Last Thursday, the first night of DesignMarch, central Reykjavík was humming with openings of various types. Among them was the Or Type Reading Room exhibit at Mengi: a presentation of new and recent typefaces by the Icelandic/Danish design duo GUNMAD, with two special guests: “Ambient Thoughts,” a piece by Finnish designer Sebastian Jansson, and “Video Hailstorm (VHS),” a piece by Icelandic artist Atli Bollason.
The vibe of the show, curated with as much care as the works were created, was that of a cool party with a signature cocktail and a tasteful DJ (Icelandic synth-pop star Hermigervill, no less), at which the conversation might turn quite naturally towards kerning and descender length. The front space of the gallery held the bar, serving fancy beer (no Carlsberg at this kind of opening). Opposite that was the newest typeface on show: “L15.” The most interesting part was the beer, as the giant printouts of random words and sentences were none too thrilling.
The centrepiece was a wall of early-00s-looking TV sets, piled on top of one another and bolted together to creating a divider between the two halves of the gallery. This is Atli’s installation “Video Hailstorm (VHS)”—13 screens flashing with static of different shades. Some had shuddering spheres bubbling up and blinking away, others had twinkling diamonds of TV static. The colors were evocative of a printer test-page or TV test-pattern, and the gif-like repetitive cycles brought to mind something you’d see scrolling through Tumblr.
The whole structure was captivating—even the back—although it was a shame that it didn’t have more space to breathe. It would have been nice to be able to sit and look at the screens, with the pure hulking physicality of the equipment encasing them, undistracted by the DJ’s cool tunes and the other artworks and structures scattered around the room.
The other works on show included clean geometric structures made of strand board, topped with potted plants and books showcasing the various typefaces at work, and all lit up like a theatre set. This was the “reading room” aspect of the show, and it was a nice way to display the different typefaces in their intended context—as words on the page. The viewer could browse through copies of different booklets and pamphlets using typefaces by Or Type—the type foundry of the designer duo who also call themselves GUNMAD (derived from their forenames: Guðmundur Ingi Úlfarsson and Mads Freund Brunse).
The most interesting of the printed material was the book series ‘Or Type Volumes 1-5’. On each page were four words in four different typefaces, taken from a feature on GUNMAD’s website enabling users to test the typefaces by typing different words. The books are just pages and pages of the words that people typed into the page to get a feel for the typefaces, or just to dick around with typing words into a box, and there’s something lively and democratic about that.
The last piece thrown into the mix was Sebastian Jansson’s collaboration with GUNMAD, a wall-mounted sculpture made of mirrors with the words “Who? How? Where?” stuck onto them. The connection to the exhibition appeared to be that the words were printed in an Or Type typeface.
The show seemed to be a bit cramped in Mengi’s two intimate spaces, with three large and disparate works all crammed together. The two elements—one part design exhibition, one part fine art show—each worked well in their own right, but distracted the viewers’ attention from each other when put together.