From Iceland — Enjoying Emptiness

Enjoying Emptiness

Published September 10, 2010

Enjoying Emptiness

Artist Sigurður Guðmundsson has been unusually prominent in the Icelandic art scene this year, publishing a new novel, exhibiting his early photographic work in Reykjavík and inaugurating a major work of public art in Djúpivogur. Sigurður maintains a busy schedule, dividing his time between Reykjavík, Amsterdam and Xiamen, China. When the Grapevine tried to catch up with him following the opening of his exhibition in Reykjavík this summer, he was already halfway around the world.
I just came home from an intense week in Shanghai, exhibiting, performing and partying. My wife Ineke and I were celebrating the anniversary of the Chinese European Art Centre, a ten-year exchange between Chinese and Dutch artists. Holland has always treated me as a Dutch artist and included me in their international activities. This was a big exhibition connected to the Expo world fair, entitled Dialogue 2010. Now I am back here in Xiamen, relaxing on my balcony overlooking a beautiful sunset over the South China Ocean.
How is the relationship between you as an Icelander and the Dutch in light of the conflict between the two nations in the aftermath of the crash?
Holland has always been very kind to me, even after Icesave. However, the image that the Dutch have of Icelanders has been impaired, and maybe rightly so. There are many people still suffering because of this mess caused by an Icelandic bank, even though it may be exaggerated in the Dutch and British media to cover up the fact that they also made big mistakes in this affair. But I have very limited knowledge of these matters. In general, regarding your question, I have little belief in the notion of nationality and I feel that we need to start thinking of something else. The need for some kind of roots or a mutual background with other people is the same as always, but today it might be more relevant in another context than nationality. But, the feeling of being a foreigner is important to me and has been for a long time. I like being a foreigner, that hasn’t changed.
Is being a foreigner or an outsider an important thread in your work as an artist?
It is hard for me to talk about a thread in my work because I have always gone from one different thing to the other. I have great respect for artists who work their way up to a certain plane or level and in their work they continually confirm this level and deepen it. Some of my favourite artists are like that and I really feed on their art. But cats do not eat cats; they eat mice. So I am not worried about liking art by people who work differently than I do. My method is different, I always jump off the deep end, creating a new kind of work, letting it go and then moving on to the next one. Like a writer, perhaps, who writes one novel and then the next one, some may be good and others bad. That is why I cannot talk about my photographic work as a series, even though I made it in two different time periods and give each work group a title when they are exhibited separately. I made Situations in the seventies and exhibited the more recent Mutes just a few years ago and it turned out to be somewhat unpopular. Both include individual works that may be connected but I do not regard them as a series.
This spring you displayed Situations in the i8 gallery here in Reykjavík. You created it in the seventies and then you did not do photographs again until the Mutes exhibition two years ago at the Reykjavík Art Museum. How do you see the Situations today in relation to having taken up photography again?

Those works were very much created out of the notion of the private, going deep into what you feel. Not gathering information laterally, but entering a single feeling and working with it in depth and coming up with something that you would otherwise never really think of. In general terms, humanity and society have used art as a mode of expression where one and the same manifestation may contain a complete paradox. You can express “day/night” or “yes/no” and “this way/the other” with complete assurance in the same work. I do not use logic to reach my goal, even though many artists that I like use logic to enter a certain paradigm. For example, my brother Kristján. He works through all the logical steps and comes out on the other side with something great. There are many ways available and I cannot say that one is better than the other; it’s just a matter of which doors you happen to have opened. Besides, there are shifts in culture from one period to the next and from one place to the other. 
Have you revisited Situations since the seventies?
Not in the sense that I have again tuned into what occupied me at that point in time, but these works have been displayed in all my retrospectives. Still, I have never exhibited them in the way I did in i8, not with so many of them together in such a small space. In fact, I didn’t believe it would work out but I was quite pleased with the outcome. These are all so different statements but they really stand on their own. I am glad because I am really bad at installing my own exhibitions; I have never been good at it, I just go on creating one work and then the next. I am most pleased with the installation of my work when someone else does it while I am away and then I arrive just before the opening and everything is ready.   
You mentioned that Mutes was not so well received. What do you mean by unpopular, did you get bad reviews?
I am actually very happy with those works. But okay, I cannot win the approval of everybody, not all of the time. I’ve got plenty of time! Actually, I see no special quality in getting approval from everyone. This was the first time I showed new photographs since the Situations in the seventies. I created the works on an impulse and in a somewhat manic state of mind, following a certain obsession. They turned out to be seventeen and they had to be really large in format—perhaps that was a mistake, I don’t know. I actually feel that the works were at their strongest before I made the actual photographs, when I was creating them. Looking at the scenes with people alive in front of me, the question is if these works could have been done in any other medium than as photos. I did use the most elaborate photographic technique.
The Mutes seem to deal with non-verbal experience. A search for something outside rational knowledge or physical environment—are you attempting to document an emotional or spiritual reality?
Both, I would say. For me it was quite interesting with the hypnotized people that I photographed, they weren’t really there. There is an image of a woman in her own home, leaning on to an Ikea chair. The title of this work is Hypno: Balloon Flying. In fact she is in a hot air balloon flying over a green meadow. So this is an image of a mental voyage. This is evident in my new novel, The Animals in Saigon. You enter your own inner reality and find company with things that do not exist in our physical reality. But they may be just as reliable. You see, I am not writing literature—I love literature, but that is not what I am doing. The same with photography, I am not a photographer and my goal is not to make a good photographic work. It doesn’t really bother me if the picture isn’t technically perfect and I am not aiming to create bad photographs either. Just like the old Situations works, many of them are not that good as photographs, some are even out of focus and others are overexposed, whatever.
My attitude is similar to when you look trough a family album; I look for what is in the picture, more than what is on it. The journey that people went on, the place where an image is created, the people; I look through the picture. This has always been a problem in my own work because I am interested in the immediate experience. The photograph is always a middle stage and of course a very important one. But what else can I do? Should I always have a crowd of people following me around for the immediate experience? This will always be a challenge.
My new novel came immediately after Mutes and the two projects have much in common.  I went to Vietnam where I didn’t speak the language but I developed an intense relationship with people around me through means of eye contact and gestures. This created a complex but interesting relationship that developed during my ten-month stay. I deleted the symbolic iconography of cultural codes and went for something more basic. But I must mention that this was not a scientific experiment, I entered this project from an artistic point of view and that is where my interest lay in this experiment. Making this book, The Animals in Saigon, was absolutely meaningful to me.
Tell me about your decision of taking on this experiment, living without language and then to mediate that experience in a book through language.
This is of course a paradox. I might be the wrong person to talk to about the outcome, but I think this turned out well and that this was the way to go about this project. Publishing the book was fulfilling and to me it works well. Art is curious in this way, sometimes a work may only function as an idea, sometimes it is awful until the day of the opening of an exhibition and sometimes you think it is fantastic until the moment it is shown. I think that museum exhibitions are great in this respect; when you can pick something old and exhibit it with something new, break up the linearity of the process. The fact is that I am a person who finds that what I feel is always the most interesting; I know that I need to be emotionally intelligent enough to really think with my feelings instead of using words. You experience this for example when you are in love; I think this state of mind is extremely interesting. Usually, the less rational knowledge you have about the subject you love, the stronger the emotion, when you use no comparison or minimum information. I am fascinated by this phenomenon. I try to use it and then to harness it or discipline it in my work. Rinse away the non-essentials without being too rational in that process.
During the process of writing The Animals in Saigon I lived as a kind of an animal for ten months, a person just relying on eye contact in the relationship with others, gestures, touching, walking in the crowd and dancing. Then this person turns into himself, to a reality that his fellow men do not see, where he finds four other creatures. A horse that is a poet, a homosexual swan, a fourteen-year-old girl who is a philosopher and a seagull that doesn’t speak Icelandic—the language in which the novel is written. They are not complete fantasy; they reflect the reality of the life that this person was living at the time. You might call it unreal but for the one experiencing it, me in this case, this is reality. These creatures carry different traits and as it turns out they are the molecules that make up the person Sigurður Guðmundsson. For sure there are many more, but at the time of writing the book, these were the ones that knocked on my door. There is a multitude of “I” in every human being. If you are willing to accept those characters, you will find them to manifest themselves in very distinct ways. If you however deny this, they will never get the possibility to exist and wither away.        
Did you approach the project of writing the book in a similar way as you did for example when you created Mutes?
I guess you could say that, even though I try not to embark on a project with a specific concept in mind. I have a certain desire to see something through; I do not wish to come to a conclusion in reply to a question or a dilemma, but to undertake the process as a wise animal. An animal that relies on the senses more than on intellectual achievements. Intellect gets in the way of this process; it is more inaccurate than the emotional scope as it relies on language, which is incapable of mediating anything in a straightforward way. Language is by definition less accurate than the life it describes. Two people, a receiver and a sender, are able to find a mutual understanding without words, it takes time and when they reach an agreement they may simply nod. I guess this is related to how music works.
Do you mistrust language?
No, but I feel all the time how it misleads us in our communication with other people. One of my favourite writers, Fernando Pessoa, said about his background that he was not Portuguese, but that he lived within the Portuguese language. That is how strongly he felt about language and his use of it in his work.
I have written my novels in Icelandic but I cannot say that I am doing it because of love for the language. For me it would be like a painter with an obsessive relationship to oil on canvas and that is not my love affair. In the beginning, in fact, I wrote much more in Dutch than ever in Icelandic so my relationship with language is trivial. But of course I needed to use it as a medium to convey this particular work, The Animals in Saigon, as it is a written book. Language can of course be very useful if you manage to surpass the loaded and often polluted meaning of words. You can read poetry and prose that does this in a successful way. But I wanted specifically for this project to approach the people in my book based on my non-verbal experience from the arts. This required considerable patience, for weeks I just stared into the eyes of a woman who cleaned up the place where I lived. The people I met may have been poor and uneducated but certainly not unintelligent and of course we had much in common.
This is related to my experience with hypnoses, some people in Mutes were hypnotized and I was hypnotized myself on the occasion of my exhibition of these works in Amsterdam recently.
You mean to say that there is subconsciously a mutual ground for humans to communicate that does not rely on our identities or intellect? As in when you fall in love?
This was part of my experiment in the show in Amsterdam. I went to see a hypnotist, one of the best in Holland or at least very expensive one, to see if I could undergo hypnosis at all. When I remembered everything after our session, I thought that this was nothing special but he said that I would require a more serious in-depth approach to reach a state of full hypnosis.
I insisted that he get rid of this Sigurður Guðmundsson out of this body of mine and asked him to replace him with a man or a woman who would be a connoisseur of contemporary art. This person, not knowing me, my work nor anyone in my social surroundings, should enter the opening of my exhibition and express his or her opinion on every work in there. Right before the opening, it took the hypnotist 75 minutes to bring me into this state, something that should only take a few minutes and he introduced the fictional character, Charles. I have no memory of what happened next, I only know this from what the gallery visitors told me afterwards and then later from the video documentation. Charles entered an already crowded opening and the guests knew that this was part of the exhibition. He ignored my friends and relatives and carefully analyzed all the works in the show one by one. He came up with options, depending on different possible artistic intentions, saying that if the artist intended to work with this particular element the work fails but if another issue is the case then it might work fine, etc.
As we had decided before, the hypnotist approached me three quarters of an hour later in the crowded gallery and woke me up, casting Charles out and bringing Sigurður back. I remember waking up and seeing all these faces staring at me. Someone came with a glass of mineral water and when I rejected it and insisted on red wine, people laughed, because everyone had just witnessed the same woman asking Charles what he’d like to drink and he wanted a glass of mineral water.
Afterwards there was a party and the usual fanfare and I went back home to China a few days later. I took with me the videotape of the performance but I had no desire to look at it. I had also finished the draft for the Animals in Saigon but I had no ambition to work on it. I was somehow totally disinterested, didn’t read anything and had no interest in anything, which is very unusual for me. I didn’t put this in context with the performance and just thought I was tired after the work or maybe I thought nothing of it. But after at least four weeks of doing nothing and furthermore not thinking about anything, I discovered a pile of A4 sheets on my bedside table and started to read. This was the draft for my novel that I had long before printed out and put aside. The writing is really personal, bordering on the tasteless—I reveal so much—but I actually see that as a quality. In my state of indifference I was lying in bed at home almost all day long and somehow started reading the draft. It was amazing, because it was as if I was downloading some information onto the hard drive of my empty computer. After four hours of reading I finally came back to myself and was my usual self again. Then I finally felt the urge to see the video and there I could see plainly how the hypnotist forgot to reintroduce me back into my body after having sent Charles away. The traditional way is to make an effort of bringing people back after a session of hypnosis, to make sure that they are truly themselves afterwards. This part was somehow overlooked in my case and that resulted in my identity being absent for weeks.
My brother Kristján, who was present during the performance, later commented with a smile that this Charles couldn’t have been much of a connoisseur since he had never heard of the artist Sigurður Guðmundsson.
There seems to be an interesting confusion between you wanting to expose your personal self, as you attempt to do in your book, and then to undergo a total loss of identity.
I have also created very personal performances and in relationship to those works I have sometimes said that through the utmost personal you may find the best way to understand the general. You arrive at the macro through the micro. I have also put it this way; being an artist is like being a huge one-man private enterprise. Huge, because art can take anything in—your choice of subject is limitless. And private, because the access to this everything is through one person—it is an intimate affair. This is how it doesn’t bother me at all if people call me narcissistic; on the contrary, I find it an important quality because it helps me to look under the skin of the universe.
Do you have a feeling where one of your alter egos will take you next?
At this moment I am completely empty, just like after Charles. I just wait for something to happen and in the meantime I enjoy my emptiness.

You can see Sigurður Guðmundsson’s works on display at Hafnarborg, Hafnafirði, and Gleðivík, Djúpivogur. More info available at

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