From Iceland — One Endless Idea: Sculptor Steinunn Þórarinsdóttir Dives Into The Human Condition

One Endless Idea: Sculptor Steinunn Þórarinsdóttir Dives Into The Human Condition

Published June 21, 2019

One Endless Idea: Sculptor Steinunn Þórarinsdóttir Dives Into The Human Condition
Hannah Jane Cohen
Photo by
Art Bicnick

“What has inspired me the most is the environment, and people,” announces Steinunn Þórarinsdóttir. The lauded sculptor claps her hands together, as if repeating a mantra. “Society,” she continues. “The larger picture.” She stops and smiles—a stark contrast to the seriousness of her previous statement.

The artist—one of Iceland’s most beloved—has a characteristic style so iconic that you would recognise her pieces immediately. Abstract, faceless, and bursting with texture and organic matter, her life-size human sculptures are an eerie depiction of humanity in which beings are genderless and expressionless, but still filled with the light of life.

The natural choice

“When I was in school, I‘d sometimes say that there was really nothing else that came to mind [as a career] other than art,” says Steinunn, sitting back in her office off the side of her massive Vesturbær studio, which is filled to the brim with sculptures of all shapes and sizes. “It was a natural choice.”

She travelled to England to study, and it was there that she discovered the joy of sculpture. “Once I started with three dimensional figurative work, it was like coming home,” she says. “My first solo show was in 1979, so I’ve been a figurative sculptor for 40 years now.”

She waves her hand, referencing the studio rife with figurative sculptures. “Sometimes I joke that I’ve only had one idea in my whole career,” she laughs. “But it’s a big one, and an endless source—the human condition.”

Armors & borders

If you want to understand Steinunn’s work, you need but look at ‘Borders,’ which debuted in 2011 at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City. The 26-piece installation dives deep into the intrinsic properties of a border. “There are pairs of figures, one is cast iron and the other aluminium,” Steinunn explains. “They were lined up along a square. The idea was that the viewer can cross the border and connect them together.”

The pieces are different colours, but they mirror each other perfectly. “The thought is that despite our differences we are all connected,” says Steinunn. And despite beginning the installation in 2009, Steinunn finds the concept has only become more important with time. “It’s still relevant,” she states.

Steinunn Þórarinsdóttir, Borders

Years later in 2018, she presented a project called ‘Armors,’ which similarly explored the idea of dualism. In Fort Tryon Park next to the Cloisters museum in New York City, which houses the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s medieval collection, two sculptures stood in front of each other, one stark and the other clad in ornate armour. The armoured figures were based on medieval armours from the permanent collection of the Met that were meticulously scanned and cast from those custom 3D scans. “There’s the idea of the contemporary figure against the medieval armour, but the postures are the same,” she explains. “So this figure could be inside the armoured one.”

As she discusses ‘Armors’ she points towards a glass window in her office where a smaller sculpture depicts people looking at themselves in a mirror. “Duality is quite interesting for me,” she explains. “It was a duel between the armoured figure and the one that was very fragile in its nakedness and vulnerability, but at the same time, I had installed the naked figures to be standing strong against the armoured one.” She pauses. “It was interesting to see that people commented on that.”

Steinunn Þórarinsdóttir, Armors

Androgyny sparks

Steinunn’s newest installation, entitled ‘Trophies,’ is currently visible on the roof of the Icelandic Ministry of Finance in Arnarhóll, where it is part of the Reykjavík Museum Of Art’s exhibition programme. In 2019, the museum is focused on art in public spaces. The installation was originally created for the Museum of Military History in Dresden, Germany. Trophies are antique sculptures that were originally constructed to stand on top of buildings. Steinunn’s installation presents a number of ambiguous, genderless beings, which decorate the roof of the government building like trophies.

“When you make something for a specific place and then it’s moved somewhere else, it takes on a different connotation.”

“In Germany, it was very different,” Steinunn explains. “Inside the museum, there was a show called ‘Gender and Violence,’ and because of the androgyny of my works we thought it would be interesting to put forward questions about this theme before entering the museum,” she says, pausing to present a photo of the installation. The museum itself is grandly decorated, full of ornate carvings and trinkets, and therefore Steinunn’s stark figures stand in direct contrast to its finery.

“These figures were put in places where old trophies used to be, those that were connected to war and victory, so these were replacing the war figures and showing a very different sensibility,” she says. “One that’s more peaceful.”

From one world to another

Moving the piece to a location like Arnarhóll gives the installation a new dimension. “When you make something for a specific place, and then it’s taken somewhere else, the new site extracts what is inherent with its history and it takes on a different connotation,” Steinunn explains. “The Ministry of Finance is a very well known old building, and this is a big intervention; but at the same time, we were thinking that people get so used to their environment that they don’t notice things, so to do this to an old building that everybody knows but has forgotten about, it activates the public and makes them get reacquainted with this classical old building.”

“It’s so interesting to move from one world to another and make a bigger or different idea,” she continues. “I also think that the placement in Reykjavík in Arnarhóll, you see, is interesting. They are standing on an old centre of time looking out over these new buildings by Harpa.” The sculptures stand on the ancient, she reiterates, and look towards the new.

But, Steinunn emphasises, the two buildings—one a war museum, and the other a government outpost—do share a commonality. “Both are places of power.”

Info: Steinunn Þórarinsdóttir’s ‘Trophies’ will be showing on the roof of the Ministry Of Finance until September 1st, 2019.

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