The artist Sigurður Guðmundsson is preoccupied with pouring a bottle of beer into a glass. He watches the rim intently, anticipating how much he can add before the point of no return. I comment that I will have to drink it directly from the table, but Sigurður ignores me, all of his focus on the delicate dance playing out before him, between physics and fate. To watch him feels like bearing witness to a battle between his will and reality, and there is a split second where I’m not entirely sure who has the upper hand. Finally he manages to fit all but the last few drops into the glass, and sits up with great satisfaction. “There,” he says, triumphantly. “That is an art in itself.”
We are sitting in Sigurður’s Reykjavík home, one of a number of which he has across the world. It is a small flat in the Hringbraut Workers’ Apartment complex: a collection of housing units built in the 1930s that were one of the first examples of effective social housing, and Functionalist architecture, in Iceland. Sigurður makes note of this, as well as the fact that it used to belong to his parents, and in some ways remains relatively unchanged. Family photos and chintzy memorabilia adorn various surfaces, intermingling with the flotsam and jetsam of Sigurður’s life and work: art books, letters, pencils, feathers, snus, a beautiful porcelain cauliflower. The latter was a gift from Sigurður’s wife and relates to a video piece he once created which he calls “my most erotic art ever.” It’s a jumble of fascinating, lived-in chaos. “You don’t need to take your shoes off,” Sigurður says as we arrive. “It’s more of a workshop than a home.”
Nature and sadness
At 80, Sigurður has spent the vast majority of his life as a nationally, and internationally, celebrated artist. Until the pandemic he was regularly based in China, where his wife Ineke founded the Chinese European Art Centre. In addition to his homes in Iceland (he has another in Djúpivogur), Sigurður has also spent considerable time in Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands. Nevertheless, he sees Iceland as playing an integral role in his work and identity.
“I am very connected to Icelandic nature,” Sigurður confirms. “I was very homesick in the 1960s, and I used this to develop my melancholic feelings, which I use in both my writing and my work. I think melancholia is one of the usable substances for creating artwork; it’s one of the ingredients of the soul.”
Sigurður developed this signature streak of melancholia in his early photography work, ‘Situations,’ which saw him interacting in frame with natural and unnatural objects in unexpected and bizarre ways. In one, he perfectly balances a stick on his head while digging himself into a large hole. In another, his head is hidden entirely by a large paving slab as he crouches on the pavement. In addition to the homesickness he was experiencing for his native land, he identifies this inclination to lean towards the mournful as also being distinctly Icelandic.
“What I have completely inherited from my Icelandic culture is the poetic aspect of melancholia,” Sigurður says. “Even though I am a visual artist, artists from my generation are quite literary minded.”
He expands on this thought, clarifying the relationship between visual and other forms of art: “Visual artists in general are very open to music and literature and so on. An average visual artist uses or reads poetry and prose, and uses music as well.”
“A different kind of museum”
This interlinked network of artistic interests that supports visual artistic output was part of what inspired him and his co-founder, Þór Vigfússon, to come up with the concept for Ars Longa, a “different kind of art museum.” Both Þór and Sigurður had found themselves with houses in Djúpivogur in East Iceland, and were drawn together by appreciation of each others’ art (Sigurður describes Þór as “the artist’s artist”), as well as common interests they had in terms of decentralising curation and supporting many forms of art creation. While the ultimate outcome of this idea is still wonderfully amorphous, this year Ars Longa officially opened as a contemporary art museum.
“Ars Longa is another way of doing an art museum,” Sigurður explains. “We’re not saying we’re better—we’re certainly not richer,” he laughs. “But we want another way of selecting artists, which is not based on being successful, rich and famous.”
Instead of this focus, which Sigurður feels is systemic in other institutions, the directors of Ars Longa want their curation process to be shaped by “being moved.” And what’s more, they are ready to hand the power over to others when it comes to deciding on which artists to spotlight.
“We are not only two, it’s absolutely not about the taste of the two founders” Sigurður says, of this process. “It’s a moving monster.”
One idea that Sigurður and the Ars Longa team are considering is to create a kind of ‘adoption’ process, where—almost like an old-fashioned chain letter—the founders would each identify two artists who have moved them, and invite both of them to ‘adopt’ two more for showcasing at the museum, and so on and so forth.
“They don’t even have to be visual artists,” says Sigurður. “But somehow art-related.”
It’s a totally novel approach, but if anyone can pull it off, it’s Sigurður. Alongside this new project, he continues to be admirably prolific across a variety of media: text, sculpture, photography, film, performance art and more. It is fair to say that despite the milestone age he has just passed, Sigurður shows no interest in slowing down.
“There’s no such thing as retirement as an artist—not for me, anyway,” he says with humour. “Art goes on whether you are popular or not.”
The long and winding road
For now though, Ars Longa, and life in Djúpivogur in general, is at the centre of Sigurður’s focus. In addition to his famous egg sculptures at the village harbour, Sigurður and Ars Longa are also working on an installation called ‘poetry lane’ which will involve collecting 150 contemporary and classical poems from all over the world, and having them carved into rocks which will be placed around the town to create different routes, ultimately leading to the top of the hill that overlooks the harbour and surrounding area.
“Ancient Chinese, Persian and Japanese poems, William Shakespeare and Slyvia Plath, Laxness of course,” Sigurður lists. “But grassroots and present-day poets as well. And at least a 50/50 split between male and female poets—that’s easy to do.”
It certainly seems easy to Sigurður, who approaches art and life with the steely interest, enthusiasm and vitality of someone a quarter of his age. He continues explaining the poetry lane with passion, with words that seem to take on a greater meaning in the context of a long and artistic life.
“It’s not a line actually,” Sigurður says, staring off into the middle distance as he imagines the scene. “There could be 20 stones in one cluster, so the path will twist and wind. It will always be a work in progress. But you will always see a way out. The path will lead you there.”
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