When the unpredictability and trepidation of the sea becomes symbolic for a nation’s political saga, it’s not bewildering that several contemporary Icelandic artists feel perturbed. Maybe they see this obscure juxtaposition as an ever-growing concern within their art?
Rowing Bout Politics
The current “Lífróður” exhibition at Hafnarborg literally translates into “Row For Your Life.” When applied to the economic situation, it has a frightful impact. Politicians have been indoctrinating these metaphors and euphemisms into their public speeches—incorporating the volatile, uncontrollable seas in contrast to the dangers of politic decision making. There is no surprise, then, that the public has grown wary about the oceans and politics surrounding the island, believing their fate may lie in a similar temperamental way.
Curators Dorothée Kirch & Markús Þór Andrésson, who also curated the Icelandic Pavilion at the 2009 Venice Biennale, observed this national spirit and invited artists to comment on the contrasting symbolisms between the political turmoil and the traitorous seas.
Touring The Exhibition
“Our bankers became like the new fishermen,” said public relations manager, Gunnhildur Þórðardóttir as she guided me through the show. She related that traditionally Iceland looked towards the sea for salvation, brought about by the imports of the fishermen. As the economy expanded, the financial sector took over these old necessities. Now, it seems to have fallen back on the fishermen to become the main providers once again, but is this an unrealistic dependency? She told of how ex-prime minister, Geir H. Haarde referred to the fishing industry as the last thing to hold on to, and how those words made Icelanders feel their lives were uncontrollably entwined to the yields of the sea.
Impressive Array Of Artist
With such an interesting topic in discussion, it is undoubtedly one of the largest co-exhibitions of contemporary Icelandic artists that we’ve seen over the past few years. If ever you had wished to gain insight into a cross-section of who are important contributors to the modern art scene in Iceland, this would be the exhibition to visit. We have The Icelandic Love Corporation, Ragnar Kjartansson, husband and wife duo Libia Castro & Ólafur Ólafsson and so forth, all seen as major contemporaries in Icelandic art today.
What The Artist Had To Say
Many of the artists had interesting takes on the subjects. Hulda Hákon displayed a crudely made sculpture series, entitled “EBITA” (2005-2006). The work showed her satirical slant on modern politics, incorporating historical mythical sea creatures seen on ancient maps with slogans like “It’s better for us if we know they’re drunk whilst controlling the country,” which refers to the rumours that the previous head of the Central Bank, Davíð Oddsson, was regularly drunk at work. The artist’s work conjures questions such as: Are the political views of politicians outdated? Are they themselves as mythical to the people as the creatures? The work provokes the viewer into thinking of their relationship to modern politics, and perhaps how they allow the present to be presented in myths rather than participating within the outcome of their own future.
Politician and artist Hlynur Hallsson’s work “Guð blessi…” (2009) features his own take on the words of Geir H. Haarde, “God bless Iceland,” the infamous statement that shocked the nation in one of the first public statements regarding the crisis last year. He compares the sentiments with that of its prosperous American counterpart “God Bless America.” In doing so, he reflects on how culturally out of touch parliament had become to Iceland by saying something completely foreign in its nature, and reciprocating a totally different meaning.
The work I felt conveyed the greatest inspiration and captured the essence of the exhibition was that of the Icelandic Love Corporation, “Thank You” (2005). This video performance sees the three artists dressed in elegant gowns with faces covered in diamantes. The artists proceed to an operating table with a financial briefcase, containing the guts of fish lying on the table. As the artists proceed to re-gut the fish, it begins to visually echo the conflict Iceland has to contend with: an over exploited fishing industry that allowed the financial sector to grow and now conversely the greed of a few will be reaped onto many. Although, unlike the performance, we cannot undo the past! Iceland will have to re-examine its practices and look to more sustainable ways of handle the economy in the future.