From Iceland — The Feminine Ways

The Feminine Ways

Published January 13, 2015

Icelandic Fine Art in the year 2014

The Feminine Ways
Photo by
Ásmundur Ásmundsson

Icelandic Fine Art in the year 2014

At the beginning of a new year, it is absolutely necessary to take an honest inventory of the preceding one’s victories and mishaps in the field of the fine arts. The Reykjavík Grapevine is not the right platform for an honest and moral artistic introspection, as this publication is for tourists. When one stops to ask oneself a question (publicly), I believe in asking nicely.

I have a positive outlook on life, and I think the hard questions should be swept under the rug until times are more favourable. Criticism should always be constructive, but I prefer to avoid it altogether, because of our difficult situation. Everyone is trying to do their best, and this is the time for a celebration of the finer things in life. “The Disunion Demon,” as the great writer Guðmundur Andri Thors likes to call the negativity and anger that seem to have taken hold of the nation, must be knocked out for good, because he seizes every opportunity to the push people further apart, women and men. The feminine and the masculine. This is not a good idea!

1. The New Sincerity

The year started out with a bomb: B.O.M.B. I am talking about the nine-screen music video installation ‘The Visitors’ by Ragnar Kjartansson at Gallery Kling and Bang. The wonderful artwork caught the world’s imagination, and it is safe to say that its author not only completely defeated me (figuratively speaking), but also conquered the artworld (by storm!). Why is the work so special? Well, for one the music is gorgeous; comforting and melancholic at the same time. Somewhere between Damien Rice and Bon Iver, but with that unique Icelandic sound that we at the Reykjavík Grapevine love so much.

The visitors in this lyrical piece are Ragnar himself and his bandmates, each located in a separate room in the “dilapidated” but elegant Rokeby Farm in upstate New York. The bandmates communicate with each other telepathically, which enables them to jam together with a very resounding and harmonious outcome. The musicians also seem to communicate with the spirit of the house itself and its owners. The owners are good friends with Ragnar and patrons of the arts. They have decorated the house in a beautiful Selby-like way.

I admit it—I fell into a trance. It was not unlike taking a nice warm bath, as the artist himself does in the most elegant scene, where he sings the profound verse: “Once again I fall into my feminine ways.” Another scene of beauty and simplicity is Kría Brekkan playing the cello in a nightgown. Absolutely stunning!

I was not the only one in a trancelike state; the whole audience was lying on the floor like dead bodies in the battlefield of Big Bethel. I have only seen this kind of behaviour among jaded art viewers once before, and that was at the Tate Modern, when Ólafur Elíasson (another Icelander!) showed his Big Sun. This was before the credit crunch, when the sun still shone on our part of the world, like there was no tomorrow. But now is the time of the feminine, and Ragnar Kjartansson delivers the moon in all its originality. And he does it with utmost sincerity, but at the same time with top-notch irony. And this perfect combo is what makes Kjartansson’s work so fresh. Ragnar is the king of the New Sincerity.

2. Beautiful Male Friendship

The odd couple Hreinn Friðfinnsson and Kristinn E. Hrafnsson collaborated and paid homage to one another at their wonderful solo exhibitions at i8 gallery and Hverfisgallery, respectively. Hreinn Friðfinnsson, born in 1943, is an elegant man and a frontrunner of Icelandic conceptual art. His works, often referred to as lyrical and sentimental, are made to evoke strong emotions in the viewer, and are successful at doing just that. Kristinn E. Hrafnsson, born in 1960, is on the other hand a hard worker in the field of Icelandic post-conceptual art, with a strong philosophical thread, a ponderer of time, space, movement, relativity and the Icelandic language.

I was not the only one in a trancelike state; the whole audience was lying on the floor like dead bodies in the battlefield of Big Bethel.

Hreinn Friðfinnsson’s exhibition bore a hilarious title: ‘A portrait of a Sculptor as a Sculpture, with a Sculpture by the Sculptor.’ Kristinn’s show had an equally rib-tickling name: ‘The Big Dipper.’ The former centres on Friðfinnsson’s videos of the young sculptor, Friðfinnsson’s protégé of many years, performing everyday feminine tasks and ingenuous actions in various public and private places throughout the beautiful city of Reykjavík. In this series of vignettes, the stout sculptor tries to reclaim the child within with the help of instructions given by the old master. It seems to have had a beneficial effect on both of them.

In return, Kristinn Hrafnsson made an equally captivating tribute to his hoarier in a photo series titled ‘Nocturne on the Last Quarter,’ where the elder’s bald but very brainy head represents the moon. The moon of course signifies the negative, the passive and the wet. Once again, the artists hopelessly fall into their feminine ways.

3. The Women

“The Pearl Necklace” is a brand new, all-female sculpture park. It is located under the Japanese cherry trees (commemorating the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki) at Hljómskálagarður Park. The sculpture park is “in memory of the foremothers of Icelandic sculpture.” The mostly minuscule works of these pioneer women have been renamed after book titles of the nineteenth century novelist Jón Thoroddsen elder, the first novelist in Iceland. Notably, “Lad and Lass” by Þorbjörg Pálsdóttir, “Son” by her sister Ólöf Pálsdóttir, and “Man and Woman” by Tove.

The name of the park has angered feminists with its blatant reference to pornography, but I believe the officials were actually thinking of women’s passion for glamour and expensive jewellery, so that criticism seems a little far-fetched. My personal favourite sculpture is Nína Sæmundsson’s “The Little Mermaid,” located in the cherry pond. The work is based on H.C. Andersen’s fairytale, but the story behind Nína’s sculpture is also a fairytale in the making. Whether it will have a happy ending remains to be seen.

The work was originally placed in the pond in the year 1959. On New Year’s Day of 1960, the statue was blown into smithereens by avant-garde artists and thugs, and was soon forgotten. Forty years later, Smáralind, Iceland’s biggest shopping mall, opened its doors on the outskirts of Reykjavik. The fact that the mall resembles a giant phallus when viewed from above makes the story more intriguing. “The Little Mermaid” by Nína was the centrepiece of the mall’s décor, and made many children happy until the amusement park (where the sculpture was located in front of an old-fashioned French carousel) was closed down few years ago.

If it wasn’t for “The Pearl Necklace” and the generous donation of the mall’s owners, the sculpture would most likely have been forgotten again. City officials held their breath on New Years Day, anxiously waiting to find whether the sculpture would survive the festivities. It did, and a well-known theatre director was quoted saying that “The Little Mermaid is still alive and gulls have been busy slowly dressing her in a beautiful wedding gown.”

Maybe it’s just me, or the name of the park, or the Japanese trees surrounding the pond, but last thing the bird droppings remind me of is a wedding gown.

Ásmundur Ásmundsson is a Fine Artist.

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