It’s often noted that Iceland has a vibrant and thriving arts culture for a country of 330,000 people. In music, literature and visual art, Iceland punches far above its weight, producing an impressive amount of world class artists, in various disciplines. But the road between an artist’s graduation and their “major retrospective” is often decades long, and museums are scarce by comparison. The end result of this equation is a wealth of artist-led initiatives, collectives, and independent gallery spaces that have come into being over a period of decades, and played an essential role in the country’s cultural conversation.
NÝLÓ is an abbreviation of Nýlistasafnið, or “The Living Art Museum”—it’s an organisation dedicated to capturing and archiving these often mercurial moments and movements. It’s an apt title: in addition to their vast archive of performance art in Iceland, video art, and artist-led initiatives, NÝLÓ is also a vibrant hub for active artists. In addition to developing their archive, NÝLÓ runs two exhibition spaces—one in Breiðholt, and one in the Marshall House—with a lively year-round programme of exhibitions, screenings, performances, and events.
“There’s always something going on,” says Þorgerður Ólafsdóttir, the museum director, as she shows us around the recently opened Marshall House exhibition space. “We’ve had this current retrospective in our minds for a really long time. It’s by Ólafur Lárusson, one of the founders of the museum. He went unnoticed for at least two generations of artists. When I was in school he was never talked about, but then when Ragnar Kjartansson was here, he said: ‘It’s amazing that you’re doing a show about Oli Legend!’”
NÝLÓ was founded in 1978, and has occupied an interesting position ever since. On one hand, it performs an institutional role, preserving and archiving delicate and ephemeral works; on the other, it’s completely independent, running as an NGO with a board elected from its 380-strong membership of artists, experts and enthusiasts.
“It’s a unique organisation,” says Þorgerður. “It’s a juxtaposition, because it’s from the grassroots scene, but it’s a museum. It’s always been artist-run, and collected contemporary art that was being lost or discarded. At the time it opened, the National Gallery wasn’t collecting new art, and artists were frustrated.”
Þorgerður notes my surprise that this role has been taken up by artists, rather than the state. “In the first twenty years, NÝLÓ was run by volunteer work,” she says. “Then, when more money came through, it started to turn into more of an operation. We never talk about it as being an ‘institution’—or ‘stofnun,’ in Icelandic—because it’s such a formal word.”
NÝLÓ has inhabited several spaces since the museum’s inception. “It first arose from the SÚM movement, which started in 1965,” says Þorgerður. “Hreinn Friðfinnsson was one of the founders, and Jón Gunnar Árnason—he’s mostly known for the ‘Sun Voyager’ on Sæbraut, but he did so many other works. At first, it was in Ólafur Lárusson’s studio, then it moved to the old SÚM gallery space.”
In 2014, NÝLÓ was chased out of the downtown area by the difficult rental market, and relocated to Breiðholt. “Many artists who live in Reykjavík 101 thought it was a drastic step,” says Þorgerður. “But when the first exhibitions went up, and people realised NÝLÓ was still NÝLÓ, just in Breiðholt, they were calm about it. We have an exhibition of books there now called ‘Read Through’. NÝLÓ has over 800 bookworks.”
Short-run bookworks are another fragile medium that is easily dispersed and forgotten, bringing their collection and preservation into NÝLÓ’s remit. “From the beginning, NÝLÓ had an emphasis on collecting work that was being lost or discarded,” explains Þorgerður, “so there’s always been a focus on performance and bookworks. It was ten years ago when the board decided to fully investigate that part of the museum’s history and started to formally create these archives—performance art, and artist-run initiatives.”
The resulting collection has a powerful impact, showing the importance of artist-run initiatives, which are often underfunded, or even unfunded, labours of love. “The archive really shows the huge impact of the artist-run spaces on the visual arts in Iceland over the years,” says Þorgerður. “We made a chart of all the art spaces that have come and gone since 1923. The vast majority of them are artist-run, and it’s ongoing to this day—now we have Ekkisens and Harbinger in Reykjavík, and artist initiatives from the east to the Westfjords.”
Another outcome of this work is, as it turns out, to fill in the blanks of Iceland’s art history. While institutional memory can be powerful, it also suffers amnesia when it comes to grassroots organisations and experimental work.
“It’s interesting how art history is written,” says Þorgerður. “It’s usually just by a few people. When the large five volume art history publication came out, you looked at it and realised how much was missing. There was a tiny paragraph about Ólafur Lárusson’s performances, for example, and nothing more. But how can it happen in such a small community that one artist falls through the cracks? That’s one role of NÝLÓ—to make sure the history stays true, a bit.”
Learn more about NÝLÓ here, and watch out for their forthcoming book on Ólafur Lárusson.