Vodka is more responsive than most products to branding. Except to the connoisseur, its great accomplishment is to be inoffensive (or more charitably: “clean,” or “fresh”). Most of its value is in its image, and the image it imparts to its drinkers. Iceland’s only vodka, Reyka, unsurprisingly chooses to link its brand to the country’s dramatic terrain. Distilled from arctic spring water and filtered with lava rocks in a factory run from geothermal energy, the company positions itself as an ecologically conscious, more “natural” liquor.
Visiting Iceland for a residency at the Reykjavik Art Museum, Katrina Moorhead was struck equally by the country’s natural grandeur and the citizens’ relationship to their environment. It was 2006, a boom year before the banking crisis, and many Icelanders were acclimating to greater prominence in the world economy. That didn’t mean wholesale commercialization of a once-pastoral lifestyle, but Reyka’s gambit did come across as a particularly stark example of cultural posturing. It arrogated an entire landmass for marketing purposes, and compressed the majesty of an active volcano into a drawing on the label, insinuating that – what? – a night out might be as thrilling as an act of God? Would a martini blacken the sky and wipe out villages?
No Title efficiently separates a bottle of Reyka from its nominal purpose (storing liquor) so as to point up its more significant function (selling Iceland, or an idea of Iceland). Moorhead has peppered the bottle with small drill holes, addressing its surface as the main point of interest and reducing its (now useless) interior to an ancillary role.
All of this might feel exclusively judgmental if Moorhead completely disavowed any sort of cultural performance on her own part. But gimlet-eyed as her approach may be, it still allows for ambiguity and certainly doesn’t exonerate art making, the identity-brand par excellence. A single drill hole would’ve been enough to render the bottle inoperative. Multiple drill holes don’t functionally expand on that premise; they just make our encounter with the object (and it is now as much object as image) more compelling. The sculpture makes a convincing argument that surface – or the construction of an aura – may not have use-value, but can still meaningfully affect our experience. Does this mean that Reyka’s marketers are wide-eyed ingenuous patriots and we should all drink until we feel either glacial or volcanic? Probably not, but it does stress the difficulty of translating the natural world to human scale. Any attempt at representation necessarily falls short, and any comparison of human endeavor to all of creation is bound to look ridiculous. Reyka is perhaps the most blatant instance of this schism, but it’s only one point in a continuum of image making that, for better and worse, tries to bridge the divide.