At Týsgallerí, you can currently view an exhibition of new works by Icelandic artist Haraldur Jónsson, a renowned figure in the contemporary art scene. As is often the case with Haraldur’s exhibitions, the artworks form a unified whole and are better understood as a coherent installation piece, even if each part could stand independently. He works with drawings, sketches, photographs, sculptures and readymade objects that together fill up the space in such a way that the viewer is encouraged to search for a narrative in order to understand it–usually the viewer is left wanting, as there’s no single concept to hold on to.
One might be tempted to say that Haraldur Jónsson creates an emotional landscape for the viewer to explore, as if he or she were a natural scientist of old. But that’s not altogether accurate either. These emotions are not easily classified as the traditional passions–love, hate, lust, etc.– but exist on a more abstract level, where distinctions between mind and body–feelings and cognition, exploration and expression–cease to matter.
In short, Haraldur Jónsson’s art is hard to classify; and so is the man himself. When I sat down with him for this interview, he avoided most of my attempts to draw a distinction between the man and the artist–avoided any questions seeking autobiographical clues as to what his art means. This is perhaps not surprising: as an artist who works with limits, he seems to enjoy himself in a space where he can be something of an in-between–never all here or there, never belonging to one concept or another. That’s why his work can both be experienced as a philosophical endeavour, entertaining the intellect, but also as something very intimate, something that affects the body. When I tried to understand how this might be explained in relation to himself personally, his answer was to upend the meaning of the very word, or even bring it back to its original ancient meaning: “What’s deeply personal to me, might seem highly abstract to others.”
NO LINEAR NARRATIVE
While we were discussing the philosophical underpinnings of ‘KJÖR’, Haraldur mentioned, almost as an afterthought, that the occasion would also mark the 25th anniversary of his career as an artist. He didn’t think much of it; and that’s quite symptomatic for Haraldur, who has from the very outset been at the centre stage of Icelandic contemporary art, but never tried to dominate. It’s not humility, but rather the cheerful way by which he lives in the moment. Yet he’s far from being a solitary hermit who only loses himself in his work. In Iceland, Haraldur is a much-beloved teacher at the Academy of Arts; he collaborates with poets, musicians and writers. He’s a man of the people, in the best sense of the word: he pays attention to other people, and seems to lose himself as much in the creative interaction between people as in the very work of shaping his sculptures, installations and artwork. And that is reflected in his artwork. Wide scope. No linear narrative. No specific themes. Yet his work is unmistakably his own. He is one of those artists who manages to lose himself in his surroundings, but assimilates his experiences in a way that’s highly idiosyncratic.
Nevertheless, this exhibition–‘KJÖR’–might be considered a very personal one. So I was curious to know how much his own autobiography played a part in ‘KJÖR’, and the fact that he’s celebrating his 25th year as an artist.
“No, I only realized it myself when you mentioned the fact. Twenty-five years! You know, Týsgallerý is the smallest gallery in town. It wouldn’t be the my choice for a retrospective [laughs]. It’s really small. It’s a cabin. I was simply focusing on the challenge to bring my vision into an extremely small space. And my first instinct was to make it even smaller. To divide it into parts and make it even more claustrophobic. In that sense you can say it’s personal. It’s like a family! But I began on a notion about space and limits. I had to reduce and distill my spatial ideas, and what I came up with… perhaps in hindsight I can say it’s been a recurrent obsession of mine… I came up with this idea of vanishing points.”
What do you mean by vanishing points? Are you, literally, talking about the abstract spatial concept? Or are you speaking metaphorically? That something is disappearing? Things? People? Yourself?
“Well, It’s spatial and personal. At the same time. It’s a technical term, of course. The ‘vanishing point’ was discovered by the Renaissance painters, a method by which we are able to create the illusion of depth on a two-dimensional surface. It defines how we view the world– at least here in the West. It’s the point where all lines converge. But it’s also the point where the illusion breaks down. On several occasions, I’ve also worked with this notion metaphorically. Yes, a long time ago Smekkleysa [Bad Taste] commissioned me to do the first Icelandic online art show! This was in the early 90s! The early days of internet. I presented several works. One was a close-cropped photograph of a woman’s belly button which was titled ‘Vanishing Point.’”
Help me out here, when you say both personal and metaphorical– a woman’s navel – are you talking about birth, a beginning? What makes us human? Our debt to mothers? Guilt?
“Well, I think it’s fascinating idea to turn a highly technical term on its head. Rather than look for the clues Out There, I want to turn the gaze inwards. Onto our bodies and how we move around in space. How we feel inside buildings. So structures are very important to me. To me the vanishing point represents at the same time a beginning and an end–it’s the death perspective, but not necessarily death as such, rather the limits of our experience.”
Ok. Limits. Borders. Maps. Writers and curators who have discussed your work often mention this. Mute experiences. Darkness. The incommensurability of sensory experiences, the isolation of sensibilities. But to someone who has never experienced your work, this might sound quite bleak and morose. It’s quite apparent that you are schooled in an European tradition–you were educated in Germany and France–at a time when the “human condition” was taken quite seriously as an existential project for the artist. While younger artists schooled in America and Scandinavia tend to take a much more ironic, even cynical, view on such questions.
“I like these existential questions. I talk about existential minimalism…”
Are you talking about something like abstract minimalism? Something like like the SÚM-group [An Icelandic artist movement of the ’60s and ’70s that was influenced by minimalism and the Fluxus movement]?
“Well, they came much earlier. There are similarities. But I’m talking about how I try to distill an idea, how I try to reduce it to something really small. But maybe I shouldn’t say too much… I don’t want to put myself in other people’s heads and try to figure out what they see when they look at my work.”
You are very much an artist who deals with universal and generic questions…
“…Yes, but in everyday life! Things around us and inside ourselves–how we relate to each other in interpersonal level. There are vanishing points there too. They can hide something. Moments that reveal our perspective on things. I’m not trying to make things more abstract in order to find an essential concept. I begin on something very basic–a feeling inside a space–and work from there. I work in a playful way. Often on gut feeling but also on a conscious level. If the end result is very minimal, it’s still something that affects the body… maybe that’s abstract? What is deeply personal to me, might seem highly abstract to others.”
It might perhaps be better understood in relation to literature? You’re also a published writer of prose poetry. When people hear the word minimalism in the visual arts, they either tend to think about the material–what’s the essence of wood, what’s the simplest way to express iron, et cetera–or a singular concept in philosophy–topology and the like. But in the history of European literature, there are central figures of the 20th century, like Kafka, Camus and Samuel Beckett, who work in a similar way as you seem to do.
“Yes, I feel certain affinities. Of course it’s flattering to be mentioned in the same breath as they. It’s my background. Where I studied.”
But even with elusive figures like these authors, when one reads their biographies–there’s a lot in their lives that explains why they wrote the books they did. Earlier we spoke a little about where you grew up, your parents et cetera. Isn’t there something in your own life that explains what you do as an artist?
“Well, at this very moment in time it might be helpful for people to know, that I am indeed the son of an architect and a dentist [laughs].”
‘KJÖR’ is on display at Týsgallerí, Týsgata 3, 101 Reykjavík. The exhibition will be open until March 1.
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