Places for Sculpture: Iceland

Nasher Sculpture Center
Jul 12, 2019 3:39PM

There are no megalithic monuments in Iceland, no equivalents to Stonehenge or Carnac. The island was without a prehistoric population; no one—apart from an occasional Celtic monk—lived there until the island was settled by Scandinavians around 900 A.D. Those who arrived were restricted to the fertile costal fringe, their backs turned to the interior of volcanoes and glaciers. That inhospitable, internal unknown is the geological testament to Iceland’s formation through the cleaving apart of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. In Iceland the landscape is constantly being made: The island of Surtsey, near the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago off the south coast of Iceland, appeared out of the sea almost overnight in 1965. Everything can seem new in Iceland, the land and the people, and with a population of around 330,000 there is a proximity, familiarity,and immediacy to political engagement. The island’s distinctive sculptural history echoes these conditions. There is often an attention to the uncanny landscape, or a social imperative that informs the work—at times read through the history and narrative found in the sagas—and this history and context have resulted in various international artists being drawn to the island.

Samúel Jónsson’s sculpture garden at Selárdalur, Iceland. Photo credit: Gerhard König

Iceland’s art history begins with the modern; Einar Jónsson (1874–1954) is confidently referred to as Iceland’s first sculptor. Although sculpted artifacts from the time of settlement have been discovered, Jónsson is the first to undertake an academic approach to the discipline. Given the absence of opportunities to study in Iceland, he moved to Copenhagen and then Rome. With a basis in classical sculpture he sought to create his own allegorical visual language, which asserted Icelandic heritage. This melding of traditions finds eloquent form in the museum he designed in Reykjavík, which opened in 1924.

The absence of advanced art education in Iceland necessitated periods of study abroad for most aspiring artists, and Copenhagen was often the obvious place to start, given Iceland being a Danish dependency at the time (only gaining full independence in 1944). Notably, most artists would spend extended periods in continental Europe and then return to Iceland. This ebb and flow continues to this day, althoughnow the reach is further and with greater reciprocity—artists from abroad have chosen to live, or spend extended periods, in Iceland, such as Dieter Roth, Roni Horn, and Christoph Büchel. This connectivity has developed a specific richness in the artistic community in Reykjavík, where the diversity of influences and approaches becomes filtered through the cultural and geographic specifics of Iceland.

Owing to the pragmatism of many of the inhabitants, whose remote existence necessitates a self-sufficiency, there is often a familiarity with materials and inventiveness. As a result, art often happens in places beyond Reykjavík and by those not reached by art education. In the valley of Selárdalur in the Vestfirðir, a farmer, Samúel Jónsson (1884-1969), lived an isolated existence, but from the 1950s created his own concrete world around his farmstead. The buildings andsculptures relate to the wild life of Iceland as well its history, with sculptural quotations of more distant works.

Elín Hansdóttir: Installation view, Disruption – Ásmundur Sveinsson and Elín Hansdóttir, Reykjavik Art Museum – Ásmundarsafn, Reykjavik, 2016. Photo: Pétur Thomsen. Courtesy of the artist and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik

During the modern era, a steady stream of artists left Iceland to study in mainland Europe. Among those were Gunnfríður Jónsdóttir (1889–1968) and Ásmundur Sveinsson (1893–1982), who were married in 1924, and had spent periods in Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Paris. Both had studied with the Swedish sculptor Carl Milles (1875–1955) and their work is inflected, in different ways, from a filtering of figuration derived from Rodin. Yet in the later work of Ásmundur Sveinsson, the bodies in the sculptures became amorphous, on the edge of abstraction, and continued to relate to the literary history and landscape of Iceland. In 1983, his fantastical studio and home became part of the Reykjavík Museum. The structure—a combination of platonic forms and allusions to ancient Egypt—houses his work and is often used for exhibitions that connect his practice and concerns with contemporary artists. The 2016 exhibition Disruption is a particularly resonant example of this, in which the artistElín Hansdóttir (b. 1980), through the combination of her own work with that of Ásmundur’s, asserted a common sculpturalroot but one that became played through a type of fatalism, at once art historical and political.

From the late 1950s a distinct avant-garde emerged in Iceland, antagonistic to the mainstream of Icelandic art. The artists involved also created more complex relationships with contemporaries in mainland Europe. Central to this was the Swiss-German artist Dieter Roth (1930-1998), who moved to Iceland in 1957 and brought with him his post-Fluxus approach to art-making, which resonated and stimulated new conceptual methods among Reykjavík artists, such as Magnús Pálsson (b. 1929) and Jóhann Eyfells (b. 1923, and who now lives outside of Fredericksburg, Texas), both of whom rejected the formalism of postwar Icelandic art. Magnús, who came from a theatrical background, was creating happenings and performances as well as objects and books, often of an absurdist nature. Magnús and Dieter Roth also collaborated directly in forming the shop Kúlan in Reykjavík in 1961, along with the architect Manfreð Vilhjálmsson (b. 1928), in which they sold their own designed furniture, as well as domestic products created by other artists. Being mass-produced, the furniture provided a contemporary alternative to the usual staid options to be found in Reykjavík stores, and it also articulated the social concerns of the artists to both provide inexpensive domestic alternatives and also help create new communal spaces for interaction.

From the 1960s on there was a period of heightened experimentation within art practices, which included the founding of the influential art movement SÚM, which organized exhibitions and later ran a gallery that afforded with work often related to a post-Fluxus aesthetic, and included music and performance, yet during the 1970s an increased engagement with conceptual approaches became evident, but one which was often characterized by a dry wit. Such is evident in the work of artists like Hreinn Friðfinnsson (b.1943) and Sigurður Guðmundsson (b. 1942). Even for these more conceptual artists, the landscape of Iceland remains a source and context. And for others like Ragna Róbertsdóttir (b. 1945) who uses the materials from which Iceland is created, particularly the volcanic rocks, there is a literal engagement with the landscape. Ragna creates wall works using shards of volcanic rock that she has collected from volcanic regions. The works are between sculpture and painting, their surfaces appearing to modulate dependent on the viewers’ position.

Sigurður Guðmundsson: Mountain, 1980. Silver print on fiberbased paper, 83 x 105 cm. Courtesy of the artist and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik

This use of the landscape as extended studio and workshop is also evident with the work of Icelandic Danish artist Olafur Eliasson (b. 1967), who has recently opened a satellite studio in Reykjavík that will specifically be a place for experimentation, operating as an aid to access the more remote areas of Iceland. This allure of the emptiness and proximity to an almost primordial nature has resulted in Roni Horn (b. 1955) having had a studio there for a number of years and more recently, in 2007, opening Vatnasafn or The Library of Water, in the small town of Stykkishólmur. Housed in a former library on a hill above the town, its large windows provide views across the harbor and out to sea. The installation is a form of material archive that distills the inherent poetry to be found in the describing of nature. Twenty-four large glass columns containing water from different glaciers around Iceland punctuate the main space, and embedded in the floor are words, in Icelandic and English, that describe the weather. In the 19th century the building was the initial location to scientifically record the meteorology of Iceland. Horn has collected a vernacular form of this reporting by accumulating oral accounts by locals describing the weather.

This appeal to make work of and about the landscape also led to the American sculptor Richard Serra (b. 1939) being invited to create a work for the island of Viðey off Reykjavík in 1990. The installation, formed of 18 basalt columns, has a subtlety in which pairs of columns are set vertically in the ground to frame views and describe topographies rather than assert a form within nature. Across the island in Eiðar, near the eastern fjords, another American incursion—but of a rather different temperament—can be found. Set amid a dwarf birch forest is an approximation of a Macy’s department store—reduced in scale and empty—created in 2004 by the American artists Jason Rhoades (1965-2006) and Paul McCarthy (b. 1945). It is a totem and a relic of a rotting consumerism. That same year, the artists made an exhibition at the Kling & Bang gallery in Reykjavik titled Sheep Plug, which also involved a performative work in town. The Macy’s building is also a dislocated memory of those events, a hole punctured through the corrugated iron on the gable end.

Hreinn Friðfinnsson: House Project, 1974. Mixed media. Courtesy of the artist and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik

Near this dislocated Macy’s, but across a high mountain pass, is Seyðisfjörður, a town of a few hundred people and where the ferry arrives from Denmark. It was also the occasional home for Dieter Roth during the last decade of his life. His presence resulted in the establishment of Skaftfell Arts Centre, which continues in the ethos of Roth of creating a social environment for exhibitions and artist residencies in which the restaurant and bar serve as a focal point for locals and visitors. The bar was built by Bjorn Roth, Dieter’s son, and was created using Dieter’s furniture designs and principles, as well as including his print series and a library of his own artist books. The town has become a vibrant community for artists with Skaftfell’s activities reaching beyond the gallery to realize projects such as the permanent artwork Tvisöngur by German artist Lukas Kühne (b. 1967) in 2012. Tvisöngur is a concrete building of five interconnected domes that sits on a hillside overlooking the fjord. With each dome being a different size to allow it to have an individual resonance that corresponds to the five-tone harmony of Icelandic music, the building is both a visual articulation of the structure of traditional music and a space that invites corresponding aural experimentation.

Swiss artist Roman Signer (b. 1938) is another frequent visitor to Seyðisfjörður. In 2010 he published a book, with the Icelandic artist Tumi Magnússon, titled When You Travel in Iceland You See a Lot of Water. The title contains more than a grain of truth about the island: What is not wet is often damp, and weather is a constant companion. Iceland’s dramatic landscape and climate heighten experiences and also provide an exceptional context in which art is placed. The island, its people, and its history do not serve as mere backdrop but are rather written through the work that is made in this northern land.

Written by Gavin Morrison, Artistic Director of Skaftfell East Iceland Center for Visual Arts

Nasher Sculpture Center