February 17 – March 26, 2022
It is wonderful to be back in Reykjavik, a beloved city for me that I have visited many times—wonderful, but also strange. For the past three months Covid-19 (the Omicron variant) has been surging in heavily vaccinated Iceland. Many of my Reykjavik friends have gotten ill, some quite recently, although cases have tended to be fairly mild.
This being Europe, the war in Ukraine feels a lot closer, compared with New York. A few days ago, a sizable pro-Ukraine, anti-Putin protest (including Ukrainian kids with small blue and yellow flags on their cheeks) started at the renowned Hallgrímskirkja church and proceeded to the Russian Embassy, a grim compound that looks straight out of Soviet times. The mayor passionately spoke, also a noted writer. A Russian woman spoke side by side with a Ukrainian man. She said that were she in Russia, she could be sentenced to fifteen years for her words. According to a recent Gallup poll in Iceland, ninety-nine percent of respondents oppose Putin’s murderous war.
And at this fraught, difficult time, the arts are flourishing here, with the excellent concert series Dark Music Days, the robust performance series Performance Nebula at the Reykjavik Art Museum, a major survey exhibition of brilliant Icelander Birgir Andrésson (1955–2007) also at the museum, and compelling exhibitions in the city’s small yet energetic gallery scene.
I continue to be amazed that a country this small (population about 369,000) consistently produces such exemplary art. There are far more people in Staten Island than in all of Iceland. Save for the Wu-Tang Clan and a few other exceptions, I’m pretty sure that Iceland is producing by far the superior art. And—oh yes—the great, great Icelandic band Sigur Rós is reuniting, and will soon embark on a world tour, including three New York City concerts in June.
Hildigunnur Birgisdóttir’s ultra-precise and enchanting exhibition of somewhat familiar, but also mysterious and eccentric, sculptures and objects at Reykjavik mainstay i8 Gallery is a total standout. Despite its startlingly apt title “Peace,” the exhibition is not a response to Russia’s (really Vladimir Putin’s) war on Ukraine and was in the works long before the war started. Birgisdóttir admitted to me, however, that she may have intuited impending mayhem while in Moscow in December, when she participated in the exhibition To Moscow! To Moscow! To Moscow! curated by Ragnar Kjartansson and Ingibjörg Sigurjónsdóttir at the V-A-C Foundation’s GES-2 House of Culture.
A year or so ago in a hardware store, Birgisdóttir stumbled on fabric spray paint with a perplexing image on the can: a white T-shirt, blue peace sign against a red background, and underneath the word “PEACE” in black letters. Exactly why a German product would feature this neo-Hippie image is perplexing, as if it were some weird marketing glitch.
With PEACE (all works 2022), Birgisdóttir has materialized this perplexing image as a striking mixed media installation; she has transmuted a pretend marketing image into physical fact. Two of the spray cans are displayed on separate walls. Nearby, a sweeping photo backdrop, its aqua-blue color perfectly matching that of the cans, courses down the wall and juts across the floor. An actual white, folded T-shirt at the bottom is a spot-on version of the one on the cans. But this is when things turn even more compelling and multifaceted. The photo backdrop seems curiously immense, hinting at a large monochrome painting (the whole ensemble with its colors and shapes is quite painterly) but also the vast sky and maybe the ocean as well, both visible through the gallery’s front windows. The solitary T-shirt seems vulnerable, almost overwhelmed by the backdrop. The peace sign and word PEACE seem beleaguered. However unintentionally, however serendipitously, Birgisdóttir’s really smart work connects, visually and emotionally, with our traumatic time, right now. It is also gorgeous. Birgisdóttir has a marvelous way of teasing frank beauty and poetry, so to speak, from the unlikeliest of sources.
Birgisdóttir—among the best of a rising generation of adventurous and compelling Icelandic artists—often works with found objects, including in this case a commercial product, but also insignificant things like the tiny plastic tabs on new clothes that one casually plucks off and discards, old computer keys, and a miniscule scrap of paper: throwaway things, global capitalism’s ignoble detritus. She transforms these lowly things by enlarging them (often providing the exact scale of enlargement) and sometimes rendering them in different materials. They emerge as fresh and surprising, cathartic and questing.
Some of these commonplace objects don’t even have names, or none that I can find, in either English or Icelandic, for instance the little, curving, plastic doodads, often black, by which socks or underwear often hang from a rack in a store. One, enlarged 19 times, mostly black, and made from a discarded gym mat, has peculiar grace and power (1:19). Hanging from the wall near the front window and enticing passersby like a product in a store, it’s now pliable and curiously sensual. It could be an abstract sculpture or an abstract version of a person dancing. It loosely suggests a musical note. It could be a mystical symbol or a contemporary version of an ancient rune. It’s riveting, and I love it. Across the room, seemingly piercing a column, is Birgisdóttir’s rendition of one of those miniscule, spade-shaped plastic tabs that one finds on new clothes (1:8). It’s eight times bigger than usual and made of “repurposed plastic,” meaning it’s a big plastic tab made from many smaller ones. This unobtrusive work with several colors is entrancing once one notices it. In Birgisdóttir hands, trifling, mass-produced objects become agents of wonder.
Three enlarged computer keys, each made form MDF, and of differing, muted colors, are on the floor, each with one side raised like on an actual keyboard. Each has a slightly different glyph; the three titles are ↵ (enter), ↲ (enter), and ↩ (enter). These outsize computer keys, angling in different directions, evoke mutability and multiplicity. Conflating representation and abstraction, computer keys and geometric shapes, they are wonderful, understated sculptures.
Much of the contemporary Icelandic art that I’ve cherished through the years is not really minimalist, in the sense of being influenced by Western-style minimalism, but instead elemental which, for me, fits with this most elemental of countries and landscapes. This art, while varied, tends to be uncluttered, visually engaging but not flashy, with a keen feeling for materials and animated by focused ideas. Birgisdóttir’s art fits the bill but with a twist. In rapidly urbanizing (almost two thirds of the population now live in Greater Reykjavik), business and consumer-oriented Iceland, she turns the tiny parts of capitalism into absorbing artworks that evoke world processes of decay and regeneration, and that sometimes suggest connections with the cosmos.
Witness the two quite large, colorful works on opposite walls, each an ink jet print on corrugated cardboard, each slightly askew and, again, very painterly. In fact, this whole, exquisitely installed exhibition with its several components feels like an immersive painting installation sans paint. Both works, hilariously titled ?, are greatly enlarged versions of a tiny scrap of paper that Birgisdóttir has kept, although she has forgotten the origins (maybe wrapping paper, maybe something else). The results are stunning.
In one, two multicolored, spiraling bands float in a blueish/purple expanse that conjures both the night sky and deep universe; a bulging yellow-gold shape, rimmed with black, protrudes on the left. In the other, a spiraling band floats in an inky, dark expanse with two small, yellow shapes (one fan-shaped, the other an off-kilter diamond) floating nearby. The spirals are, presumably, from commercial design, but also suggest both DNA strands and cosmic bodies, like nebula. Look closely and both works seem pixilated, with thousands of dots, but those dots also loosely connote planets and stars. Installed fairly high on the walls, these novel works are festive, but also very thoughtful. A tiny scrap of paper—and things just don’t get more insignificant than that—becomes expansive and quietly sublime.