Published May 17, 2021
For almost 10 years, the cry of ‘Hvar er nýja stjórnarskráin?’ (‘Where’s the new constitution?’) has been heard around the country as Iceland’s “crowdsourced” constitution remains un-ratified by the government despite overwhelming support in a public referendum. But what you might not know is that that cry has been going on for many years longer—decades longer in fact.
“So when Iceland decided to break away from Denmark in 1944, there was a period in that early process when Iceland considered writing a whole new constitution,” artist Ólafur Ólafsson explains. At the time, the former Kingdom of Iceland lived under the monarchic Danish constitution. “But they found they didn’t have the time. It was more complex than they thought. So they went to make the least changes that were necessary to adapt the Danish constitution into the new Icelandic one.” This hastily made document was heavily based on the monarchic one with some very notable changes, of course—such as the role of King being shifted to President. That said, structurally it wasn’t too different. A proper long-term constitutional committee was put together to write a new wholly-Icelandic one, but after three years, it faded away and the rudimentary constitution remains in use to this day.
“So it’s a 19th century constitution,” Libia Castro, Ólafur Ólafsson’s artistic partner, emphasises. “And it was meant to be a temporary solution,” Ólafur adds. The meaning is clear: Iceland was always meant to write a new constitution.
The two artists and activists, known for their provocative works exploring identity and nationhood, have been pushing Iceland’s understanding of their own constitution for decades. Now they are back with ‘Magic Meeting — A Decade On’, their newest exhibition focusing on the battle surrounding the proposed Icelandic constitution.
Libia Castro & Ólafur Ólafsson search for magic
The exhibition—which uses the word decade due to it being 10 years since the original Constitutional Council—is a continuation of their 2020 collective performance ‘In Search of Magic – A Proposal for a New Constitution for The Republic of Iceland’ which took place on October 3rd, 2020 at various places in Reykjavík, including the Reykjavík Art Museum Hafnarhús, Prime Minister’s office and in front of Alþingi. There, a diverse group of composers, artists, activists and members of the public joined together to create a multivocal work that brought to life all 114 articles of the proposed Icelandic constitution.
The new exhibition at Hafnarborg features a plethora of objects relating to the performance, including the sketches of the original plans, banners from the protests, photographs, and much more. Most notable is a five-hour video of the show, stitched together from video footage and cell phone recordings interspersed with archival footage from the financial crash. Lastly, a special work area has been created downstairs for activists and artists to continue their work campaigning for the ratification of the new constitution.
But how different is different?
“A fundamental difference is the order of appearance,” Ólafur explains, when asked about the specifics of the new constitution. In the current constitution, the first 25% defines the role of the President, which is largely symbolic. From there, it goes to parliament, the government, institutions, the church and, after all of that, comes the people and human rights. “When you start a book, you don’t introduce its leading characters at the end. They are placed in the order of importance.” The new constitution flips that, starting with the public.
“We felt so strongly then that [our performance of the new constitution] had to be a collaborative work,” Libia continues. Thus, they featured participants of all backgrounds and styles, both in composition as well as performance, as well as languages as vast as Greenlandic and Filipino.
They also, with their performance, set out to underline the topical differences of the proposed constitution, which features new sections on the rights of nature and natural resources. In a particularly moving moment, Erla Bolladóttir, known for being wrongfully convicted in the 1974 Guðmundur and Geirfinnur case, read Article 27, the new declaration of freedom.
Standing on the precipice
But the exhibition also stands on the cusp of the upcoming elections in September—elections that could determine the fate of the new constitution.
“To get the new constitution implemented, what is most important is the parties that are going to be elected,” Libia says. “So this exhibition for us is marking that time.” The rooms are, as Libia explains, a place both to reflect on the past and also determine the best way to make a better future. “That’s why we have this project space-in-progress,” she continues. “We are using this space to produce new work and for activism meetings. We are all thinking together how to continue the campaign.”
And in that way, the exhibition treads through an undefinable space between history lesson, contemporary art museum and activist hangout. But this murkiness, as Libia illustrates, Is necessary to the overall meaning of the show.
“The movement of going into a museum allows you a space of reflexivity, of reflection, but you also go out of the museum and that becomes an action, an intervention into society. So in this show, many of the works and how the whole installation is made up follow this frame of thinking—the porosity between society and life,” Libia explains. “So for example, when you are in the entrance, those banners that are put up are both paintings and banners. They fulfil both of those different roles. They go into the history of conceptual painting, textile works, art and feminism and they also go into activism.
“And we are still using them like that,” Libia continues proudly. “We can take one down and go into the street. So then [the banner] is activated, [serving] another role and another function, and then we put it back in the installation.”
But what can we do?
Thinking beyond the scope of art and protest, what can one tangibly do to fight for the new constitution?
“Absolutely informing themselves,” Libia states. “Inform themselves about the differences: What is this new one? What is the old one? Also the context—how have they been written? What is this idea that the people in this country had always wanted to write a new one?”
But as a representative democracy, Libia continues, it’s really in the political parties’ court in the end. Unfortunately, it’ll be them that choose whether or not to ratify it.
“The sad version of this answer is that there is not enough one can do with just voting,” Ólafur interjects. “The parties aren’t clear enough on their positions. It comes to the sad cliché of broken promises.”
Libia nods. “So before the elections, it’s very important that people inform themselves and that they actually vote for parties that put this at the centre,” she urges. “Even if they are maybe not totally in agreement with the whole political programme of the party. If they want the new constitution, they need to think of that when they vote.”
For Ólafur, even if the fight can often seem relentless, it’s necessary to keep going. Even the two artists have seen their art and activism challenged —in fact, on May 2nd, the city of Hafnarfjörður unceremoniously removed their pro-new constitution banners, which hung outside the museum with no warning. The town council claimed they didn’t have permission; something which has never been an issue in the past.
But remember, as Ólafur reminds us, the people already spoke their mind and supported this new constitution, so the government should follow suit—and a watered-down version isn’t the answer.
“We need to not let it go,” he concludes. “Be active and make these elections meaningful.”
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