The Culture House (Safnahúsið) may have just been restored to its original 1906 name, but it has reopened to new life and purpose with the inspired and inspiring exhibition ‘Points of View’.
An exploration of Icelandic visual heritage, ‘Points of View’ brings together widely diverse objects from six major cultural institutions, with the fresh eye and sensibility of a contemporary art installation. The wonderful result is an impeccably arranged treasure trove waiting to be discovered in the nooks and crannies of one of the country’s most beautiful houses. It is the grand-scale equivalent of a rummage through your grandmother’s attic (if in addition to family photos and embroidered pillows your grandmother also collected contemporary art, stuffed falcons, religious statues, illuminated manuscripts, plant specimens, and diagrams of various beard styles through the ages).
Blissfully free of academic explanations and contextualising, the exhibition instead loosely groups its pieces according to Icelanders’ perspectives of themselves and their world, establishing a refreshingly human orientation in which an object’s significance is determined in equal parts through the creative expression of its maker and the experience of the viewer. (There is one indisputable national treasure also on display. I won’t give it away here, but it is worth the trip in and of itself.)
‘Points of View’ is beautifully and intelligently conceived, but it is also full of heart and humour. On the day after the opening, the Culture House is filled with at least two generations of adults laughing and reminiscing while children play in the many irresistable discovery areas. The exhibition’s tone seems to come directly from its curator, Markús Þór Andrésson, an energetic young contemporary art specialist with a dress sense circa 1900. Trained at Bard College, Markús’s curatorial credits include the Sequences Art Festival (2013); ‘Without Destination’ at the Reykjavík Art Museum (2011); and (with Dorothée Kirch) Ragnar Kjartansson’s ‘The End’ at the Venice Biennale (2009).
Markús walks me through the exhibition and tells me more about his fascinating, if unlikely, collaboration with the National Museum, the Natural History Museum, the National Art Gallery, the National Archive, the National and University Library, and the Árni Magnússon Institute.
There are no signs, no descriptions, and no explanations…
Just the basics. If there is a title or a year or a self-description, or if the artist is known, we have that. I thought it was very important that people be able to experience a show like this—just visually—to make connections between the pieces without knowing too much about them.
There’s a simple sentence a curator I admire once said: “You don’t go to a concert to learn about music, it’s just to enjoy the music.” The same goes for visual experience. You don’t go to learn about it, you just want to enjoy it.
Wasn’t that a controversial approach?
Yes, it was very much debated. People want to educate people. That’s basically what many of these institutions are obliged to do. But there are many ways to do that.
I was campaigning for a kind of active experience, to have to compare and contrast and look around. Not just to be told. It’s not a new thing anywhere else, but here in Iceland you don’t necessarily invite people to discover things on their own. We usually just mediate an exhibition that’s been done in an institution and then present it. But the result is that people feel like the institution is speaking to them from above, that they just have to listen and learn.
It’s a totally different experience to claim ownership, to know that this is your heritage and you know it as well as anybody else. The people who made these works of art were not necessarily specialists in their fields. They are maybe amateurs, or just trying to express themselves. We’re trying to focus on this visual language that everyone should be able to engage with. For those who want go deeper into things, there are also the options of walking through with an audio guide, reading the catalogue, or making use of one of the study rooms.
I’m really intrigued how you got away with it! I would think the museums had very specific ideas about the importance of certain pieces…
There were a lot of discussions. Every institution has some sort of thoughts about their pieces like that. Of course, there are pieces here that are important canonised pieces, but in some cases, I had to persuade my collaborators in the committee that my personal interest was also of value, even if what I found curious was insignificant in the context of the institution. Like with the manuscripts. The law books are their least favorite objects because there are so many of them. It’s always more or less the same text so there’s nothing new in the 300 law books they have, but the one Edda they have from that period is immensely significant. But it’s just text. It’s not fun to look at. In their canon it might be the most important piece, but I was not interested in it in this particular context. I just wanted the law books because they are pretty. And they thought, “But these are not important! Why don’t you want the good stuff?”
You were trained as a contemporary art curator…
Art since the 1960s was the focus of the programme.
Was your curatorial approach inspired by any particular movement in contemporary art?
There’s this tendency (like in the last Biennale and the last Documenta), where within the traditional art context you would stumble across some curious visual items made by scientists, researchers, outsider artists, and the like. It made the viewing experience all the more rich and enjoyable. It’s also very close to many artists’ practices. Here, you have Unnur Örn’s shows. He’s an artist who creates his book works, installations, and exhibitions by bringing found objects together.
Through the process of just grouping or categorising them?
Yes, exactly. And there is a series of exhibitions that the artist Einar Garibaldi has curated. He did a show years ago that I was always really impressed by called ‘Flying over Hekla’ where he looked at the idea of Hekla as a mountain and as a cultural concept within different historical contexts. He brought together all sorts of things like research material and documents and geographical field research and art. He also did a show about the picture of Þingvellir—how Þingvellir has been created as an image through art rather than as a natural experience or a landscape in itself. So, I’ve always been very fascinated by this sort of approach.
Did anything surprise you in the process of putting the show together?
It was surprising to me to see how rich the story was. I was very much afraid that we might end up with a show with just a lot of church pieces and some manuscripts. I was ignorant of what we had, like I guess most people are. So, that was a big surprise for me, the range of interesting stuff that we just don’t see displayed.
Somebody told me at the opening that they were so grateful, that they hadn’t realized we had an art history in Iceland. People feel like it’s their own and are realizing something about themselves. That’s a beautiful reaction. The literature scene had that experience years ago when everyone just thought about the Eddas and the Sagas, and then, Laxness. Just those two pillars with nothing in between. But in the 1950s and 60s, they discovered that 17th, 18th, and 19th century literature is interesting. There are no peaks—no sagas or Laxness—but there is a really rich unbroken thread going through. I guess it’s this picture we need to introduce in our visual culture as well.
Maybe by putting things together the way we are doing in this exhibition, it opens up a new way of researching these things; coming to some kind of a conclusion about them, or knowing more about them. But it’s also the case in art as in language. If you lose the language but still have books in that language it’s just scribbling that you can’t access in any way. It has to be kept alive somehow. I have the same feeling toward these objects. You have to keep them alive and you do that only by thinking about them and putting them in a new context. The artist had a certain intention. With the church pieces you know the intention was obviously to hang them in a church to serve a religious purpose, but then they become pieces of art in a gallery and are looked upon as such. So, although the intention may have already been broken in most of these pieces, there is still some kind of respect you can pay towards them by trying to keep them alive.
Points Of View
Tuesday – Sunday: 10:00 – 17:00
Hverfisgata 15, 101 Reykjavík