Remember the cloud? It took an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to make us forget the Iceland volcano, Eyjafjallajokull, which erupted in March 2010 and spread its ash from Scotland to Austria.
The graying of the continent was a second act to Iceland’s economic collapse in October 2008, which led to the nationalization of the banks and the election of a leftist coalition, led as it happens by the first lesbian head-of-state.
These two events combined to cast a bit of gloom over Iceland’s local art scene [see "Fire and Ice," May 23, 2008], which responded this spring via the Reykjavik Arts Festival, whose many attractions included mural-sized photographs displayed like billboards throughout the city. Called "Reality Check," the project added up to a post-disaster group self-portrait of the country.
Among the first images to catch the eye was a photograph of a naked newborn by the photographer Spessi. Flailing babylike against a white background, the infant represented the future of a country that saw its wealth (at least on paper) disappear over the past two years. "This baby was born with a 20,000,000 kronur debt," said Spessi, "as were all babies born in Iceland in 2009."
On nearby billboards, pictures by the photojournalist Eggert Johanesson captured moments from the noisy street demonstrations that followed the economic collapse. Icelanders call those events the Cutlery Revolution, inspired by the Pots and Pans Marches that were organized to protest the policies of the Chilean Marxist Salvador Allende in the early 1970s.
Iceland’s best-known avant-garde artist is perhaps Olafur Eliasson, who grew up in Denmark and lives in Berlin. Another is Katrin Sigurdardottir (b. 1967), who has exhibited in New York at Greenberg van Doren Gallery, and who is slated to show her work this fall at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, opening Oct. 19, 2010. There she is fashioning a pair of boiseries reflecting the Met’s period rooms, a project that sounds like it has a lot of potential.
In Iceland, marquee events at the Reykjavik Arts Festival included a show of Cindy Sherman film stills at the National Gallery of Iceland, plus works from Gary Schneider’s series of "Nudes" at the Reykjavik Art Museum. Though they look a little like CAT scans seen from above against a black void, in fact Schneider’s photographs are intimate images made in total darkness using only the light from a flashlight playing across his sitter’s body, a technique that Schneider first used in 1989.
In an exhibition titled "Sites" at the Hafnarborg Museum of Culture and Fine Art, the Berlin-based, minimalist photographer Friederike von Rauch showed pale landscapes with accumulations of discarded white cloth sacks in the foreground. The show also featured her photos of the new David Chipperfield-designed Neues Museum in Berlin.
Another project, this one by the musician and increasingly active visual artist David Byrne, presented what purported to be Moral Dilemmas via multiple-choice ethical puzzles, viz.: "Your brother is a banker who has profited from the economic collapse. He offers to share his profits with you. Do you, A) Turn him in, B) Give your share to charity, or C) Refuse the gift but remain silent?"
Well-meaning thoughts from Byrne, but as every world traveler knows, the best things are local. And the worst things as well, like animus against immigrants.
Iceland has its share of immigrants -- not too many, from Poland, Lithuania, Vietnam, Thailand -- and its own xenophobia. One neighborhood housing some of the newcomers is Breidholt, where the usual medium of photography is the surveillance camera. It was there that pictures by an Icelandic emigrant to the U.S. went on view.
The artist is Fridgeir Helgason, who left this neighborhood ten years ago to become a chef in New Orleans. Alcohol took him to Los Angeles, where he ended up in a cardboard box on Skid Row. Now sober, he cooks for a living, and takes pictures.
For the arts festival, a cultural center in the Reykjavik suburb of Breidholt -- where Helgason grew up -- featured his photo-survey of his old stomping grounds, which looks both drab and richly colored, not to mention cold and damp. His landscapes can be breathtaking, and his portraits quirky.
One image shows Helgason’s grandfather holding a rifle. "He looks like Clint Eastwood," said the photographer, who wore a New Orleans police department hat to his opening. "He used the gun to shoot puffins to feed his family."
In Iceland, it’s easy to imagine that you can actually feel the warming of the planet, a slow and irreversible revolution. For that story, look to the bravura artist Ragnar Axelsson, known by the nom d’appareil RAX. His new book, Last Days of the Arctic, is filled with dramatic black-and-white scenes of men and animals, in what is a chronicle of the dying hunting culture of Greenland. Already published in Europe and due out in the U.S. next year, the book is kin the 19th-century photos of Native Americans by Edward S. Curtis.
RAX’s latest pictures take on another disappearing part of the landscape: the ice. He photographs sections of glaciers that have broken off and flowed into the sea in a lagoon up the coast from Reykjavik. The rich patterns in the melting ice can seem graceful like the grain of wood or the membranes of leaves, or jarring like uncontrollable lava. The possibilities seem infinite.
And indeed, RAX’s new pictures are also filled with iconic face-like shapes that appear to be emerging from beneath the ice’s melting surface. I suppose that even if the faces weren’t there, people would see them. In case you haven’t guessed, one looks like Jesus Christ.
Some of the faces, RAX says, last 20 seconds before they melt away. Eternity has never looked so fragile.
DAVID D’ARCY is a correspondent for the Art Newspaper, a contributing editor at Art & Auction and a regular critic on the "Front Row" program on BBC Radio.