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in conversation with
Aram Moshayedi


Text / Eva Heisler

Bjartur, the main character of Halldór Laxness' 1946 novel Independent People, is a poor sheep farmer who takes pride in composing poetry in the tradition of "men who only needed four lines to the verse, and yet you could read it in forty-eight ways and always it made sense." Bjartur disdains the modern lyric with its "grief and nerves and soggy soulfulness." Laxness' novel echoes debates about modern literature that animated public discourse in mid-twentieth-century Iceland. He was criticized for translations of medieval sagas into modern Icelandic and novels that lampooned common character types in Icelandic storytelling such as the heroic warrior, the romantic poet, and the long-suffering farmer. Because Iceland only gained independence from Denmark in 1944, debates about literary traditions entangled issues of national identity: the knit of rímur, like the knit of Iceland's unique wool, was central to the new nation's self-image.

Ólöf Nordal, Iceland Specimen Collection-Janus, 2003, c-print 80 x 120 cm (courtesy of the artist)

The mid-century preoccupation with poetry and storytelling forms an important background to the development of Icelandic conceptual art—characterized as "poetic-conceptualism" within Iceland's arts community.1 Two summer exhibitions— Hreinn Friðfinnsson's exhibition at London's Serpentine Gallery and Steingrímur Eyfjörð's representation of Iceland at the Venice Biennale—provide an opportunity to consider the ways in which Icelandic artists make use of Icelandic literary traditions within the context of post-conceptual practices. Friðfinnsson and Eyfjörð represent opposite ends of the spectrum. Friðfinnsson exemplifies Iceland's first generation of conceptual artists and his work conflates lyrical and Duchampian gestures. By contrast, Eyfjörð produces works that are intellectual, knotty, brooding, and comic. Within this spectrum, one finds Birgir Andrésson's investigations of national identity, Ólöf Nordal's explorations of folklore and natural history, and Ragnar Kjartansson's performances set among the trappings of nineteenth-century theater.

Hreinn Friðfinnsson, A Pair, 2004-2005, mirror with silver wooden frame, shoe, 40 x 50 x 100 cm (courtesy of the artist and Galerie Nordenhake, Berlin and Stockholm)

"Thorsteinn Surtr dreamed he was awake but everyone else was asleep; then he dreamed he fell asleep and everyone else woke up." The twelfth-century description of a dream that mirrors itself—a double-dream of solitude—is printed in large letters at the entrance to Hreinn Friðfinnsson's exhibition; it is a fitting epigraph to a career preoccupied with both doubling and doubt. A Pair, 2004-2005, consists of the artist's shoe placed in front of a mirror. Typically, pairs don't work if they are comprised of identical forms—two left shoes are useless. Here, as in many of Friðfinnsson's works, reflection secures completion. After a While, 1976, pairs the photograph of a piece of paper on a desk with the actual piece of paper; the penciled words reading, "After a while a shadow of a flying bird might pass across my hands." The words are transported from the scene of writing; they are the shadow of a passing bird. Movement, 1999, juxtaposes two photographs of the artist. Here, he reads a novel amid the clutter of his Amsterdam studio; there, he reads the same novel in a new, freshly painted, empty studio. The captions record the interruption of a sentence by the artist's move: the sentence begins beneath one photograph and is completed beneath the other. Story, at its simplest, is the linking of two events, the notation of a change. Friðfinnsson's stories—skeletal, fleeting—often rely on pairs of objects or images that frame the movement of ellipsis.

Hreinn Friðfinnsson, Movement, 1999, 2 photographs and text, 42 x 62 x 2 cm each (courtesy of the artist and Galerie Anhava, Helsinki)

House Project, 1974—one of his most influential works—consists of sixteen photographs that document a tiny house built by the artist in a lava field outside Reykjavik. The work was inspired by Pórberger Pórdarson's 1938 true story of an eccentric who attempted to build a house inside out—corrugated iron on the inside and wallpaper, a novelty at the time, on the exterior so that all could enjoy the patterned paper. The original gesture was generous and gregarious in nature—the sharing of visual pleasure. By contrast, Friðfinnsson's project emphasizes the solitude of the house. While bright curtains flutter on the wallpapered exterior, there is no one to witness this cheerful domesticity. Mossy lava rocks surrounding the house exist in real time but the diminutive house appears frozen in time. The stilling of narrative time is characteristic of Friðfinnsson's work. He often removes an image or passage from a larger narrative, such as a novel or historical source, and freezes it in the form of a set of objects or images. In this, he transforms narrative thrust into a lyric moment that registers its own passing.

Hreinn Friðfinnsson, details of House Project, 1974, 16 color photographs and typewritten text, 33 x 40 cm each (courtesy of the artist and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik, Iceland)

Birgir Andrésson, whose untimely death in November 2007 has shaken Iceland's arts community, built his career around the investigation of those rhetorical structures and material practices considered integral to Icelandic culture, including postage stamps, embroidery patterns, the flag, and ancient rhyme schemes. He was particularly interested in the development of the rhetoric of national identity through contact with foreigners. In Errors-Corrections, 1993, Andrésson reproduces the Icelandic alphabet, replacing accented letters and those letters unique to Icelandic with vague alphabetic forms based on the floor plans of turf houses. Only someone familiar with the Icelandic language would recognize that, for example, floor plans are used in lieu of the "ö" and "ý." If one reads Icelandic, the diagrams are errors; if one reads English, as I do, the diagrams "correct" the excesses of a foreign alphabet. The Icelandic alphabet adapts itself to the foreigner—and so ruins itself—by displaying remains of the past. Big House/Poem, 1993, consists of seventy-five hieroglyphic forms inspired, once again, by floor plans drawn from the ruins of turf farms. The forms are arranged on the wall in visual imitation of the rhyme scheme of the ferskeytla, a four-line poem with strict patterns of internal and external rhyme. The tight-fisted convolutions of traditional rímur are as different from the scatter of modern poetry as one can get, and yet the artist's poem—with its black characters that evoke both structure and perforation—shares modern poetry's emphasis on the page as an arena.

Birgir Andrésson, from the series Portrait, 2005, diasec print, 64 x 84 cm, ed. 3 (courtesy of the artist and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik, Iceland)

Beginning in the early 1990s, Andrésson produced Portrait, a series of text-works drawn from ancient parliamentary proceedings that describe missing persons and criminals on the loose. An excerpt from a 2005 Portrait reads:

His complexion is extremely pale, although there is some pigment underneath the skin, at once red and blue. His hands are freckled and he has developed the characteristic baldness caused by infection of the scalp. Instead of eyebrows, he has long red blotches which give the impression of being sore, as if hairs have recently been plucked.

The text-portraits are two-color silkscreen prints on aluminum or MDF board. At the bottom of each work, the artist records the printing formulas preceded by the adjective "Icelandic." For example, in a piece with a blue background and yellow lettering, one might see the following three lines of text in the lower left-hand corner: "COLOUR: / ICELANDIC 4020 B30G / ICELANDIC 0010 Y60R." The archaic language and odd details of the text-portraits are in striking contrast to the scientific precision of the color's recipe. Andrésson's signature practice of recording each color as "Icelandic" baffles identity in its insistence on identity.

Birgir Andrésson, Black and White Classics in Icelandic Colours (Psycho), 2005, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 60 cm; Black and White classics in Icelandic Colours (Der Blaue Engel), 2005, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 60 cm (courtesy of the artist and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik, Iceland)

In the recent series Black and White Classics in Icelandic Colours, 2004-2005, he continues to grapple with the circumference of the adjective "Icelandic" by painting the titles of black-and-white film classics—such as Psycho and Der Blaue Engel—on flat fields identified as "Icelandic colour." In this case, the adjective "Icelandic" denotes less an identity than a blind spot.

Ólöf Nordal, Iceland Specimen Collection-Raven, 2005, c-print, 60 x 90 cm (courtesy of the artist)

Ólöf Nordal's works explore folklore and its relationship to historical and scientific knowledge. The series Iceland Specimen Collection, 2005, includes, amongst other specimens, albino birds found in Iceland. Many folk stories recount the appearance of a white raven preceding an unusual event. Once the mysterious white raven gained scientific explanation, it became a mere albino raven, its whiteness signifying not revelation but absence of pigment. Nordal's work often restages images and objects that have been diminished by a move from narrative structures to classification systems.

Her recent video animations focus on the unnatural or odd couplings found in folklore. In Cock's Egg, 2005, the artist imagines the inside of a rooster's egg. In folk tradition, the expression "cock's egg" refers to the beastly offspring that results from the coupling of two worlds. Nordal's video displays a floating, pulsating fetus-like form with fully developed breasts. This fetus—both infantile and sexual—suggests the monstrous coupling of medical imaging technologies and pornography.

Ólöf Nordal, Cock's Egg, 2005, installation with beanbags and 3D animated video projections (collection of the National Gallery of Iceland, Reykjavik, Iceland; photo: Ivar Brynjólfsson); stills from Cock's Egg (courtesy of the artist)

The 2007 video Seal Maiden is based on the folk tale of a seal-woman who sheds her sealskin while ashore. Tantalized by her nakedness, a man abducts her and confiscates her sealskin so that she cannot return to the sea. Years later, after she has served as his wife and borne children, she finds her skin and escapes back to her watery home. There are several versions of this folktale in the Nordic countries; Faeroe Islanders believe that a seal is someone who committed suicide by walking into the sea. The video presents an underwater scene with light flickering through water, accompanied by the broken, undecipherable voice of a mezzo soprano. One catches glimpses of a fleeting shape: breast-like forms protrude from the top of a headless body whose fleshy folds resemble labia. The undulating seal-woman is not much more than sexual body parts. Composer Thurídur Jónsdóttir created the eerie soundtrack by cutting and re-assembling the soprano's rendition of a familiar Icelandic folksong. The broken voice underscores the diminishment of the female form swimming in the water. Nordal's reading of the folktale is an implicit critique of both environmental policies and the enslavement of women—a current problem in Iceland, where a growing number of foreign businesses import women to work in the sex industry.

Ólöf Nordal, stills from Seal Maiden, 2007, 3D animation, music: Thuríður Jónsdóttir, singer: Ásgerður Júníusdóttir, animation: Gunnar Karlsson (courtesy of the artist)

Eyfjörð's installations include framed texts, found objects, constructions, drawings, and photographs. His works actively engage images and ideas drawn from political theory, psychoanalysis, occult practices, medieval sagas, film, poetry, and advertising, among other discourses. Amid the multiplicity of texts, his use of line is the element that clearly stands out: quirky inventive drawings and handwritten texts document reading, reflections, questions, and conversations. The works' spatial organization echoes the exuberance of the comic strip with constellations of small images and text-bubbles that forge unexpected connections. Eyfjörð's layering of narratives explores the relationship between knowledge and imagination, and the works diagram the artist's search for multiple ways of knowing the world. The Saga of the Volsungs, 1987, developed out of his reading of this medieval saga and his reflections on the characteristics of a "hero." Watching Parsifal, 1992, was based on watching Hans-Jrgen Syberberg's film production of Wagner's Parsifal. The artist made drawings based on fragments of the Icelandic subtitles; the completed drawings were then partially covered with tarot readings of the drawings' future, generating a curious layering of retrospection and anticipation.

Steingrímur Eyfjörð, details of Projection, 2001, mixed media installation, variable dimensions (collection of the National Gallery of Iceland, Reykjavik, Iceland)

The installation Projection, 2001, was prompted by a mysterious discovery: in the process of remodeling her kitchen, Eyfjörð's friend discovered a small door nailed shut behind an appliance. The hidden compartment contained a woman's ripped undergarments, their style suggesting that they had been hidden for several decades. The artist decided to investigate the woman's identity by talking with those who knew the history of the house and by consulting with four clairvoyants. Texts transcribing each clairvoyant's speculations are paired with photographs of the artist dressed up in the mysterious woman's underclothes. What's more, he wears a hood inscribed with the clairvoyants' descriptions of the woman as he acts out scenarios using crude rubbery props representing a knife and blood. There is a disturbing misfit between the artist's male body and his acting the part of a woman in the aftermath of sexual violence. While drag exposes the degree to which gender is socially constructed and always performative, Eyfjörð's use of the trappings of drag—an impoverished drag constructed from clairvoyant readings—suggests the performative aspect of research.

Steingrímur Eyfjörð, detail of Camera Obscura, 2007, mixed media installation, variable dimensions (courtesy of the artist and Max Protetch Gallery, New York)

Eyfjörð not only engages literary and historical sources, he is also acutely sensitive to the ways in which imagination is shaped by capitalism, and acts of consuming are forms of storytelling. His exhibition for the Icelandic Pavilion in Venice featured a series of camera obscuras made from American cereal boxes, which were then used to photograph the Icelandic landscape. The photographs—murky, romantic—were exhibited next to the camera-eyes of Corn Flakes, Cocoa Puffs, and Lucky Charms.

Ragnar Kjartansson, views of The Great Unrest, 2005, performance/installation (courtesy of the artist, Galerie Adler, Frankfurt/New York, and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik, Iceland)

Ragnar Kjartansson's performances involve repetitive vocalizations over several hours. They have variously featured operatic high notes, bluesy moans, or short phrases, such as "I love you." Kjartansson's performances usually take place within staged settings that allude to traditional theater. For example, The Great Unrest was performed for six hours each day of the 2005 Reykjavik Arts Festival. It took place in a rural area several hours from the capital. Giant painted flames rose from the exterior of a small building that had once been the site of country dances and amateur theatricals. Inside, the artist sprawled on stage in a knight's armor, strumming a guitar and intoning wordless blues. Kjartansson's repetitive vocals can be read in relation to early 1970s performance art that tested an artist's endurance—a reading which he encourages. My interest in Kjartansson's performances, however, has to do with the experience and narration of endurance within Icelandic literary traditions—in particular, the relationship between vocalized repetition and endurance. As the poet Jóhannes Jónasson wrote, "The poorer the portion in the food-bowl / the richer the meter on the tongue." Meter makes time and passes time. Kjartansson's stubborn, interminable repetitions are both feats and means of endurance, which remind one of the stubborn repetitions of rímur to endure hardship. When Laxness' character Bjartur is caught in a storm while searching for a lost sheep, he spends a bitter sleepless night reciting "all his father's poetry, all the ballads he could remember, all his own palindromes backwards and forward in forty-eight different ways, whole processions of dirty poems, one hymn that he had learned from his mother, and all the lampoons that had been known in the Fourthing from time immemorial about bailiffs, merchants, and sheriffs."


1. The characterization of Icelandic conceptual art as more "lyrical" or "poetic" than its North American and European counterparts first surfaced in artist interviews and writings associated with the activities of SM, an informal group of artists that began in the mid-1960s to unleash Dada-like energies into the Icelandic art scene. This claim, however, has not yet been developed or historically examined.

Eva Heisler is a poet and art critic who divides her time between Iceland and Germany. She teaches in the University of Maryland's European Division.

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