A Brief Look Back:
Icelandic Participation at the Venice Biennale
The Art Biennale in Venice is the most important international art exhibition of the world. Every second year it brings together the protagonists of the art world and furthermore attracts over a million art enthusiasts. The Venice Biennale is also the oldest event of its kind. When it was held first in 1895, Iceland had just taken its first steps towards independence but was still under the rule of the Danish Kingdom. In addition, the lack of a deep-rooted tradition of professional art in Iceland also explains why it was not until 1960 that the country’s first artists participated in the Venice Biennale.
Those artists who were chosen first are today considered the fathers of modern art in Iceland. The Icelandic artists presented at the 30th Biennale in 1960 were painter Jóhannes Kjarval and sculptor Ásmundur Sveinsson. Kjarval has long been considered the leading figure in modern Icelandic art history. His paintings range from naturalistic representations of Icelandic landscape to others influenced more by a somewhat mythical, symbolic style in an expressive visual language all his own. From the Icelandic perspective, Kjarval’s approach towards painting was quite revolutionary, although numerous Icelandic artists had already proceeded towards a higher degree of abstraction. In fact, the Venice Biennale was dominated by Informel painters: Hans Hartung, Jean Fautrier and Emilio Vedova received the Grand Awards that year. As for Iceland’s other representative in Venice, Ásmundur Sveinsson began in 1929 producing a series of abstracted figurative works, often with themes of men and women at work. During the 1940s Sveinsson’s sculptures moved even farther away from the human and animal forms that had until then been his mainstay, and by the 1950s he was producing work that was almost entirely abstract. Like many Icelandic artists, Ásmundur drew upon the traditions of his native country for inspiration in his subject matter. Ten paintings by Kjarval and three iron sculptures by Sveinsson were presented besides the Irish, Peruvian and Portuguese participants as part of the international exhibition.
Icelanders did not participate in the Biennale again until 1972,
when abstract painters Þorvaldur Skúlason and Svavar
Guðnason were invited. Chosen were only early works fo the two
artists for the international exhibition. Guðnason - former member
of the Cobra group - and Skúlason were very much influenced
by expressionism and informel.
It took another four years until the next artist represented Iceland in Venice, and again in these following years Icelandic participants were either part of the international exhibition or invited by the Danish or Nordic exhibition committees. The artists—Sigurdur Gudmundsson (1976 and 1978), Magnús Pálsson (1980), Kristján Gudmundsson and Jón Gunnar Árnarson (1982)—were mainly conceptually oriented.
In 1984, as Finland had joined Norway and Sweden in the Nordic Pavilion, Iceland was given the opportunity to rent Finland’s wooden pavilion built by the famous Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. Although intended to be a temporary construction for the architecture biennale in 1956, the house still remains in the heart of Venice’s Giardini. Kristján Davidsson – a painter much influenced by Informel and Tachisme—was the first to represent Iceland in its own pavilion for the 41st Biennale.
In 1986, “Art and Science” was the main theme of the exhibition; Daniel Buren and Sigmar Polke (among others) were awarded with the Golden Lions, the top prizes in the Biennale. Iceland sent this year its first and only pop artist to Venice: Erró. Erró’s pictorial world is peopled by comic-strip characters and autocratic despots alike. He provocatively aims to expose world leaders as engineers of propaganda machines advocating dictatorship, conformity and uniformity. Weapons, violence and overt references to sexuality are mainstays among his motifs.
With Gunnar Örn (1988) and Helgi Thorgils Frídjónsson (1990), Iceland sent its next two painters to Venice. Both artists employ style and content closely related to a traditional Icelandic inspiration from nature and the human connection with it - Gunnar Örn with an expressionistic approach, Frídjónsson rather influenced by naďve and surreal painting (see LIST #5).
The following Biennale, which would otherwise have taken place in 1982, was postponed until 1983 in order for the subsequent exhibition to coincide with the Biennale’s centennial anniversary. Hreinn Fridfinnsson, who was chosen with Jóhann Eyfells for this 45th Biennale, is one of the leading figures in Icelandic conceptual art. His work is a poetic and philosophical exploration of everyday human experience. Transcending the mundane materials of which they are made, his simple, almost ethereal pieces paradoxically evoke the strongest of emotions. Jóhann Eyfells began creating abstract sculpture in the 1960s based on his experiments in chemistry and physics—specifically, the transformational properties of metals. These experiments led to Receptualism, a style that intertwines three systems—scientific, philosophical and mystical—into one. This year’s Biennale became famous for its numerous site-specific interventions, such as Hans Haacke’s striking installation in the German pavilion.
Birgir Andrésson, representing Iceland in 1995, explores through his work the relationships between visual perception and spoken language, thought, and Icelandic cultural identity. His textual works, “visual” descriptions of specific individuals or passing moments, stand as particularly powerful, if slightly wistful, testaments to the inability to convey the visual by other means.
The 47th Biennale was historic for Iceland: Steina Vasulka was not only the country’s first woman to be nominated, but she was also the first artist working with new media technologies. Steina, together with husband and collaborator Woody Vasulka, is a key artist in the development of video technology and its use in the creation of moving image artworks. She presented the installation "Orka" at the Biennale in 1997, the same year Marina Abramovic and Gerhard Richter were awarded with the Golden Lions (see LIST #4 2005).
In 1999 the abstract painter Sigurdur Árni Sigurdsson was sent with very short notice to Venice, followed in 2001 by conceptual artist Finnbogi Pétursson. For his monumental sound installation “Diabolus,” Pétursson transformed Alvar Aalto’s small wooden pavilion into a large, tunnel-like musical instrument. As guests passed through, the building generated two sounds together create a tone known as the Diabolus, one that was actually banned by the medieval church for its supposed devilish properties. The technical execution involved a speaker placed under an organ pipe of Finnbogi’s own construction, which resonated at the frequency of 61.8hz, and an air pump utilizing the same pipe to create a tone measuring 44.7hz. Together the two tones form a single interference sound wave of 17hz, the dark tone that is the Diabolus. The Biennale of 2001 was that wherein Harald Szeemann—one of the most significant curators of the 20th century—presented “Plateau of Mankind,” his last international exhibition for the Biennale in the year that would from September on change the world.
Rúrí presented Iceland in 2003 her multimedia work “Archive - Endangered waters.” In this interactive installation she catalogued the qualities of 52 individual waterfalls in Iceland’s highlands, preserving their unique sounds and appearances and highlighting the threat to their survival posed by extensive dam building.
“Versations/Tetralogia" was the title of Iceland’s last exhibition in the Finnish Aalto pavilion for the 51st Biennale in 2005. Gabríela Fridriksdóttir turned the pavilion into a mystical cave and combined drawings, paintings, videos and music to form a complex installation. For the first time in history, Iceland held an exclusive opening party in a rented theatre in the city of Venice.
In 2006 the Finnish Committee decided not to rent out the pavilion to Iceland again. A successful era for Iceland in the heart of the Giardini—the exhibition area of the national pavilions—has ended. But as always, every ending anticipates a new start in itself. Until Iceland is granted permission to build a pavilion of its own, it will again join other nations in their presentations in the city. For the 52nd Biennale di Venezia, Iceland will be exhibiting for the first time near the beautiful Canal Grande, a prime location in the city center. More information on this upcoming exhibition of Steingrimur Eyfjörd, including the opening dates of the Biennale and the exact location of the exhibition, will follow in the next issue.
LIST Icelandic Art News. Page last updated 28 February 2007. Texts and images copyright © by the authors. For inquiries and contact information see about us.