From Iceland — Nipples & Facials - Icelandic Art In 2016

Nipples & Facials – Icelandic Art In 2016

Published January 12, 2016

Nipples & Facials – Icelandic Art In 2016
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If one were to try and summarize the main Icelandic debates of 2015 in a magazine article, Nipples & Facials would make for a catchy title. It was year when no single artist reigned supreme in shaping the identity of Icelandic culture, and no single writer penned that perfect article that captures the soul of our times—rather a great multitude of people did. Well, relatively speaking, in Icelandic terms.

The reason is clear. The medium is the message. And this year, the medium was Facebook. More than ever.

Usually, in what now feels like ancient times… there would be this One Person who managed to seize the moment and define what it means to be the face of a nation. There was room for more than one at a time, of course—but not in the same field. So we had this One Politician. The One Writer. The One Musician. And so forth. A shot at becoming The One was somewhat akin to the story of Luke Skywalker. Get out, go deep into space—til útlanda—and make a big bang. Halldór Laxness, awarded the Nobel Prize in 1955, became the One Writer. And Björk, of course, would define the meaning of Icelandic Music for years to come.

Lately, the story of the One has lost its lustre. It was always a lie, of course. An omission at best. It takes a village to raise a genius. If Icelandic culture ever managed to reflect anything else than its own idiosyncrasies, it’s because it is a village of many creative people who, despite their isolation, have been remarkably cosmopolitan. The genius who managed to represent the village had to embody these contradictions—beneath a worldly veneer, a sense of rugged provincialism.

vulnicura featured

In 2015, the story of One is wholly untenable. To single out a work of art that I found personally memorable, I would mention Björk’s ‘Vulnicura’. Also of note is ‘Hystory’, a play by Kristín Eiríksdóttir; the film ‘Rams’ by Grímur Hákonarson won the Prix Un Certain Regard in Cannes; the novel ‘Wastelands’ by Ófeigur Sigurðsson won the Icelandic Literature Prize. But it would be far from accurate to claim that these work of arts took centre stage in the cultural debates. The centre stage belonged to a particular medium: Facebook.

Let’s consider the material conditions. Iceland is a large island, scarcely populated. A nostalgic depiction of the isolation living as a farmer in a desolate valley can be found in the film ‘Rams’. But nowadays every farm, village and town is hooked up. Iceland is saturated with Facebook users. The account for 72,5 % of the total population.


A people once accustomed to silence are bombarded by a barrage of other people’s opinions. And Icelanders don’t like it. Or so they say. They just can’t stay away from social media. Every opinion is debatable. And there’s a creeping sense of being monitored by a Panopticon society. Everyone regulates the opinions of everyone else. This is a global phenomenon. We’re walking on eggshells everywhere. We feel that there’s a new gag order in place.

#freethenipple, twitter pics/NÁ

Yet, Iceland is also where the redemptive power of social media has become apparent. I would like to mention two examples. Young women flocked to social media and out on the streets to bare their breasts. The Nipple Revolution. An attempt to desensitize our pornographic gaze. They are just as natural as men’s. They can be just as erotic as men’s. They should not be censored. Or appropriated by porn. Women should be allowed to breastfeed in the open. Girls should be able to bare themselves wherever they see fit, without fear of being slutshamed The second example took place on a closed discussion group, but soon migrated into the open. Women began to share their stories of sexual and domestic abuse. It was hashtagged, #konurtala—women speak up.

“Art may influence culture. But if art is to be anything else than mere reflection of tendentious sentiments, then art can not be subjugated to culture.”

Something quite spectacular happened. If I were to choose The One Artist of 2015, it would be the duo Edda Ýr Garðarsdóttir and Jóhanna Svala Rafnsdóttir. They designed the icon that quickly became viral. The facial emoticon of a person speaking up. Orange meant: I’ve been sexually abused. Yellow meant: I know someone who’s been abused. Countless of people on Facebook adopted the icon. It hit a nerve. With men and women alike. The icon transcended age, class and location. But it was not a One Artist movement. Yes, Edda Ýr and Jóhanna Svala designed the icon, but it was the power of a multitude that shaped the debate.

The effects are being felt on society’s every level. The justice system is scrutinized. Legislation is reconsidered. Debates on freedom vs. security have been reignited. Just as importantly, what began as a women’s movement has now forced young men to re-evaluate their own position; not as passive onlookers, but as active explorers in search of an identity.

A horrible year

That was the cultural scene. Art is of a different kidney altogether. Art may influence culture. But if art is to be anything else than mere reflection of tendentious sentiments, then art can not be subjugated to culture. Artists need to question and distance themselves from current affairs—precisely if they are to be in the vanguard of opening up new horizons. Art is ceding ground to culture every day on social media. Novelists, musicians and filmmakers are somewhat protected by the conservative structure of the art form. They get leeway to distance themselves. But visual artists are particularly vulnerable. They need space.

“2015 was a horrible year for the visual arts.”

2015 was a horrible year for the visual arts. Their space has been encroached upon. Fortunately, there are many artists who have stood their ground. Skyrocketing rents are forcing independent galleries out of the city centre. Týsgallerí had to shut down. They’ve exhibited works by Bryndís Hrönn Ragnarsdóttir, whose ‘Holning/Physique’ was one of the most memorable sights at the 2015 Reykjavík Art Festival. Also of note is Haraldur Jónssons’s ‘Kjör’, whose minimalist exploration of existential themes question the autofictional perspective of our times. Another gallery, Kling & Bang, an artist collective that has spearheaded shows by people like Ragnar Kjartansson, also closed its doors, albeit temporarily. Ragnar’s last exhibition at Kling & Bang, ‘The Visitors’, attracted numbers that would make any theatre envious. Gallerí Þoka survived by merging with Hverfisgallerí. They’ve exhibited such artists as Hulda Rós Guðnadóttir, who’s been exploring the transformation of harbour spaces and the life of dock workers who are gradually turning into a tourist curiousa. Another artist of note is Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir, who’s been exploring the inner space of female fantasies.


controversial art by Lóa Hjálmtýsdóttir
Illustration by Lóa Hjálmtýsdóttir

What is City Hall thinking? Well, they’ve had their own space to deal with. This year marked the 100-year anniversary of Women’s Suffrage. City Hall invited Ekkisens gallery to host an exhibition that featured mostly young female artists, along with a few men— ‘Kynleikar’—where they were given the opportunity to assimilate and critique the gender debates. But City Hall staff covertly sabotaged the exhibition by turning off the artists’ projectors and screens.

venice mosque 3 by Bjarni Grímsson
Photo by Bjarni Grímsson

And, finally, a veritable scandal—this year marked the unheard-of occasion when the City of Venice issued a gag-order on Iceland’s contribution to Biennale Venice 2015. The exhibition featured a live-in Mosque. The work explored the shifting borders of European space, the interlocked relation between art and religion; and the very idea of sanctuary. The exhibition was censored. In light of the Syrian exodus and Europe’s fragility—at a time when iron curtains are once more being raised—it’s particularly worrisome that art’s space is being encroached upon in such a violent manner. Art should be a sanctuary. A scarcely populated island in the North-Atlantic is well positioned to enshrine such a place.

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