Icelandic Art, If There Is Such A Thing - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Icelandic Art, If There Is Such A Thing

Icelandic Art, If There Is Such A Thing

Published May 9, 2014

On the ground floor of a grey apartment building, across from Reykjavík’s old harbour, around the corner from the Reykjavík Art Museum, and a five minute walk from the heart of the city’s centre, sits a quiet gallery space which takes its name—i8—from its original location at Ingólfsstræti 8.

So unassuming is its exterior that you’d be forgiven for missing i8 altogether, but step into its brightly pristine and cube-like interior on any given day and you’ll find yourself surrounded by works of art by Iceland’s most brilliant talents and other visionaries and innovators from around the world.

Just last month, guests poured into i8 to see a new work by seminal artist Hreinn Friðfinsson. Plucking bottles of Heineken and water from a giant tub of ice by the door, members of Reykjavík’s art community chatted cheerfully while making their way around the five-screen video exhibition. Entitled “A Portrait of a Sculptor as a Sculpture, For a Sculpture by the Sculptor” the show featured Hreinn’s friend, the sculptor Kristinn E. Hrafnsson, knitting a hat, skating in wide, giddy circles around Tjörnin, vigorously hula-hooping in front of a beautiful shoreline and sunset, and jumping, somewhat precariously, on a trampoline. It was a distinctly festive atmosphere, with children skipping around their parents’ legs and bottles clinking, and just one of the many exciting openings that i8 will have this year.

Nineteen years since it first opened its doors (coincidentally with a show by Hreinn), i8 has become internationally known and respected for its ambitious programme and strong conceptual aesthetic. It was high time that we chat with Börkur Árnason, the man running Iceland’s foremost independent gallery and representing 20 artists internationally.

For a small country, Iceland sure gets a lot of attention.

From the resounding pop of the bankers’ currency bubble, to Reykjavík’s anarchist mayor, to controversial whaling practices and the Eyjafjallajökull volcano belching ash across Europe, Iceland has made global headlines regularly in recent years. Add to this a disproportionate number of breakthrough musicians and one-of-a-kind landscapes that draw camera-toting tourists from around the world, and it’s safe to say this country has become something of a celebrity in itself.

Attention on this scale had not been paid to Icelandic contemporary art until the recent rise of two genuine stars, both on i8’s roster. One is Ólafur Elíasson, the Danish-Icelandic artist known for such visionary works as installing waterfalls in New York’s Hudson River and the sun at the Tate Modern in London. He is also the artist behind the glittering façade of Harpa, Reykjavík’s concert hall and conference centre.

The other is Ragnar Kjartansson, whose carefree, playfully cross-discipline methodology continues to yield memorable artworks. His recent epic multi-screen video performance, “The Visitors,” features a group of notable musicians improvising a repeated mournful verse alone in different rooms of a decaying American manor house. It is an ambitious, large-scale work that is joyful and affecting, funny and profound.

At the age of 33, Ragnar became the youngest artist to represent Iceland at the Venice Biennale, and already has an impressive string of solo shows to his name. He seems too well meaning to be dubbed the “enfant terrible” of anything in particular, but the shoe does fit, even if a little awkwardly jammed on.

A Family Affair

i8 started as a small family-run enterprise in 1995. The gallery’s director, Börkur Arnarson, was running a design company at Ingólfsstræti 8 above the space that would become the gallery’s first of three homes.

“I had just moved back from London after living there for almost ten years,” he says. “There was an office below me that Jonni Sigmars, the film director, used. He was struggling to write a script down there, and one day as he was writing and smoking, his cigarette didn’t go out when he put it in the basket, and it caught fire. The space filled with smoke, the landlord kicked him out, and the space became empty. I called my mother and said, ‘maybe this is the time to open a gallery.’

“Does it really matter where people are from at this point?”

Börkur’s mother, Edda Jónsdóttir, was an artist herself, but was becoming increasingly interested in the idea of showing other people’s work. She jumped at the opportunity. Together they cleaned and altered the space, and the i8 gallery was born.

“My mother was a printmaker and part of a community of artists, but she didn’t necessarily look to them for the work,” Börkur explains. “Instead, she went straight to what she was most interested in. It was clear from the start that this was not a gallery that would collect proposals from people, but would show whatever it wanted. And that’s how it has been ever since, in the sense that we kept that independence.”

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Art Without Borders

Börkur’s role grew gradually and naturally over time as the gallery began participating in international art fairs, which proved to be a pivotal decision. “We quickly started showing artists from outside Iceland,” he says, “and the idea of this borderless, art-focused mentality came very early on. It’s a cliché to say it’s ‘a gallery without borders,’ but a lot of these Icelandic artists we represent, they’re living around the world. We have a Canadian artist who lives in London, and an Icelandic artist who lives in China. Does it really matter where people are from at this point?”

i8’s expansive approach has led to an exciting diverse programme of exhibitions. Recent shows have varied widely, from a minimalist two-person show featuring Sachiko M’s sound art installation and Ingólfur Arnarsson’s concrete works and works on paper, to Eggert Pétursson’s oil painting ‘portraits’ of Icelandic flora. But there are strands connecting the group, even if they’re not immediately apparent.

“We’re not just interested in the art. “We’re also interested in the artists’ wider work, their message, their need and longing to communicate something. The work has to capture us. To be honest, it usually interests us on an aesthetic level, but it definitely has to be intellectually or conceptually stimulating, too,” Börkur says.

“It’s pleasurable, for us, to surprise people, to give them something they didn’t see coming, but that makes sense to us. Sometimes people see threads that run through our programme, and I often agree with them when they point those out, but others can’t see any connection. To us, there’s always a perfect connection, even if we can’t easily define it.”

On A Small Rock

i8 has never been a public institution with a mandate to follow, and Börkur maintains that it’s the quality of their international roster that has sculpted i8’s identity and reputation, rather than any role the gallery might have played as a gateway for Icelandic art.

“We’re not paid for by the government in any way, and we’re not receiving any subsidies,” he says. “Early on we applied for funds and got support, but not now. The overall representation of nationalities might be an important issue in the wider world, of course, but it’s not the agenda of this gallery to be like the Olympic Games in that sense.”

That being said, Börkur feels confident that i8’s roster is a good example of Icelandic contemporary art. “I’m not shy about saying that,” he concedes, although he maintains that it isn’t the gallery’s goal. “A gallery is nothing more than a group of artists that are represented there. No matter where it is in the world, you like a gallery because it holds those 10 artists that you think are interesting and they do good shows. That’s what makes a good gallery.

“Critical thinking, the ability to take criticism, and to be criticised—in general, we just don’t have a lot of these qualities in Iceland”

If, however, we ended up with no Icelandic artists that might be kind of odd, so the balance has to be right.”

Running an art gallery from a country of 320,000 people does, however, present some economic and geographical challenges. “We’re on a tiny rock in the North Atlantic, and I can count the Icelandic collectors on my right hand,” he says. “So, we do more than 80% of our business elsewhere.”

With an international market that connects to artfairs, museums, collectors and viewers far outside of Iceland’s borders, it’s interesting to contemplate exactly who, and where, i8’s primary audience is. After all, the space is located far from the bright lights and big cities in which the majority of the world’s art business is based.

“It’s always pleasurable when people walk through the door and see the show,” Börkur says. “Fairs don’t do justice to art. They are sad places to show, with wobbly walls and strip lights. They’re necessary, and functional, and social, for sure. But gallery spaces are where you can really experience the work. Maybe the visitors don’t buy anything, or even say anything, but they come in to experience the art. And that matters to us.”

The upside is that being the sole Icelandic presence has proved useful in establishing i8’s identity at international art fairs, providing an important point of differentiation in a crowded, cosmopolitan environment.

“Of course, people connect our identity with Reykjavík,” he explains. “Being from here means a lot for how we’re perceived. The fact that we’re based in Reykjavík is beneficial—we’ve got big wings because of that. People are amazed by the creative output from this country, so we always have that in our back pocket when we go somewhere. If my gallery were in Copenhagen and I were running the exact same programme, I don’t know if it would be the same.”

A Lack Of Tradition

A common question for anyone connected to the Icelandic art scene is what stimulates such a rich culture in such a sparse populace. The answer is complex, of course, with different people citing everything from the dark winters and cultural isolation to the scarcity of critique or the absence of well-ploughed furrows of cultural history.

“It’s very hard to know what specific characteristics I would ascribe to Icelandic art,” Börkur says. “I mean, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, there was SÚM, an artist-run movement, and people talk about its legacy. We work with three guys from that time, and there’s no doubt that they had a direct influence on the art we see here today. There’s a connection to The Netherlands that still exists, and to post-Fluxus conceptual ideas—that simplicity, and the freedom to do unfamiliar things—maybe that legacy had a strong after-effect on this small community.”

The Fluxus group, which includes honorary Reykjavík citizen and active Reykjavík art presence Yoko Ono, has taken a fluid, inter-disciplinary and anti-commercial approach since the 1960s. Icelandic art group SÚM, founded by i8 artists Hreinn Friðfinsson and Sigurður Guðmundsson, took up these ideas, giving rise to a new experimental attitude in Icelandic art. And this, in turn, helped lay the foundation for the country’s art education when the School of Arts and Crafts [now operating under the LHÍ banner] opened in 1975.

But this is just one intriguing and formative fragment of the Icelandic arts’ identity, with a range of cultural and environmental factors discussed as possible reasons for the country’s creative streak.

“There are plenty of other things that influence us,” Börkur expands. “The environment, the light! The plentiful light of the summer, and the lack of it in the winter. Ólafur Ellíasson said the mountains in Iceland get their personality from the way the light falls on them. Mountains are pretty much the same everywhere, but the clarity and low light here, the long shadows and angles, they are unique.”

How about the cultural factors, the personal space and relative creative freedom that being in Iceland seems to allow? “I do think when Icelanders go abroad to study they get a little shock,” Börkur says. “There’s tradition, discipline, context, and it’s a slap in the face, and hard work to get to grips with that. Here in Iceland, there’s a freedom to try whatever you want, and to get away with it.

“It’s very hard to know what specific characteristics I would ascribe to Icelandic art,”

And that’s okay. It’s okay to try things and do things here.”

Whilst the lack of a rigid critical structure might breed a certain naiveté, it also gives rise to the creative freedom and playfulness that lies at the core of contemporary Icelandic culture. “Critical thinking, the ability to take criticism, and to be criticised—in general, we just don’t have a lot of these qualities in Iceland,” Börkur says. “But then, if we were more critical and disciplined, maybe we would not be what we are, maybe the creativity that is oozing out of this place wouldn’t exist. You get a slacker-ish element, but you also get fearlessness.”

This lack of self-consciousness is tangible in many of the i8 artists’ work. Ragnar Kjartansson, for example, thrives on the overlap between playful experimentation and provocation, moving towards the “controlled chaos” of collaborative performance in his recent output.

“I was with Ragnar and his friends when they were setting up ‘World Light’ in Vienna, and their fearlessness was just amazing,” Börkur says. “Nobody does that crazy kind of stuff. Maybe that’s what we are doing as a gallery. Maybe we are stupid and fearless, too. There’s definitely that sort of—‘I can do this, so why not?’”

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A Cultural Filter

At the same time Börkur sees i8’s work as quite traditional compared to the operations and methods of other art galleries. “We’re not a crazy experimental gallery compared to the things we see out in the world,” he admits. “A lot of people see what we are doing as really out there, but in the wider context, we’re a pretty ordinary gallery. We’re doing carefully thought-out works that are aesthetically amazing and conceptually interesting.”

And as well as sustaining the careers of artists and enabling their ideas, perhaps the role of the gallery is to use a critical eye to become a trusted filter—a trend that crosses over into how content curators work across the spectrum of contemporary culture.

“Much like a publisher or record label, a gallery is the point where a critical component comes into the process,” Börkur says, before shaking off any uncomfortable expectations of the gallery’s role. “But then, providing critical structure isn’t something that we’re duty-bound to, either. We run a gallery and curate and select and present. And when we show anything, it’s a risk. Sometimes people come and see a show and say, ‘oh that’s easy, you’ll sell all of this’ and sometimes they say, ‘how the hell will you sell any of this? Who buys this?’”

So the root of i8’s programme remains excitement for working with new art. “We don’t necessarily show work because we might sell it, which might be a dumb business formula. But then, we’re still here,” he says. “It’s hard to talk about the business, it’s crude and crass, and we’re interested in the art. But there are a few hundred square metres here, and six people working here. There’s no denying that we need to balance the books and sell the work to make it all happen.”

By following their intuition and staying independent and opinionated, i8’s risks continue to pay off. “Ultimately, we are doing it because we are passionate about the work,” smiles Börkur. “And it’s a great job. I love being in this position. There’s so much creativity and I feel very fortunate to operate in that space.”

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