Beauty And Its Discontents - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Beauty And Its Discontents

Beauty And Its Discontents

Published December 29, 2014

KODDU Or What Does A Chain Reaction Look Like? —Debates on Monday #16

Haukur Már Helgason
Photos by
Promote Iceland's 2013 report

KODDU Or What Does A Chain Reaction Look Like? —Debates on Monday #16

The Debates on Monday

Rather than summarise 2014’s debates in brief, as the end of the year approaches, I want to pay due attention to one particular dispute ignored by this column until now. It actually started in 2011 and has to do with, as it seems, the only contemporary artwork in Iceland, so far, honoured by its own Wikipedia page: Fallegasta bók í heimi – The World’s Most Beautiful Book.

The most significant artwork in the 21st century

At the time of the work’s premiere, back in 2011, writer Hermann Stefánsson called it “the most significant artwork in Iceland in the 21st century”. Hermann wrote: “This is the piece of art which reveals that contrary to all folklore there are two sorts of art in our times: stately, established art — sometimes bad art, sometimes good art that gets thrown into an art machine, sometimes well dressed pseudo-art — and, on the other hand, muffled art.” I’m translating, roughly, and hope that Hermann forgives me. The cited article appeared in the explicitly left-wing news medium Smugan, which, somewhat significantly, no longer exists.

Hermann was, of course, right. So then how what now? What happened? As explained by Wikipedia, the work was part of the 2011 exhibition KODDU. The exhibition’s title means “come here”, while its spelling refers to the utterance as heard in a 2010 commercial, which kick-started the nation-branding institute Promote Iceland and its first international campaign: “Inspired by Iceland”.

KODDU was curated by anthropologist Tinna Grétarsdóttir and artists Hannes Lárusson and Ásmundur Ásmundsson. The exhibition showcased —and mocked— visual representations of Iceland’s “good years” as they are called, the period of economic expansion during the decade, more or less, up until the 2008 economic crash and subsequent crisis. The extensive exhibition, involving scores of artists, as well as advertisements and other sorts of archived imagery, took place at two locations: the Living Arts Museum (NÝLÓ), located close to the city centre at the time, and the so-called Alliance house, within walking distance.

Originally, the exhibition was supposed to open late 2010, at a gallery in Hveragerði, an hour’s drive from Reykjavík. When a dispute arose between the curators and the gallery’s representatives, however, the latter cancelled. Curator Hannes Lárusson accordingly called the decision “a school-book example of censorship”.

In 2011, an exhibition of this sort was long overdue. Even that, however, was used against it by its many critics. An arts exhibition had not divided as many people as spitefully for a long time, nor has one since. Those who took offence had trouble coming up with arguments at first, except that the exhibition had come too late. They said it only revealed what everyone already knew and admitted: yes we were vain, yes there was hubris, yes, the merge of nationalism, capitalism and naïvety was hellish —but we all know better now and rubbing it in is not just useless, it’s banal. For a day or two, as far as I recall, while people were shaping their opinions towards the exhibition, this was the main line of argument heard against it.

Interviewed by Smugan, curator Tinna Grétarsdóttir said that the exhibition’s goal was “not to draw any one conclusion or reach a particular verdict. We much rather want to open a discussion, not just about the years of prosperity and the crash but also about the politics of culture, freedom of speech, aesthetics and the progression of art itself. We are posing a question about the role of the artist in society, with regard to the interplay between the arts, the academy, the state and the market. Is the artist a cultural worker? And to what extent does art live according to its own premises, when it is showcased as a product, invoking nature and nationality for marketing purposes?”

Fallegasta bók í heimi

Make it personal

The World’s Most Beautiful Book’s title refers to a much advertised design prize awarded to publisher Crymogea for its “Flora Islandica”, a large-format, limited edition of drawings made by painter and illustrator Eggert Pétursson, representing most plants known to grow in Iceland. The book’s 500 enumerated copies sold for a rather hefty fee. The World’s Most Beautiful Book was an installation then, where a copy of Flora Islandica, smeared with Icelandic agricultural products —chocolate, mayonnaise, sausage and so on— lay open on a podium, illuminated by a lamp which hung above, made by Sigurður Hjartarson, Chair of the infamous Phallological Museum, from a bull’s scrotum.

Now, we could all have grabbed the opportunity to actually debate the relations between idealised nature, nationality, and the country’s collective vainglorious and mindless commitment to commodify and sell itself to, if not the highest bidder, then the first who comes along. We could have heard arguments and counter-arguments. We could have made up or looked up some new notions, or in any case found new relations between some established concepts and the reality around us. And so on or something. Things went different. Things got personal.

Flora Islandica’s illustrator/author called the installation “abuse”. Crymogea, the publisher, threatened to sue. Since no copyright infringement had taken place, they referred to the author’s moral rights. Incidentally, a Wikipedia page for the Icelandic word, sæmdarréttur, came into existence on April 21, five days after the exhibition opened. A week later, on April 29, the Reykjavík Academy, in co-operation with Bifröst University, held a symposium about sæmdarréttur, asking whether the notion is or is not relevant in today’s world.

Relevant or not, it proved to be an outstanding way to elevate personal offence into a moral principle. The word was certainly not fully extinct, but “sæmdarréttur” had been absent enough to enjoy a comeback. It kept popping up all over the place throughout 2011: Myndstef, “The Icelandic Visual Art Copyright Association”, added it to its website’s definition of authors’ rights and so on (—before). Sæmdarréttur was an instant success, a delightfully demarcated subject-matter to focus on, unlike that other debate, the one which the exhibition’s curators hoped would take place.

Living arts

Facing vague threats of legal action, based on the vague notion of an author’s moral rights, on April 20, the Reykjavík Living Arts Museum closed down the part of the exhibition in which the smeared/enhanced book was on display.

At this point, publisher Crymogea declared its paradoxical satisfaction that the right of authors to have the last say on their work had been paid due respect by the artwork’s removal.

The curators publicly expressed their contempt for the museum’s cowardice and pondered legal action against this second act of censorship of the exhibition. Correction: The Living Arts Museum did not put the World’s Most Beautiful Book back on display, as the first version of this article claimed. The curators did, in spite of the museum. In the words of artist and curator Ásmundur Ásmundsson:

“The installation had been destroyed by the board of the museum and the book locked away. The curators managed to reclaim it and put it back on display at the other location of the show where the board of Living Art Museum had no authority. It wasn’t until the “toxic” work had been removed from the museum’s premise that the board opened its doors again.”

The work was thus open to the public again on April 26, six days after its removal. This time, it was kept within a protective wooden chamber and, reportedly, under strict surveillance. It could only be seen, now, at an arm’s length, through a single window on the black-painted chamber.

On April 27th, Crymogea demanded the work’s removal, again, as well as its conclusive destruction, in the presence of the publisher’s representatives. The curators responded publicly, noting that this sounded like a joke gone out of hand. Having sought legal counsel, this time the museum did not oblige and the work remained on display. The publisher took no further action.

The fury and the glory

“The work has acquired its glorious meaning by means of an infuriated book publisher,” wrote wrote Hermann Stefánsson on April 26, 2011: “Without this action,” he said about the publisher’s threats, “the work would not be remarkable at all, let’s make that clear. The work has been called abusive by the author of its raw material, Eggert Pétursson. Without that it would not be remarkable at all. A work of art only emerges through its reception. To avoid interpretation, like this work does, would not be remarkable except because in all art (just as in a violation of copyright or moral rights) there is violence, which interpretation and interpreters are used to be able to alleviate through their abstractions, until the primal force of art vanishes. … What the devil did these images mean? Who put them there and why on earth? Are not images sin?”

And so, yes, a clash of idealised nature, i.e. images, with nature’s less idealised commodity-form, i.e. foodstuff, was made rather memorable by the reaction of a salesman. That was that. A drastic that, resulting in all sorts of long-term hostilities. Thesis 1: the existence of the matrix Money-Image-Nature-Nation-State (MINNS) is proven only by running into it, provoking its defences. (1.1: MINNS has all sorts of defences.) Thesis 2: running into MINNS may equal, to a more or less extent, voluntarily or not, and successfully or not, something akin to a kamikaze attack.

2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 …

In the end, the exhibition itself and The World’s Most Beautiful Book had no direct legal ramifications. However. Two years later, in May 2013, Ásmundur Ásmundsson, one of the exhibition’s three curators, publicly debated with artist Kristinn E. Hrafnsson about something completely different. Both artists ran their articles in Morgunblaðið. In one of Kristinn’s, he referred to Ásmundur as someone “best known for destroying the works of other artists,” referring, evidently, to The World’s Most Beautiful Book. Ásmundur filed charges against Kristinn for defamation, demanding that the quoted phrase be declared null and void.

Later that year, in December 2013, the Reykjavík District Court ruled in favor of Kristinn, upholding his right to state his opinion about Ásmundur’s work in this manner. Ásmundur appealed the verdict. This December, then, a year after, the High Court confirmed the District Court’s ruling. Kristinn has thereby become famous mainly for making false and stupid, but legal, claims about a remarkable artist.

Promoters

In the meantime, during this long-standing debate about a work of art whose importance is further validated by each attempt at slander, the nation-branding institute Promote Iceland, referred to by KODDU’s title, has continued its highly successful campaigns undisturbed by any effective critical discourse.

What is Promote Iceland? Let’s put it this way: Iceland has no standing army. The US did have a military base there, throughout the Cold War, but abandoned it in 2006. In early 2008, then, a report written on the Prime Ministry’s request, titled “Ímynd Íslands” —the Image of Iceland— proposed the establishment of an institute to co-ordinate the country’s messages to the outside world, for marketing purposes. Obviously, compared with military threats as a push factor for a country’s economic interests, any marketing department’s pull factor is highly benign. Compared with warfare, however, most measures would be, wouldn’t they?

According to the publicly funded but corporate-controlled institute’s latest annual report, in 2013 Promote Iceland “assisted” some 800 journalists in organising their trips to Iceland “as well as co-operating with the arts’ promotional centres and festival programmers on such trips”. All in all, they say, different media published 1,112 articles “which were brought about by Promote Iceland’s public relations work”. They say that thanks to the institute’s work, in the UK alone, 533 articles appeared in 39 different media, including “The Guardian, Daily Telegraph, Financial Times, The Observer, Independent on Sunday and the Daily Express”. Germany: 369 articles. France: 210.

In the 2013 report, they print expressions like “the sector of tourist services and creative fields”, without the rest of the page blushing. “Creative fields” is, of course, the contemporary euphemism for art, invented to help us forget such things ever had any disturbing, let alone dangerous, potential.

District Court, High Court, History

Promote Iceland’s first campaign, the one referred to by KODDU’s title, was set in motion to counteract the potentially bad rep following Eyjafjallajökull’s 2010 eruption. It worked wonders. The exhibition attempted to reveal the relations between representations of a country and the underlying dynamics —business interests, political interests, social, mental, emotional investments and identities— involved. Interested parties reacted swiftly, stating clearly that they would rather go on running the country as their business interest. And so they do, so they do, so they do.

Debates on Monday

When the future summons our present to court, on a charge of wilful neglect of our ethics and intellect, the defence will certainly have the good sense to plead guilty. It will, however, refer to KODDU, as evidence for an attempted act of non-artificial intelligence, to support its request for some leniency.

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