the piece was the same as they earned in a year, and these people are struggling to feed their kids. It raised heavy questions about why I was doing it. For me, the work became about the process of being confronted with these questions of purpose.”
Elín fondly remembers the attention of some local children during the spiral’s construction. On the first day, three showed up, then, ten. Soon Elín and the workmen were surrounded daily by up to fifty local children, all fascinated by what was happening. “They didn’t know what I was doing, and neither did I,” smiles Elín. “In the end, the spiral became a place to meet. It was a magnet—an excuse to start a dialogue. And that’s what’s most important.”
Once again, Elín had succeeded in starting an experimental process that yielded unexpected results.
“Each piece teaches me something through the process of making it,” she says. “I often don’t understand the works until many years later. I don’t have that distance yet, somehow. I feel like I’m in my teenage years of creating work, and I don’t think there’ll come a time when it all becomes clear. I don’t have an aim, really—I look forward to the surprises. Projects are more like gifts that open up ways of living and thinking.”
“It’s an adventure,” she finishes. “Like trekking on a map that’s just white. And as you go along, the landscape builds up around you gradually, and clues appear. And I’ll probably never figure it out, in the end.”