From Iceland — A Year Of Waiting, Undercurrent, Countdown, Festivals And No Revolution

A Year Of Waiting, Undercurrent, Countdown, Festivals And No Revolution

Published January 14, 2010

The 2009 artworld discussed, somewhat

A Year Of Waiting, Undercurrent, Countdown, Festivals And No Revolution
Haukur S. Magnússon
Photo by
Julia Staples

The 2009 artworld discussed, somewhat

The Grapevine somehow managed to convince two of its favourite people from the local artworld – prominent artist Haraldur Jónsson and fellow prominent artist-slash-Living Art Museum director Birta Guðjónsdóttir – to engage in discussion about Icelandic arts in the year 2009. The following is a very abridged account of their discussion.

-2009 was a year of great transformation for Icelandic society and has been called the year of waiting and the year of great disappointment, where people built hopes of certain societal changes that were impending, and that have yet to appear at the time of writing.
In the field of visual arts, a lot of fermentation took place, manifestos were released, exhibitions were thrown and all the festivals went on even though support from both private and public sectors was cut back considerably. For the field we are here to discuss, one could say it needed to consider a new reality, demands of renewal and reconsideration. Is this assumption correct?

Birta Guðjónsdóttir: Yes, very much so, since an idea still exists that the arts should somehow “precede the present” – that it is obligated to save the world via preventive measures, anticipating events and responding to them before they happen.
I experience 2009 as an introspection year for the arts – and not just in Iceland – with questions if artists could have announced doomsday sooner…
Haraldur Jónsson: I think this has been a year of intermission or of waiting, a year where the Icelandic nation suffered a nervous breakdown and experienced the numbness that follows. As if that weren’t enough, The Living Art Museum was closed for studies and re-organisation for most of the year, and so was Kling & Bang.
But what happened? The saucepan revolution, that was maybe artistically speaking the biggest visual art installation, a regular Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk that provided images that are branded into our consciousness by now, like the Oslo tree being brought down and burned. In symbolic terms, it was like our very own 9/11, a very iconic course of events that had many visual aspects.

The artist of 2009
BG: Another thing I feel relevant in this context is when Goddur, Guðmundur Oddur, provided a quick analysis of the visual symbolism that many protestors used, the symbolism of the anarchists that marched under black flags and covered their faces. Many novel concepts and ideas were introduced to the nation in a relatively short time.
HJ: Discourse around the arts and their connection with our so-called reality got a big push with entities such as [on-line magazine] Nei. and others, a certain interactivity was introduced. The entire revolution, its aftermath and the events leading up to it could be viewed as grand installation and happening. These were some key factors one was very aware of throughout the year, as well as dragging around remnants of the boom years – the under-construction Music Hall is an example.
Speaking of Goddur’s analysis and his lecture at Hafnarhús, I felt that it was perhaps jumping the gun. It is odd to analyse an event as it is happening.
BG: Indeed, it is odd, but in a way it was also a case of striking the iron while it’s hot. I think it was very positive. One can assume that, say, artists or anthropologist that have studied history know these symbols, but the public does not and one sensed in conversation that people were thankful for the insight, while local history was being created.
As for the saucepan revolution and its symbolism; the acts of destruction and vandalism had an interesting way of escalating, from being playful-slash-serious at first, ultimately reaching a plateau that produced what I think are some of the best artworks of 2009; the paint that was spattered over banksters’ houses. It was like a test, crossing the threshold of destruction, a primal scream.

-Is Skapofsi, the activist group that declared responsibility, then collectively the artist of the year?
BG: I suppose so, for the risk of sounding totally banal. Such happenings – the paint spatter, the voting booth defecator – they may be interpreted in an artistic context, and they do evoke some very interesting thoughts if you approach them in that manner. They are moving and defy convention and definition; they aren’t strictly political acts, nor are they strictly works of art – they are both and they are neither. Maybe these are the most interesting ways in which art and daily life collided in 2009? The acts are certainly provoking, and they force ones inner rebel into dialogue with ones sense of morality and anger, and curiosity.
A part of what is interesting to me about the new level of activism in Iceland is the discussion it evokes about the crossing of the private/public threshold. It is interesting that at the same time the personal space of the bankers was violated against with paparazzi photos in gossip magazines such as Séð og Heyrt, they can now not be touched.

Bettering Reykjavík
-How about the field of art itself. What significant things went on in 2009?
BG: I feel it was a year of art festivals, so to speak. It displayed thoroughly that people prefer a diverse range of culture, and the times of one or two festivals being able to serve everyone are behind us. I remember a time when one could have attended every concert, theatrical performance and art exhibition in Reykjavík – this is now impossible and I think that this contributes to a better quality of life.
One festival I was really impressed with was the ArtFart festival; many of the participants are newly graduates from art school and some of them are still studying. It is a very cross-disciplinary festival that displays the works of people that have in many instances explored different regions than the market-arts inhabit. It was an exciting festival.
HJ: As for stand-alone exhibitions, I greatly enjoyed the fact that Ásmundur Ásmundsson displayed his hole at Hafnarhús during the middle of the revolution. The piece was a very in your face manifestation of the turmoil we were experiencing, it was a turd on the base of the bubble years. He dug a deep hole in Klambratún, filled it with concrete and displayed the negative, the hole of the bubble – a hole in the soul of the nation. The timing was great, too.
BG: A pretty geeky thing that stood out and felt important to me regarding the arts was that our new Minister of Education changed the name of the ministry to ‘Ministry of Education and Culture’. I felt that was important and symbolic for a nation that is in part characterised by its culture and national heritage.
There were lots of things that stood out. I also liked the attitude presented in festivals like Sequences, where all emphasis was put on keeping up spirits and energy with ambition and diligence – an urgency to create a bridge between the local and international scene in the field of time based arts.
HJ: Indeed. Sequences managed to bring over international talent despite the situation over here and the whole program seemed very energetic, even though I only witnessed a small part of it. There was less money, yet more drive somehow. Almost an Airwaves-feel to it.
BG: Then there are some things that come to mind because of my various practices in the field. Such as the fact that there was a whole lot of debate coupled with very little actual knowledge on the writing and publishing of a five volume tome on the history of Icelandic art in the 20th century. The discourse has all happened in small cells while very little information is trickling out from the institution that is behind the book, The National Gallery of Iceland, and its writers and editors.
HJ: They initially presented the project saying that there was to be a symposium regarding how to approach our art of the 20th century, where each volume’s editor would answer questions and engage in a dialogue with the artistic community. That did not happen – it seems the work happened in a tomb, that it is shrouded in secrecy and silence. It’s funny to think that writing of Icelandic art history in the 20th century is being performed in a similar way to the investigation in the bank collapse.
In my opinion, this must be some sort of anachronism.

A lack of education
-For the general public, arts discourse maybe became most conspicuous in two cases in 2009; the discussion led by Ásmundur Ásmundsson and others about artists and the arts being in need of critical introspection in light of the bubble years and subsequent collapse, and then the outrage over Ragnar Kjartansson’s trip to the Venice Biennale, which garnered objections for being a ritzy and expensive act in harsh times, sponsoring an artist to “drink beer and smoke cigarettes for six months.” A lot was written on both subjects…
BG: Well, these are valid questions and topics of discussion, just like anything else our tax money goes towards, but also because it is the first time in a while that the public in Iceland pays attention to such events as the Biennale and our contribution.
When Ragnar’s work was being criticized in media, we could have done with the press treating it like it does every other case, where one point of view is presented and then the opposite one. There is something vital missing in Icelanders’ basic art education that made it hard for some to understand what Ragnar was trying to do, and there was a lack of interest among the media in presenting every side to the story.
HJ: It’s a good thing Ragnar’s model was wearing a Speedo – I’d hate to imagine the local talk if he’d been posing naked for six months. It seems Icelanders have some strange conceptions of art – to many of them; it’s confined to being a painting in a frame. I’ve never painted anything, and then I’ve had folks coming to my shows asking where the paintings are. Ragnar’s statement will fortunately cause a lot of controversy, while something like Yoko Ono’s Peace Tower gets everyone ecstatic. To me, this brings some really troubling and interesting ramifications.

Could you name some highs and lows for 2009 regarding the artworld?

HJ: To me, it actually starts when the cables from Channel 2 were cut by flames during the Kryddsíld broadcast on December 31st 2008, that was a crucial and historical rupture between media reality and the actual situation in the country. Those first stirs of the saucepan revolution, where the melting pot started boiling together a big Gesamtkunstwerk. This was a huge artistic experience all over downtown Reykjavík, with flames burning bright in every corner. There were some illuminating sparks during the year, but still the atmosphere was rather static. 2009 was the year of the countdown.
BG: I feel it was a year of undercurrent, of undertow, a year of preparation for the arts, were drafts were being made and foundations were being laid… I have no idea what; maybe they’re no masterpieces. There was an undercurrent though. It wasn’t a very eventful year in the artworld… To me there isn’t one particular exhibition/event that sticks out.
HJ: No, that’s true. A stone cold estimate doesn’t bring up any revolutions in the artworld.

-One final question. Say you encounter a time traveller five years ago that tells you of his plans to visit 2009. He wants to check out some nice shows. Where do you tell him to go?
BG: Uhm…
HJ: Well…
-Alright, let’s say a foreign friend had written you a letter last year. He’s coming to visit, and he has time to see one exhibition. He’s really depending on your advice…
BG: Well, I might take him to the monster exhibition in Bíldudalur…
HJ: I would take him for a swim in the ocean, and then to Austurvöllur, to engage in some refreshing Icelandic protesting.
BG: There were no major breakthroughs in the arts this year. Although some artists undoubtedly made personal breakthroughs. This year was more like lava bubbling under the volcano.

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