This June, Nýlistasafnið (also know as NÝLÓ, or The Living Art Museum) opened its 40th birthday exhibition, ‘The Pressure of the Deep.’ The show is a cultural snapshot that brings us into the contemporaneity of the present, simultaneously looking all the way back to the nowness of the 1970s. As the exhibition catalogue elegantly states: “Some works act as magnifying glasses, while others as telescopes.” Visitors of the exhibition have the opportunity to experience and explore through these lenses.
NÝLÓ has been a non-profit, artist- run museum since 1978, when a group of 27 artists kicked into gear, realising their world wouldn’t be preserved by existing institutions. It was founded to create a platform for conversation in contemporary art. Now, it protects the contemporary art of the past by preserving works and providing a space for the creation of new art.
The anniversary show is gleaned from the vast resulting collection of over 2,200 donated artworks, but it also celebrates new voices. Andreas Brunner, Auður Lóa Guðnadóttir & Starkaður Sigurðarson, Ásgerður Birna Björnsdóttir, Kristín Helga Ríkharðsdóttir, Saga Sigurðardóttir, Veigar Ölnir Gunnarsson, and Juliane Fonda all have new works in the show. It provides a glimpse into Iceland’s art history, and reminds us of NÝLÓ’s pivotal role as a cultural institution.
We spoke with five of the new NÝLÓ family members about how their unique perspectives arrive in ‘The Pressure of the Deep,’ with contemporary themes skilfully reflected in their work.
The Garden Keeper
Veigar Ölnir made a work called “Other’s Ideas”—a zen garden filled with neon-yellow popcorn salt and plaster sculptures made from found objects. “I feel like we put our world view together from ideas that come from other people,” Veigar says. “People have been poking into the garden” he laughs, as we look down at a child’s footprint in the salt. “I don’t mind. I actually enjoy that people interact with it. In a zen garden the beauty of imperfection is a big element, and the interference by others makes me feel like I’m this garden-keeper who comes once in a while, and rakes the sand after some kids have been playing in it.”
Joining the mania
Kristín Helga’s work playfully deals with the ideas of the marketing of nature, and online influences. She collected and sculpted stones that had been blasted from the ground in order to make space for new buildings Reykjavík. By polishing and painting them, she made imitation obsidian—a rock that was once abundant, but was overly collected and is now protected. Part of her piece is the selling of her reproductions at the Northern Lights Centre.
“It was never my intention to fool anyone into thinking this was the the real deal,” she says. “OBBSDIAN© is a new type of rock that looks like obsidian, but in its most extreme form—which makes it feel even more real than the original rock. Nature is highly marketed and sold as a commodity, and instead of criticizing this I wanted to join the mania.” She is playing by rules of Iceland’s business puppeteers—and rocking it.
Hope and Peace
Andreas’ “A Leveling Blaze” is a two-part video work. It features two lit cigarettes on seperate screens in different locations in the room, one labeled “Hope” and the other “Peace.” The videos have a conversation—when “Peace” is burned out, “Hope” begins to manifest from its own ashes, and the two level each other out in harmony.
“The idea came when I got a hope-labeled cigarette from a friend,” says Andreas. “I thought it was so surreal to label a cigarette hope.” The piece invites you to take a moment to consider the meanings of hope and peace as the cigarettes—symbols of desire, consumption, mass production, and capitalism—poetically burn and rise again.
“I ran into a book this summer that talks about freedom of choice, and how potentiality can be paralysing,” says Andreas. “Would you smoke if you had to choose: either you light your first cigarette, and you can never stop, or you can never smoke at all. If there was always absolute duality in choice, then everyone would choose not to smoke. Displayed on the cigarettes, “peace” and “hope” mirror the paralysing feeling within feigned freedom: where peace and hope are consumed as possibilities, rather than circumstances.”
How does the internet talk to you?
The three-part work “Halves That Do Not Add Up,” by duo Auður Lóa and Starkaður, consists of a wooden chair, an “immortal cake” (made of acrylic sealant and sponge) and some papier maché dogs.
“It started with thoughts on how the internet talks to you,” says Starkaður. “The chair is built with the help of information found online, and various Youtube videos; the cake is a reference to the idea of the perfect Instagram cake.” Auður adds: “…and nostalgia.”
Their work is filled with references—subtle red threads that you can trace through like browser tabs. “The chair is an immortal symbol,” says Starkaður. “When you set out to make a chair you’re having a 5,000 year old conversation with its history. NÝLÓ had an exhibition of chair pieces years ago—there are a lot of chairs in the collection.”
The exhibition isn’t just about the artwork, but the history of NÝLÓ. “There have also been a number of artworks made of food, which have decomposed by now,” says Auður. “They’ve posed some interesting problems for conservators. Our cake will never decompose, but it nonetheless has a history; it’s talking to the past, if you will.”
Info: ‘Pressure of the Deep’ is open until the 12th of August, located on the second floor in the Marshall House, Grandagarður 20, 101 Reykjavík.