Much of our time is spent figuring out and navigating the physical spaces in which we move but, for the most part, we don’t even notice this unless we find ourselves in an unfamiliar place or something goes wrong – the car breaks down, a river has flooded or a signpost is missing. Humans have, throughout their history, been occupied with taming these spaces, learning and marking out the easiest route through a mountain pass, charting the oceans or building houses that feel comfortable and familiar. Gradually, we have inhabited and built up our environment to such an extent that we can move with ease from one space to another – from home to work to a friend’s house, to the pub, to the theatre and back home – and with as little mental effort as possible. We have created channels along which we can flow like river in the certainty that we will eventually reach our destination. The modern city is a model of this collective colonization of spaces, from the macro level of thoroughfares and streets to the functional lay-out of our apartments and workspaces. Little by little, our environment and the channels along which we navigate it have been rationalized to such a degree that even in a new city we can find our way around with surprising ease.
This is part of the background to Haraldur Jónsson’s exhibition at BERG Contemporary, the channels that make sense of our spaces and lead us through them. His colored drawings look like extruded architectural diagrams of the kind of discreet spaces that enclose us and lead us along from one room to the next. They also implicate the gallery space itself, mirroring how the audience is channeled from one work to the next. The space becomes our guide, our movements already predicted and built into the structure.
There is, of course, another way of looking at this. The rationalization of space not only allows for movement and habitation, it also controls it – channels it. We sacrifice a little of our freedom and independence in return for ease of navigation. The ideal of rationalization strives for perfect control of spaces and the channels that link them and, by implication, of the people who use them. This was the point of, for example, of the Situationists who criticized this aspect or our architecture and cities, and sought to subvert it. The Danish artist and theorist Asger Jorn wrote:
Functionalist Rationalists believed that it was possible to attain ideal, definitive forms of the objects useful to people. Developments have shown that this static conception was mistaken. We must arrive at a dynamic conception of forms, we must face the fact that all human forms are in a constant state of transformation.
Haraldur’s exhibition also seeks to subvert our use of space in gentle ways. The addition of a dark doorway next to an actual one – in the form of a matte-black, sound insulating carpet – jolts our awareness of the space around us and how it is ordered. Two panes of acrylic glass reflect the viewer’s body on entering the gallery. Each pane hangs slightly off the vertical from a peg highlighted in red nail polish, suggesting an alternative ordering or a different way to conceive of our bodies in the space. From the beginning our physical presence is registered in the exhibition, our appearance, gaze and mood reflected back, as well as the inevitable shock and readjustment that takes place on seeing oneself in a mirror in a public place. We are made to face our own image and take responsibility for all that it expresses, our intentions, anxieties and desires and everything that drives us on. Moving through the gallery we are subtly prodded with sly humor and encouraged to rethink our engagement, physical and intellectual, with the surroundings.
The Icelandic title of the exhibition evokes the genre of literature that employs dream guides to reveal hidden worlds to the hero – as Virgil guided Dante. It can also refer to trance-like states where we move as though in a dream, without full awareness of the spaces around us. While Haraldur’s exhibition certainly encourages us to take a more critical view of our environment he is not blind to the usefulness of guides and channels. A performance filmed at the opening of the exhibition and included as a video projection in the show alludes to the notion that we can also embrace the guidance provided. A critical attitude does not rule out trust.
Haraldur’s work has often been aimed at making visible that which is normally unseen: Emotions , silence, darkness, flows and undercurrents. This exhibition certainly connects to his earlier work in many ways but here he has taken a further step by investigating how even the most concrete aspects of our environment can become invisible to us through sheer habit and familiarity. What he makes visible here is our own blindness and mental apathy.
When we have been led through the gallery to the inner room we see the largest work in the exhibition where Haraldur, with characteristic humor, leaves us without guidance to confront our own confusion. The floor of the room is almost completely covered by what seem to be maps, easily recognized by the way they are folded. These maps, however, are entirely black, mapping only a deep, all-engulfing darkness. They are like the map that Lewis Carroll’s mariners used as they sailed off to hunt the Snark:
“Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!
But we’ve got our brave Captain to thank”
(So the crew would protest) “that he’s bought us the best—
A perfect and absolute blank!”
As we contemplate the geometrically arranged maps on the floor, Haraldur leaves us to find our own way out.