From Iceland — Good Vibrations

Good Vibrations

Good Vibrations

Published October 10, 2012

Dísa Björnsdóttir covers Documenta 13 from Germany

Photo by
Helgi J. Hauksson

Dísa Björnsdóttir covers Documenta 13 from Germany

You walk in a dark room, I mean pitch dark, and you are not sure what awaits you in the space. You take your steps carefully near to something and then details of the contents of the room are slowly revealed. First by sound. Human voices, possible coming from about seven individuals, chattered somewhere around the space, form a beat. The beat slowly becomes discernable as you become more open to perceive the details of the dark. The beat escalates, the voices start to form something that becomes familiar: Aaaaaaaah….oom bop bop….GOOD VIBRATIONS! You feel suddenly more accustomed to the space and you are ready to meet the voices in the dark. There is still the risk that you will trip over, even step on somebody, something but you are willing to try in the name of good vibrations.

In question is a “constructed situation” titled This Variation by the British-German artist Tino Sehgal, who is one of the 300 participants of Documenta 13. Documenta is an international exhibition of contemporary art that started in 1955 and has been held in Kassel every five years since 1977. 

Each time the exhibition sets out to provide an analysis of the present day through its 100 days running time. From June 9 to September 16 this time, it was curated by Italian-American curator and writer Carolyn Christov Bakargiev. Carolyn’s curatorial statement is better perceived in action than in words, but one can find a short written excerpt in the main exhibition hall. 

She states that Documenta 13 is dedicated to artistic research that works on terrains where “politics are inseparable from a sensual, energetic, and worldly alliance between current research in various scientific and artistic fields and other knowledges, both ancient and contemporary.” Furthermore, she states that the exhibition as a whole is “driven by a holistic and nonlogocentric vision that is sceptical of the persisting belief in economic growth.” 

Carolyn refuses conceptual unity in her curatorial work. This can be seen in, among other things, the exhibited artwork spanning from ancient art to dead artists to participants that are listed as non-art artists, inventors or seed activists. She picks up the curatorial statement of the Documenta 5 curator Harald Szeeman who spoke of individual mythologies, presenting individual mythologies in transitional times within the stated theme of the exhibition, collapse and recovery. The exhibition as a whole danced around these polar opposites, touching upon the underlying values or undercurrents of such transitional times. 


American artist Joan Jonas presented that dialogue through a work from another transitional moment in history. Joans’ installation titled Under the glacier (2010-ongoing) is inspired by Icelandic Nobel prize winner Halldór Laxness’ 1968 novel bearing the same title. Her installation, located in Karlsaue park, was a white-painted cabin, which was closed for entry and could only be viewed through the windows. 

Under the glacier was presented in one window where a video with layered footage depicted mostly indiscernible images of some sort of electrified nature. The most noticeable image showed hands in silver gloves drawing frantically, with a white chalk substance, what seemed to be the outlines of a glacier. The text of Laxness’ novel was then read over the visuals by a female voice, possibly the artist herself. The outcome gave you a feel for the supernatural, a motif that the glacier in question has inspired for a long time. 

The glacier, Snæfellsjökull, is situated in southwest Iceland. It featured in Jules Vernes novel ‘A Journey to the Center of the Earth,’ has been seen as Earth’s most convenient landing spot for aliens and is said to bring supernatural energy to the locals of Snæfellsnes. Halldór’s ‘Under the Glacier’ follows a young man sent by the bishop of Iceland to make an inquiry about the strange priest serving under the glacier. The task at hand is to investigate if Christianity is still being practiced and thereby “conduct the most important investigation at that world-famous mountain since the days of Jules Verne.” 

The American writer Susan Sontag wrote an introduction to the English translation of the book only weeks before she passed away. Susan sees the book as a “satire on religion, full of amusing New Age mumbo jumbo” and says it is clear that Halldór did not believe in the supernatural, but rather in the cruelty of life. Joan seems to pick up the novel more or less from the point where it opens up the question about the supernatural but leaves it at that. Within the theme of collapse and recovery one can see that these two works bearing the same title take very different stances: Halldór presents the eternal ironic and cruel reality of humans whereas Jonas presents the point at which one can take oneself away from that reality with a belief in something else, yet unexplored. There were many works in the exhibition that played on these themes, but it was Tino Sehgal’s work that gave you the chance to decide for yourself what you perceived, what you where approaching when you walked into the dark room filled with other unknown factors and humans. It was also the only work that did not caution you away with warning tape or give you any rules of guidance. For some it was a scary experience; for others it produced a good vibe.

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