From Iceland — In The Beginning Was The Word: Halldór Ragnarsson Searches For Meaning Through Repetition

In The Beginning Was The Word: Halldór Ragnarsson Searches For Meaning Through Repetition

Published December 2, 2022

In The Beginning Was The Word: Halldór Ragnarsson Searches For Meaning Through Repetition
Josie Gaitens
Photo by
Art Bicnick

“Do you see a paintbrush here?” artist Halldór Ragnarsson asks. He is buzzing around his studio in Skeifan, seemingly fuelled in equal parts by creativity, caffeine and ADHD. We hunt for the missing object, which I swear was in his hand just seconds ago, before he locates it beside the coffee maker. “Here!” he proclaims victoriously, holding the paintbrush aloft before shooting a sidelong glance. “This is my life,” he says, with feigned resignation.

Halldór is in the studio putting the finishing touches on his newest collection of works in preparation for an exhibition at Listval Grandi. His pieces—in mostly neutral tones of grey, beige black and white, with occasional pops of ochre and red—hang around the room. He leans over one with great concentration, holding the newly-discovered brush loaded with yellow enamel paint. He places one drop on the canvas and steps back, satisfied. “That’s it,” he says.

A brand new space

Halldór explains that he has not long moved into this new studio. “It’s so funny how space decides the size of your paintings,” he says. “I’m doing more landscape stuff, just because of what the shape of this space is.”

Halldór’s pieces are varied but complimentary, incorporating different textural elements, from layered wood to thickly applied paint. Significantly, they all incorporate text in some form. The new exhibition, ‘Here, Now & Maybe Later’ covers pieces made over the last 12 months. “But in a way this has been a continuous theme in my works since maybe 2010,” Halldór says. “This period where I have been working with the meaning of language.”

Combine and conquer

Halldór arrived at visual arts in a roundabout way. “I’m kind of a late bloomer,” he admits. “I started as a teenager doing weird, abstract work. But I didn’t even know if it was art, I was just scribbling. I didn’t have any formal art education.” Later, as an adult, Halldór decided to go to university to study philosophy

“The beauty of art is that you make it and then it leaves you”

“It was through philosophy that I started to maybe understand what it [his art] is about,” Halldór adds. “But I’m still figuring it out. It’s of course about time and space…but I’m still wondering why it is I have to do art.” He waves his arms animatedly: “I have to do it, but I’m still wondering why!”

It was while he was undertaking his BA that a teacher suggested that he try connecting his written and visual works.

“It was so easy just to hear it,” Halldór says of this advice. “Like, ‘why aren’t you doing this?’ And I was just like, ‘yeah, why not?’” He laughs: “It was so obvious, you know?”

Over and over

“I’ve been stuck in this meaning of language ever since,” Halldór explains. “A lot of it is repetition to understand why a word is a word.”

“You say, dog, dog, dog, dog, dog, until it is a dog.” he says, gesturing towards his housemate’s mini pinscher, Zoe, who is bouncing around the room with a stuffed toy, matching her companion’s boundless energy. “You have to name things,” Halldór continues. “That’s how language starts, and because of the repetition, you will eventually understand. It’s like a common, shared thought.”

Photo by Art Bicnick

Halldór’s search for meaning is very personal, with many of the words and phrases he uses lifted directly from his diary. The expressions he choses are relatively mundane—“I’m not saying things like, ‘I’m in love’ or ‘I miss you,’” he clarifies. Instead his work is adorned with many iterations of hand-stamped, written or spray-painted words that say things like, “in a moment there will be a pause.”

In this way, Halldór takes his specific personal experiences and processes them to become more abstract: “I’m looking at different feelings and moments and I’m maybe reflecting on them because I repeat many sentences in my work. It’s kind of like a mantra. I’m playing with time within the context of using language.”

A cleansing fire

Alongside his philosophy studies, Halldór’s Zen outlook on life can perhaps be attributed to an unlikely source. In 2016, the artist’s home and studio on Grettisgata burned down, destroying everything he owned—including his materials, equipment and artworks.

“The day after you don’t even have a wallet, you don’t have anything that says that you are you, you don’t have any money because it burned. And you’re in Kringlan with money you borrowed, wearing clothes that your friends gave you, buying your first pair of underwear. It’s surreal,” Halldór says of the aftermath of the fire.

“I’m playing with time within the context of using language.”

And yet, despite the tragic nature of this event, six years on Halldór can see some kind of silver lining: “I lost everything in the fire, including loads of paintings and artworks of course. It was a horrible thing to go through, but it was also a very good thing,” he says.

“When this happened I had a show 100% ready, and it was supposed to be in a month. To get out of this trauma, I did all the work for the exhibition again. I re-did the repetitions, I did all the works again by memory,” Halldór continues. “So the show in the end was probably better quality, because I had already done all this work. But I lost my mind a bit by doing it, I was a little bit weird for a while.”

Another outcome of the fire for Halldór is that he now finds it easier to part with his works when they are completed, and that his relationship with his finished artworks has changed and developed as a result.

“The beauty of art is that you make it and then it leaves you—it isn’t in your control anymore,” he says. “I think that’s what I learned through this process. Of course they’re like your little babies, your art. I work very slowly, and then— it’s just done.” He smiles, adding. “It’s a little bit like the fire, every time.”

Photo by Art Bicnick

Always looking, never finding

With the collection nearly finished and the exhibition drawing close, I’m interested in what’s next on the agenda for Halldór. “An exhibition is like finishing a book for me,” he explains. “You’ve finished a period, you just want to leave it behind and start something new. It’s from the exhibition where I take that next step.”

Whatever that next step is, Halldór is sure that it will still fall within the realm of constructing and deconstructing language, trying to use words to understand life and meaning. “I think I haven’t finished these exercises—or it’s more like research,” he says.

Despite all of our discussion about looking for meaning, Halldór doesn’t strike me as being particularly distressed by the fact that he hasn’t yet found the answer.

“If I would have found it I would probably not be doing the art,” he says quickly. “I admit it every day, honestly. I will be brushing my teeth and looking into the mirror and I will just think, ‘I don’t know anything.’ I’m a proud owner of knowing that fact. Through that you listen, you seek information.”

He cracks a wide smile. “They’re so boring, people who know the facts. There are no facts, in a way.”

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