Recently, sculptures around Reykjavík have been disappearing. Either a science fiction movie is coming true with aliens abducting earthly monuments or officials in Reykjavík have decided that the time had come for some of them to be uprooted.
“He has now come off the podium and down to earth,” remarked artist Magnús Tómasson after his sculpture “The Unknown Official” was moved this September from where he had stood since 1993, in a small and not often-visited park between Lækjargata and Hotel Borg. Reykjavík Art Museum Director Hafþór Yngvason’s dream was realised as the two-meter tall, smartly dressed man with an unchiselled basalt rock torso was relocated closer to City Hall where he finally roams among the real-life city officials at work.
This isn’t the only sculpture that Hafþór has had a hand in moving. He has also been involved in sculpting the city’s public spaces through the relocation of another sculpture, namely Spanish artist Santiago Sierra’s “The Black Cone.” The sculpture was part of Sierra’s exhibition at the Reykjavík Art Museum earlier this year, and was quite controversial from the start.
The 180 centimetre-tall stone was originally located at Austurvöllur square in front of Parliament where the artist invited spectators to watch as he shoved a black steel cone into it on January 20. He created this permanent crack in the rock on the third anniversary of the demonstrations at Austurvöllur, which led to the collapse of a government in 2009. With his performance, Sierra wanted to remind people of the importance of civil rights and civil disobedience.
Sierra gave the city the sculpture on the condition that it stayed at its original location. However, as Sierra’s exhibition at the Reykjavík Art Museum concluded, members of Parliament began voicing their dissatisfaction over having that sculpture in their front yard.
This led to further discussions amongst members of City Council, with one of them arguing that an artist who has previously performed exploitative art, such as paying impoverished people to get a line tattooed on their back, cannot claim a spot in front of Parliament under the banner of human rights. Another claimed that the 2009 protest was an act of violence and should not be honoured at such a “holy” place in the city.
On September 21, the sculpture was relocated to another corner of Austurvöllur square. Reykjavík thus kept its promise to the artist while easing the minds of parliamentarians. “A fine conclusion,” the Reykjavík Art Museum stated.
With such short time passing between the relocation of these two sculptures, one cannot help noticing a trend. The interpretation of Reykjavík’s public spaces are up for debate—they have become the venue for a slow, over-sized and unusually significant game of chess.
At a ceremony celebrating The Unknown Official’s new location, both the mayor of Reykjavík and the Reykjavík Art Museum director showed up with a briefcase in the same style as the sculpted figure, to pose in front of it. One could see why the officials found it suitable in their nearest environment. While posing in front of the sculpture, the officials seemed to find some kind of relief in the correlation generated with the posing. While trying to fit the part the mayor of Reykjavík, Jón Gnarr huddled up to the sculpture and directed a question to the stone figure, desperately exclaiming: “What would you do?!” Passing through with the task at hand, carrying the huge weight of unchiselled basalt on his shoulders, not minding what undefined factors he will meet on the way, the unknown official embodies a common response to a partisan situation in Iceland: Well, everybody is doing their best. A warm and comforting greeting to a fellow official.
Sierra’s unshaped rock gives off a less comfortable vibe. Its formlessness attempts to echo the statement of the people. In question are the unknowns that don’t carry the weapon of the briefcase but their right in creating friction in public space. As the citizens of Reykjavík reclaimed this public space during the 2008–2009 demonstrations, it became a platform for marking a territory. This time the manoeuvring within public space didn’t involve tear gas but a very subtle gesture of checkmate.