From Iceland — The Emotion Of Cold, Hard Science

The Emotion Of Cold, Hard Science

Published July 4, 2013

The Emotion Of Cold, Hard Science
Haukur S. Magnússon
Photo by
Julia Staples

Artist Katrín Sigurðardóttir is in-between three cats, on a square, in Venice. All three cats stare at her intently. She beckons them over using the international language of kitty-beckoning. The Venetian cats continue looking at her, eternal feline mystery in their eyes, but make no motion to come closer. A church bell gongs a single gong, a flock of cackling seagulls takes flight, the cats stare on and we eventually continue conversing over the internet—me in the United States of America, and she in-between three cats, on a square, in Venice.

We are having a conversation about her art and her life and how these things came together to place her in Venice at that very moment. Katrín Sigurðardóttir’s work exudes an aura of highly focused intelligence and years of study, and her published interviews usually reflect this—hers is a high art, one that can leave the amateur at a loss when it comes to engaging in discourse about it. Throughout our talk I often feel stunned and stupid, yet I am left with a sense of lingering satisfaction, like it’s slowly making me smarter.

When I am not embarrassing myself by asking flighty questions involving concepts I barely understand, I instead embarrass myself by asking naïve questions that must have the artist squirming. Questions like: “are you nervous and stressed for the big show?” This might be appropriate for a little sister before her dance recital, but to a successful and enduring artist whose career has progressed from one peak after the other—an artist educated in respected art establishments, one who recently displayed her work at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (viewed by some 180,000 people!) and one who has been chosen by Iceland’s art establishment to represent the nation—they must sound utterly daft.

But Katrín takes it in stride, her patience with a terminally pretentious journalist perhaps reflecting the patience required by her creative process; her work is intricate, mapped, studied, thought-out, requiring vast amounts of historical and technical research and months upon months to execute.

And quite a few conversations to discuss.

“Two days and my entire life”
Six weeks ago, Katrín was with those cats, on that square, in Venice, engaging in conversation with The Grapevine over Skype (our mission to meet her at her Long Island City, NY, studio earlier this year failed because of traffic, although we did get some nice photos out of it). The idea was to discuss her art and her career and her exhibition at the 55th edition of the ultra prestigious Venice Biennale, which opened on Saturday, June 1. We start by discussing the installation process, then at its crux:

“We are not completely done,” Katrín says, “but we are very close. Quantifying an installation like this can be difficult, especially when you are installing a work for the first time. You aren’t done until you’re done—you can be finished with everything save for some minor detail that takes maybe three seconds to execute, but one might have to wait for a month to be ready for that three second moment of completion. It’s the nature of the creative process…”

What has the preparation entailed?
The process of creating this piece has spanned more than eighteen months. The beginnings of its conception were in October of 2011, and the entirety of 2012 was dedicated to it. I spent the first year drawing, only drawing. Then some material tests were made, followed by some visits to the site in Venice to figure out this large shape that I am making. For the majority of the time leading up to the work’s completion, I was drawing, on the computer and by hand. Having conceived the work that way, I commenced the fabrication of the actual surface those drawings denote. The ‘proper’ material production began in November of last year.

The undertaking of this project has been smooth, all things considered. Perhaps it is because it comes right on the heels of another large exhibit that I staged at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2010. I feel like I am well rehearsed. This time around I didn’t have the problem that we artists sometimes struggle with, of having to wait a long time for the right idea of what to create—the gestation period for a work of art can be quite drawn out.

It reminds me of something my colleague and sometimes technical consultant Hjörtur Hjartarson—a great painter who was my right hand man in staging this project—likes to say about the making of his paintings: ‘Well, it took me two days, and my entire life.’ I think that kind of describes the process of creation, in the sense that any work of art you make builds on your whole life. Every preceding moment in your artistic development and production is part of the process and its end result.”

Arctic expedition

Do you suffer stress or performance anxiety, of pulling it all together in time for such a large and seemingly pivotal event?

Not really, to be honest, for some reason I don’t. I expected I would, but that’s not how I feel. To reference my last project at the Metropolitan Museum again, I staged two installations that in many ways I had much less time to prepare for, so when I began the process for this show I felt ready and levelled in a way. I felt in good practice.

Long-term involvement in anything that demands such intense thought processes and labour seems like it must be daunting. How is it to sink yourself into the creative process, into a single project, for a year and half? Does it change your mode of thinking in a way? At the start, you feel like you’re going under, as if embarking on a yearlong stint on a submarine?
I was thinking more like a polar expedition [laughs]. Undertaking a project like this is in some ways like venturing on a big journey with a small group of people. Your friends and family know you’re going, but you’re still very far away from everyone and everything—for the duration of the trip you are only really close to the people directly involved.

When you return, you are somehow changed because of what you experienced on the expedition. I think any big project is like this, especially one that spans such a long time and demands such energy to accomplish; it renders you a little bit different. At the end of the expedition, you come out a slightly different person than you went into it.

It’s a journey creatively. You start with a certain premise, a question, a set destination. On your way to the answer, new questions arise that you try to address in the piece. Ultimately, there is a point where you think, “well, I suppose I’m going to have to address this question in my next work.” And that sets the course for the future.

Problem solving

We have a tendency to envision thinking as a sort of problem solving activity. When you picture a person deep in thought you usually imagine them facing some sort of conundrum or dilemma—pondering the answer to a difficult question. Does this transfer to your creative thought? When you sit down with your sketchbook, do you conceive of a problem to address?

For me, the creative process is a dialogue between me, the artist, and a given material—a given idea, space or situation. Rather than preconceiving a problem or a question, my process is often that of resolving, articulating or examining further some phenomena, idea or dimension that I am drawn to. Sometimes this means that I identify a question to set the parameters I am working within and then commence the ‘answering of the question’ or ‘solving of the problem.’ It’s a simple structure for thinking that sometimes is useful to work within. This method of working usually leads to more questions, to be further explored, and this cyclical process repeats itself.

I can imagine that my work sometimes seems very technical. For me, material and technique are not tools, they are part of the language itself. Say I am working with a certain material and gain a positive outcome. But I see that there is some aspect of the material that I could continue to perfect, some quality that I didn’t know of when I started, something that is only revealed through the process of work. It’s this same cyclical process.

In this way I pass through topics and materials. And then the passage usually brings me to new topics to explore, new materials. New questions.

The emotion and poetry of science

Based in this, it seems fair to say that you approach your work in a scientific or research based manner. If your work follows the model of scientific enquiry, and that you conduct your creative process discursively, as a scientist would, one must ask: is there a main, fundamental question or proposition that you are investigating?
When I give a quick introduction to my work, the ‘Cliff’s Notes,’ I usually say that I deal with place and memory, and that place is often manifested through the language of architecture, through various forms of landscape visualisation and through cartography.

This means that I use a language that has a technical, a sort of anti-emotional alphabet, to describe something that is maybe the quite the opposite, that essentially was never meant to be described in such a language. It could be likened to the process of writing poetry using the Periodic Table of the Elements.

A contemporary predicament

In your own words, how would you describe what you’re showing?
I’m showing a very large, bi-dimensional architectural element. In many ways, the whole of it deals with archaeology, with the memory of two buildings—one fictional, one pre-existing— and this memory is suggested and symbolised through the installation.

There are so many different ways of talking about this piece. Right now, I’m inclined to say that it’s about different ways of accounting for architecture and this sort of double perception, where you have different strands of memory interweaving in the same place. I think a complex and sometimes conflicting spatial perception is something of a contemporary predicament, something we experience all the time, because even without ever setting foot on an archaeological site, we are still always happening upon ruins or evidence of one structure within another, one time or place within another. This can be externally evident, but just as often it’s just a type of mnemonic overlay that gets projected in our mind’s vision.

This piece relates to previous works of mine that deal with the idea of the ruin, The Unbuilt series that I’ve worked on since 2004, and then this more recent series that’s based on Langahlíð 11, Reykjavík, my childhood home.

Does showing at the Venice Biennale have a special significance for you? Is it something an artist strives for? And does this reflect in the work you present?
Of course it has a significance. This is the first and probably only time I am officially a representative of Iceland, and I am naturally very thankful for that, and very proud. It’s not a goal you set out to attain, though—you don’t make showing at the Biennale an objective to work towards. And there’s no clear way to reach it… through time, you’re perhaps found worthy… That’s all.

If this project differs from others, it is simply because it marks the only time I will officially represent Iceland in such a forum. Of course, I always see myself as representing Iceland in a way, wherever I’m showing. It is the country where I was born and raised, a society which I am still part of; an artistic community that I continue to engage with.

Would you say that being officially decreed a Representative Of Iceland affects the context of the work presented? Being appointed by the administrative body of Icelandic arts, under the banner: “this is who we are now, this is who we’d like to speak for us…” That must entail some pressure…
I really don’t think so. I’ve never seen it that I’m supposed to go about my work in a different way for this project than any other—and simply, I would never do that.

The context is slightly different, as I am in a different place in my development as an artist than I was one year ago or ten years ago; the floor plan is different, the budget is different, everything is different in the way that each new project is different from all the previous ones. But the mandate is my own, the work itself, not set by the commissioning body. And I believe I am commissioned exactly to do this: to make my work the way I always have, and not to illustrate some preconceived notion of what is Icelandic.

I don’t believe that “national identity” constitutes an essential core in an artist, I think the national is a fiction or a script, one of many, that an artist can choose to take on, a role to be performed like in a play. But I am interested in writing my own script. And I honestly believe that those who commissioned me to go to Venice this year expected just that.

A problematic approach to art

Leaving aside the question of nationality, do you see your shows at popular forums like the Biennale or the Metropolitan as a chance to expand the reach of your dialogue, to present your ideas to a greater crowd?
That’s how I think of every show. I don’t discriminate an audience, whether they are one of ten who see a show or one of 100,000. Every viewer is equally important. In terms of the establishment, each venue offers specific opportunities, but I am primarily interested in the socio-political aspect of what these could be. I did two solo shows in 2010, one at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and then another at a gallery called The Suburban, which is basically a 20 square foot shed in a Chicago suburb. Its a nice coincident to get to do these two shows in the same year. Of course the context and reach of the two is different, but I was as serious about the work I presented at both venues.

The opposite would be a problematic approach to art, to somehow theme and conceptualize your approach based on your audience. If you work in advertising you define and consider your target audience, but as an artist? As an artist, I am not in the business of manipulating experiences; I just want to make my work, as part of my own inquiry, not with a set outcome or effect. And people approach it and take from it what they want, but according to their own interests, experiences and perceptions. It is true that in each viewer there is the love for being manipulated, overpowered by a seductive experience. But I like to try to appeal to a different part of the viewer, where he or she is free. That’s of course a much harder job for the viewer, but hopefully it’s sometimes appreciated.

Your art is then something the viewer approaches on her own terms, it should be thought of as building blocks or seeds of thought rather than a planned, structured experience?
That to me is the creative process—it’s what distinguishes the creative process from showmanship.

When I make my art, the viewers’ reaction is not my premise or objective. It is always to continue my own enquiry, and to preserve my relationship with my work.

What happens once a project is complete is not something that I try to control. At that point, the relationship is between the work and viewer. Up until then, the work is mine and the relationship with the work is mine—after completion I let it go. I don’t want this to come off as if I don’t care about the viewer. I care about the viewer. I don’t want to harm the viewer, and I don’t set out to offend the viewer, but I also don’t set out to please the viewer. Again, I am not in the business of creating experiences. At this point the work is its own being.

And you have no intention as to what it ultimately leaves people with?
I think it would be pretentious to say that I can’t guess what people might take from the work. It’s not an entirely blind procedure. But I don’t try to control it.

Everyone has a different relationship with art and uses it in different ways and to different means. The question of purpose and intent is enduring and relevant. Art can serve so many different purposes, and the conversation about these possibilities continues. And our answers will continue to change, reflecting our world at each time in history, as it has until now.

See also:
People At Their Worst

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