As I sit in the peacock-blue interiors of i8 Gallery, a turquoise espresso cup twinkles before my eyes like a rare gem. A thin coat of gold has been melted along the uneven curves of its brim, strikingly bright against the dark cloud of coffee I’ve been sipping. “It‘s real gold, you know,” says the artist, Egill Sæbjörnsson.
Egill insisted that we get a cup of coffee while we check out his jewellery exhibition in i8 Gallery. His reputation as a provocateur precedes him, and I half expected him to show up in a dishevelled overall and ripped sweater. Instead, he’s wearing a lovely brick-red jacket over his slightly retro outfit. He speaks softly but there’s a humorous twinkle in his eye that betrays him. It’s in that twinkle that I see reflected the bizarre exhibitions he’s known for.
Ugh & Böögar strike again
After his 2016 exhibition at the Venice Biennale, where—as he explains mischievously—he worked with his collaborators, the Icelandic trolls Ugh and Böögar, Egill has finally come back to Iceland for another partnership with his favourite trolls. For years they’ve been collaborating on a collection of oversized rings, necklaces and trinkets of all kind; a massive pebble-like necklace hangs majestically from one of the walls of the installation, while intricate rings made of pure gold and colourful perfume bottles sit on shelves like half-forgotten treasures. A small volcanic stone covered in moss has been decorated with a not-so-subtle ruby-like gem that sparkles with lively energy under the dim lights. “We water the moss every day,” Egill says with a nod.
It doesn’t take long to walk through Egill’s exhibition. It’s so simple it’s almost familiar, like the primordial memory of something that moves fluidly between history and imagination. It could just as well be a real collection of giant jewellery from the Stone Age—or perhaps the improbable accessory line of a new Disney movie. This state of indecision and the sense of bouncing back and forth between the hazy boundaries of dream and reality is characteristic of Egill’s work.
The importance of being playful
This mindset, however, doesn’t spawn simply from a calculated ontological analysis, but it rather mirrors Egill’s own personal relationship with the fantasy world. “I think that it’s very important to be playful for grownups and teenagers and children. I think it can give a lot of value to life,” Egill explains. “This imaginary world with trolls is also an escape from the rigidity of reality and we all do that when we watch TV or read a book, or when we have a fun talk with our friend. One could say that the body of work I am developing with the trolls is a dialogue; it is just like a fun talk with some good friends, and in this case they happen to be imaginary friends.”
The height of our era
Egill’s candour also allows him to reflect on the frustrating contradictions of the world around us. “We think we have so much under control in our lives and in the Western world in the ‘height of our era,’ but in many ways I guess we are completely lost,” Egill says with a grave tone. Specifically he refers to the unethical behaviour of countries and companies in a world where nobody is held accountable, as well as the impact of the Internet on our social behaviour.
For Egill, much of what we do in our daily lives is connected to our imagination, whether it’s a defence mechanism against reality, or an unconscious way of filtering our life experiences, or even the way we process our own identity. “We are living in a fantasy world where we really believe there are banks and bankers, and hairdressers and farmers and journalists and artists, but half of this is just imagined, dreamed and lived,” Egill concludes. “There is a lot of imagination and fantasy inside our head and in our everyday life, just like my life with the trolls appears to be. We dream half of the world.”
Between dreams and reality
It’s difficult, then, to ask whether Ugh and Böögar are real or imaginary, because for Egill the relationship between the abstract and the material world isn’t binary; instead, the two concepts blossom out of the same soil. If we imagine the world around us, does that make it any less real? The only clear thing is that, because Ugh and Böögar have an identity of their own, they seem to have much more freedom than Egill when it comes to exploring objects and concepts, precisely because they live on the edge between mind and mass. “Ugh and Böögar are adjusting very slowly to life among humans. They’re very much trolls and eat people all the time,” Egill confirms. Furthermore, he continues, “They don’t really see the difference between gold and concrete. They’re kind of learning all these man-made values.”
It is precisely this innocent, childlike approach to the world that allows Egill’s trolls (and, therefore, him) to look at things from a different perspective. Unlike humans, they are not bound by social constraints that tell them what’s appropriate and what isn’t. Thus, it is through Ugh and Böögar that Egill is able to pose questions that most peopel are too scared to ask. “I think I am just approaching a few different things with the work with the trolls,” Egill concedes. “I am trying to inspect society, the grotesque powers within human nature—those that we cannot control and that are larger than us.”
When Egill talks about his work, it’s clear that his vision is not the only element behind it. For him, it’s also important to have fun and be playful. “I allow myself to be very simple and childish because I don’t think we always have to have a strong shell to protect us in life,” he asserts. “People shouldn’t be afraid of art. Art is a place where we can drop the defences.” And what better place to start than his exhibition to break free from our chains?
See the exhibition at the i8 Gallery at Tryggvagata 16, Reykjavík, until November 25 2017.