Hannes Sigurdsson


Because of Iceland’s sparse population and relative isolation until the mid-1940s the rise and fall of the art and the socio-political factors infringing on it can be studied almost as if under laboratory conditions. This isolation is such that some foreign companies are in fact seriously contemplating using Iceland as testing ground for their products; one can already spot the label: Made in China / Consumer Approved in Iceland.

Without much generalisation, the evolution of the visual arts in Iceland in the 20th century can be divided into three consecutive stages ­ landscape, abstraction and Minimalism ­ each marked by dwindling public interest and reduced sales. During the first period, between around 1900 until the beginning WW2, artistic production was almost entirely restricted to landscape painting as the political leaders prepared the ground for the nation’s independence under a new institutional and economic umbrella. Easel painting was introduced into a kind of visual vacuum around the turn of the century as it was largely without a precedent. An inhospitable nature, volcanic eruptions and harsh winters had plagued the nation from the time of settlement, resulting in little fondness for the landscape, and there was a weak sense of common identity. The task of the so-called pioneers of painting thus became that of editing the scenery according to the Romantic vocabulary of the day and boosting the national image. In effect, the land was virtually recolonised on pictorial grounds.

From the very outset it was realised in the political camps of the Icelandic legislative assembly (Althingi) that painting could also be of invaluable service in demonstrating to other nations, and Denmark in particular, that Iceland was in no respect to be regarded as culturally backward. The expectations that attended this new enterprise manifest themselves clearly in the debate that took place in the Icelandic Parliament in 1896, when budget makers took under consideration applications from three artists who wished to enter the Royal Academy in Denmark. As one politician put it: ‘The aesthetic sensibility of the nation needs to be enhanced [. . .] Of all the arts, none will prove to be as useful in this country as painting [. . .] Painting can easily thrive here in Iceland. Icelandic waterfalls, mountains and pastures are always close at hand. A local painter would vastly increase the knowledge of foreigners about the country.’ (Althingistidindi, 1895.) That the painter should pre-eminently occupy himself with rendering landscapes had, in other words, already been decided on before any real painterly activity took place in the country.

There were no controversial or misunderstood artistic figures in Iceland during the first three decades of this century. Neither can the artists be seen as operating in flux between the public and private realms of cultural exchange because one was very much the other. An unprecedented number of original artworks were bought to decorate people’s homes until the late 1960s while elsewhere in Europe and America they tended to be concentrated in public institutions or in the hands of prominent collectors. Since then only Die Neue Wilde gave a brief spurt to sales during the booming 1980s. As the city of Reykjavik began to rise into prominence along with a full-fledged bourgeoisie culture Iceland’s cultural homogeneity was gradually eroded. This coincided with the decisive breakdown of the landscape painting into its atomic constituents and abstracted ‘essentials’ by way of heterogeneous stylistic conventions and painterly formulae borrowed from the continental avant-garde. Style was rarely cultivated by Icelandic artists in the 1920s and 1930s for its own sake. Rather, style was something that the young painter experimented with and invented new meanings for, mixing it in a variety of ways with the more acceptable notions of the Icelandic landscape. Above all, style was the public enemy of the State. Style, in whatever form it appeared, was fiercely attacked by political leaders as being foreign, a concept of otherness, which in turn could be employed to measure the ‘Icelandicness’ of a given piece of art. Ideally the artist should possess no style at all, he should be ‘styleless.’

Abstract art was ushered in during the early 1940s as Iceland stood at a crossroads where the homogeneous order was breaking up. Whereas the homogeneous reality tends to present itself as a strictly defined and identified object, the heterogeneous reality is more of a force or a shock: It presents itself as a charge, as a value, passing from one object to another in a more or less abstract fashion, almost if the change was taking place not in the world of objects but only in the judgement of the subject. Abstract art literally flooded the scene, and with the establishment of the September Group in 1947, displaying only those paintings that were carried out in the mode of abstraction, Modernism eventually came to triumph. Those working in any other idiom than abstraction and Concrete art between the late 1840s and early 1970s were literally excommunicated and scorned in the press by the critics, over whom the artists seemed to have absolute control.

Inspired by Conceptual and Performance art, Minimalism and the Fluxus movement, the fourth generation of painters and sculptors came to the forefront with the establishment of the SÚM movement in 1965. >From then on public interest quickly deteriorated and sales of progressive art came to a halt, although the middle class still kept its allegiance to the modernists. Members of the SÚM generation were later taken into reconciliation and a handful of works have been purchased by the National Gallery of Iceland and the Municipal Museum of Reykjavik since the early 1980s. The relationship between the museums and progressively minded artists has increasingly been one of economics as there are hardly any customers to be had outside these institutional walls. This may in part explain a certain uniformity of artistic practice in Iceland and its alienation from the masses. As a legacy of the bourgeoisie and the struggle for independence, the Municipal Museum and the National Gallery, doubling as an embassy for state officials on festive occasions, are having serious difficulty in attracting the crowds. One may be considered fairly lucky bumping into a couple of artists, the odd tourist or a busload of school children during the weekday hours. Add to that an almost total absence of any gallery system or independent exhibition spaces in a city of 160 thousand inhabitants with approximately 700 active and highly educated artists, some of whom are actually quite sophisticated. Commercial galleries dedicated to contemporary art have occasionally shown up only to disappear a few years later, and today there is only one worth mentioning. In that respect the Icelandic art world may very well have entered the fourth stage of dissolution whereby the only means of practising art is ‘to be an artist in the head’ as a young student happily put it.

Can the arts in Iceland then legitimately be pronounced dead, clinically speaking? Too many artists and virtually no demand for their work. Well, apparently there is life after death. Despite the lack of a conventional gallery system and financial resources, a situation that most would deem hopeless, the art life has never been more vibrant, fertile or socially engaging than in recent years. The whole contemporary art scene has become a large self-supporting underground river breaking up onto the surface whenever it gets the chance, normally in the most unlikely of places, such as bars, malls, clothes stores, restaurants, shopping windows and private residencies. These are free of charge, whereas the municipal borough museums sustain themselves by collecting substantial sums from the artists who exhibit there. With as many as twenty-five to thirty openings a month in established galleries and museums during the high season, this exuberance would population-wise equal an estimated 1.200 shows a month in New York and about 250 in Oslo. Lately a series of miniature artist-run spaces have emerged to cope with the need, like Gallery Acoustic Canal (an answering machine), Gallery Gulp! (housed in a shoebox), Gallery Badge (operating on the chest of various celebrity carriers), and Gallery Begga (an artist fronting as a gallery).



This is roughly the background, then, against which I began mounting exhibitions in Reykjavik in December 1990. So far they number about 120, most of them carried out at Café Mokka (76), the Municipal Cultural Centre of Reykjavik (14) and Gallery Sjonarholl (19), which I have directed on a non-profit bases for the past two years. Though I am probably the first and only independent curator in Iceland to perform consistently outside the institutional framework, I prefer to regard myself as an independent bottler. Selecting and packaging the visual material for cultural consumption has usually involved an intimate collaboration with the artist, often to the degree where I may have overstepped my curatorial premises to figure in as a co-author.

Mokka has provided an ideal ground for testing the potential of communal interaction because of its unique position as a gallery and a public forum and one of the most frequented artists’ café in Reykjavik. Founded in 1958, this tiny locale has housed an unbroken string of about 600 exhibition that are documented by thousands of nail-holes left on the grease and smoke-saturated sack-clothed panels surrounding the space. As such Mokka is as far removed from the imposing, surgical atmosphere apparently required for any serious artistic statements as one could ever imagine. Exhibitions come and go during the night without ceremony in this unassuming environment that has been a second home to many of its customers over the decades: Artists, poets, composers, actors, philosophers, eccentrics, the mentally unstable, politicians, journalists, working class heroes, upper class housewives and just plain folk in off the street. The history of the Icelandic vanguard, if you will, is succinctly reflected through Mokka from the time of the abstract generation and onwards, but in addition there has always been strong convention for allowing beginners, amateurs and misfits to present their visions on the walls.

Taking advantage of this long and highly eclectic tradition, I resolved to bring Mokka’s exhibition policy to its anarchistic or interdisciplinary conclusion, albeit in a very controlled manner, so that the viewer might never suspect what was coming up next. I have even managed to surprise myself a couple of times by mounting exhibitions solely on the account that they did not appeal to me at all. How alternative can one get? Shows with established local artists, college graduates and Sunday painters have been interspersed by group and thematic exhibitions, 17th century Indian miniatures, 18th century Japanese wood-block prints and many of the household names in the contemporary art world, thus transforming Mokka into a veritable melting pot of high and low. At one end of the international spectrum are artist like Jenny Holzer (November 1994), Peter Halley (February 1995), Carolee Schneemann (August 1994) and Komar and Melamid (January 1996), who did their number on ‘Iceland’s Most Wanted and Least Wanted Paintings,’ and at the other hand such infamous artists as Joel-Peter Witkin (July 1994), Bob Flanagan (April 1995), Sally Mann (May 1993) and Andres Serrano (June 1996). To display these artists within the confines of a gallery or a museum is one thing, and to have them present their cases to the moral majority in a coffeehouse is an entirely different story.

But there is more to it. Although it has been more of a rule than an exception for Icelandic artists to further their education abroad, mainly elsewhere in Europe and America, activism and socially oriented movements on a par with Dada, Futurism, Surrealism, Neo-Geo, body politics and hard-core feminism have never properly managed to cross our boarders. It is almost as if that way of thinking had been confiscated by the customs. A more probable reason, however, for this shortage of aggressive confrontational measures is the smallness and genealogical interconnectedness of the community, which has hampered the possibility of an alternative coalition. The arts in Iceland have invariably tended towards the lyrical and exiguous, reticently backing up the mainstream. Media reception has tended to promote this levelling-off of any extreme tendencies with good-natured acceptance of experimentation, avoiding confrontation, but gently steering any discussion towards the middle ground. As I will explain later the media play a key-role, if a somewhat passive one, in the Icelandic art scene.

With this in mind my endeavours can best be described as a series of experiments where Mokka has served both as the lab and platform from which to inject alien or alternative concepts into the rhetorical orbit of the media. Derrida believes Hegel was right when he urged his fellow philosophers to read the newspapers carefully every day, for if the intellectual community wants to take on more responsibility it must realise how the media operates and study what lies behind it. The news or information industry, which most of us take for granted, literally fabricates the issues at stake by filtering, prioritising and serving up opinions to suit forces and interests that neither the producers nor the recipients are fully aware of. At the top of the news list are local events considered to be of vital importance to the nation, its tradition, mode of production and purported way of living: First the state of the fishing industry, strikes, negotiations and the sports; then accidents and the politicians, but rarely politics, and finally the latest developments in the Western world. At the bottom rung is a slot for art and culture that can also be used to accommodate such glad tidings as, for instance, the birth of a little baby panda in the Peking zoo, depending on the availability of up-beat material. Because of this automatic classification most human activity remains in the shadow, everything that is violently exotic or intrinsically detrimental to the system. Ironically, the same goes for remote foreign affairs in our continually shrinking universe, unless they qualify as a catastrophe.

But in order to maintain itself, the media has to stay eminently flexible, too, always on the lookout for special interests groups, collective statements as well as the quaint, sensational and shocking. Access to the media limelight is subject to personal connections, how the message is prepared and how interesting and intelligible it is estimated to be to the public. While recycling opinions is the primary commodity of the media, presented after the fact as the ‘core of the matter,’ and though it thrives on market research and telephone polls, it seeks to establish its credibility by indicating that ‘nothing gets excluded.’ The fact is, of course, that besides dissipating the democratic contract and fabricating consent for whatever may be called for, the main aim of the media’s public relations is that of promoting its own sales. And its ability to ‘stay on top of the situation’ should never be underestimated.

artists I critics I gallery I site I central I office I links I e-mail I icelandic