From Iceland — Changes to Grassroots

Changes to Grassroots

Published March 10, 2006

Changes to Grassroots

This year, not only the intention behind the exhibition, but the whole organization will be different, thanks to the new board of organizers. Hildigunnur Birgisdóttir and Bryndis Hrönn Ragnarsdóttir have both exhibited at Grassroots, each once in the last two years, and are now the organizers of this year’s show. The first change they introduced was not hiring a curator—typically, the curator goes through the artists’ applications and selects the contestants from his or her desk, usually without meeting them beforehand. But the whole process came to a halt last year: “People would forget to apply, or not apply properly, and the whole exhibition had a lack of energy, it was sort of a compromise,” Birgisdóttir told the Grapev

Ragnarsdóttir went on: “I’m a bit fed up with group exhibitions without collaboration or a special theme. It’s like walking into a warehouse, not a joint effort but different sections placed next to each other.”

To avoid another exhibition like this, the organizers neglected all former rules (which narrowed the choice of applicants down to recent art-school graduates), and started looking for people who were interested in working with others, first and foremost.

“This time,” Birgisdóttir told us, “there is no democracy, but no corruption either, it’s total mayhem!” Meaning that the artists were encouraged to make suggestions as to who they would like to work with, and from there it developed into a landslide.

“We didn’t stop in the process of accepting people, and it’s a realistic scenario, because this is how Reykjavík’s art scene works, through connections and word of mouth,” Birgisdóttir told us.

About 40 artists are now working on the Grassroots project, some of whom applied in groups, others on their own. Most of them have recently graduated, but some have not been to art school at all, or have never exhibited before.

“We try to pick energetic, active people, so we guess they are up and coming, but we don’t know – and that’s not the point, either,” Ragnarsdóttir said of her selection process.

The point, according to Birgisdóttir, “was to fill the huge space at Nýlistasafn with stuff, art and life,” and that working together will create an operational energy. She explained: “A lot of the grouping already took part at the first meeting. It is not a gathering of egos, more a league. However, it’s not like every time a group meets, all the group members have a big group-hug! It’s more of a society.”

This year’s Grassroots artists have also been selected because of their flexibility, if they were able to react to other people’s works or ideas, work together and create something new in a certain space.

“We wanted it to be a quilt,” explained Ragnarsdóttir, “and working with less established artists is better, because their work is not so shaped yet

The artists all represent current trends in the arts scene, which is what the very first Grassroots exhibition was all about: initiated in 1999 by Ráðhildur Ingadóttir who was teaching at the Arts Academy, the purpose of the exhibition was to show what was happening then, at that time, in the Icelandic arts scene. Which is how it got its name, because it represented the “new roots” of the scene.

“There was a quarrel about the name last year, and we are still discussing renaming it,” says Birgisdóttir. “A current working title that I like very much is ‘grassroads’.”

After the first exhibition, the annual show developed into a “graduates only” exhibition – “a curated, almost promotional thing that looked good on your CV,” according to Ragnarsdóttir. “There was this tendency that artists in Iceland did not know how to promote themselves. Thus, there was a sort of awakening about it at the Arts Academy.”

But soon, things started to get out of hand, says Birgisdóttir: “When I started at the Arts Academy, the awakening was at its peak and the first course they sent us to was about promoting ourselves. But I did not even have any art to promote!”

With this year’s Grassroots exhibition, the two are trying to create a balance and re-focus on art itself. For the opening, the exhibition will spread from a kitchen, a lounge, a music and video room to the outside hallway and even to Laugavegur. There will be everything from videos and sounds to sculptures and paintings, plus a special programme for the opening, which includes a concert and “artistic catering, done on an official level for the first time in Iceland.”

In addition, a book – not a catalogue that comes with the exhibition, but a separate project – will be published some time during the exhibition period, and it will include both visual arts and texts.

“Often, text is just accompanying art, but this book is supposed to be a forum for artists and writers,” says Ragnarsdóttir. There will only be 300 to 400 copies and around 50 deluxe copies, boxes that include the book and a piece of original artwork. Each of the boxes has a different piece of art, made by different artists.

“It will give private art collectors the opportunity to purchase art for a reasonable price, a small-scale art merchandise,” Ragnarsdóttir says. Birgisdóttir adds: ”We hope that this will be the beginning of a magazine where young artists can exchange their art and thoughts, something that is missing in Iceland at the moment.”

But not only the book is supposed to be the start of future projects. Encouraging collaboration between artists from so many different fields, Ragnarsdóttir is sure their effort will be rewarded. “You will see a lot of sprouts coming out of this exhibition,” she says with a smile.

The opening of the Grassroots exhibition at Nýlistasafn, Laugavegur 26, is on October 15 18:00. The exhibition will run until November 6th. For more information, visit

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