Hans Ulrich Obrist talks to Christian Schoen about art in Iceland:
We have always considered Hreinn Friðfinnsson a Visionary
Christian Schoen: Hans Ulrich, you have observed the Icelandic art scene for a while now. Do you feel that there is anything unique about Icelandic art and culture, or is it all the same to you?
Hans Ulrich Obrist: I think it is always about the local and the global to some extent. Iceland has obviously become very connected to the global dialogue, yet it has maintained very strong local needs and features. Édouard Glissant, the great poetic writer from Martinique, who is a friend of the great Icelandic writer Thor Vilhjálmsson, contrasts ‘mondialisation’ and what he calls ‘mondialité’. Mondialité means to engage in global dialogue. Obviously globalisation, the modernising thoughts of globalisation, are also at work in Iceland, and it is to some extent bound to be resisted, but at the same time there is also a reactionary thought which rejects the great possibilities we now have for global exchange and global dialogue. Glissant points out that it is important to resist this homogenising globalisation but also the defensive reaction which refuses the dialogue. Mondialité is different in that it not only enhances but preserves – it produces and enhances global dialogue. And I think Iceland is a great example of this mondialité at large. It has extraordinary art, music and literature scenes – and on top of that there is a lot of exchange between artists, musicians and also writers. You can see the wonderful dialogue between Matthew Barney and the poet Sjón. And I also think about the extraordinary collaboration between Björk and Gabríela Friðriksdóttir. In Iceland there is definitely a very interesting oscillation between the disciplines, something which is particularly rare in the world now, where there is still so much fear of pooling knowledge.
Another thing obviously is the extreme features of the landscape, which Ólafur Elíasson and I deal with in our project, published in a book called The Goose Lake Trail (Southern Route). Ólafur Elíasson and I actually drove this route: we crossed this extreme route, with sandstorms and quicksand, and it was very scary for me but one of the most extraordinary experiences I have ever had. We drove this road in Ólafur’s car and ended up in Eiðar. All these trips are part of Sigurjón Sighvatsson’s Eiðar project. We made another one with Alain Robbe-Grillet, the novelist. We sort of explored the relationship between Robbe-Grillet and the Arctic. And we actually had a very interesting experience last time on the way back from Eiðar. In The Swan, Guðbergur Bergsson talks about his way home and what you see on the way home. You don’t see exactly the same thing you saw when you left home because you drive in the opposite direction. So you see everything differently - the cliché is a new cliché, and the mountain is another mountain. On the way back the child is bigger, and everything is much smaller and lower than when the child left. Going back is always different from going away, even though the road might be the same. And I think that this is a very interesting thing about exile. I am Swiss, I am also from a small country. And I think when you come from a small country like Switzerland or Iceland, you are always more inclined to venture into other cultures, and many Icelanders are also great travellers. When you go to big cities like Paris, London or New York, there is the whole idea about inner exile or outer exile, which Robert Walser and Guðbergur Bergsson both describe, and this is a very important thing in relation to Icelandic art. And it is interesting for example that Hreinn Friðfinnsson, whom we are going to show in the Serpentine Gallery, went into exile in Amsterdam, yet returns to Iceland often. Ólafur Elíasson went to Denmark and Berlin, yet returns to Iceland often as well.
Now our whole research in Iceland, which has been going on for years, will actually be very present in the terms of what will happen this summer in the Serpentine, because Julia Peyton-Jones and I have invited Ólafur Elíasson and the architect Kjetil Thorsen from Norway to develop the Serpentine pavilion this year. Ólafur and Kjetil have come up with a pavilion which is some sort of a spiral, and a most fascinating work. Inside the gallery will be a retrospective of the Icelandic artist Hreinn Friðfinnsson, whom we have always considered a visionary, from his archives of secrets to his extraordinary twists - his inside/outside house - to his more recent work. So it will definitely be an Icelandic summer in London.
What I said initially in terms of mondialité relates the different ways of producing globalisation and there are also the modern artists who are attracted by the difference of Iceland, by the idea that Iceland remains a very different place. And so you have artists like Roni Horn or Matthew Barney, or the young French artist Serge Comte, who have spent a lot of time in Iceland, lived there for part of the year and made exhibitions there. This is something which has always existed - think of the sixties and the seventies with Dieter Roth and others.
CS: When people ask me to describe the contemporary art scene here, I tend to say that it mirrors the situation of an adolescent society, a society in the middle of rapid development in all sectors of life. This is one way to explain the powerful creativity here and the questioning of self- identity. But how about the disadvantages - once I remember you were talking about what’s lacking, about education, for instance.
HUO: Yes, something is missing, and what is missing is clearly that the art academy, and the students, they always have to go abroad to study. And I think that Iceland would be very well situated as a place for a Black Mountain College of the 21st century. I mean, Iceland now has, with the Reykjavík Art Museum, a wonderful place for contemporary art which is run in an exemplary way by Hafthór Yngvasson. And Iceland has galleries with very interesting roots, and with CIA.IS, the Center for Icelandic Art, it has a framework for the exchange between the local and the global, a framework for the reciprocity of exchange. And it also has a sort of kunsthalle, the Living Art Museum, which is an international gallery, and with the Sequences festival another platform for time-based art projects. And it has museums dedicated to individual artists; it has to some extent a very interesting lively institutional landscape. But what’s clearly missing is the idea of the school, and to some extent the model of a new Black Mountain College in Iceland could also be very attractive for students from abroad who could come to Iceland and try to really think about what is missing at the school here. That is what could be reached for for the future. If Iceland had a great art school it would be a perfect setup. It’s just an idea, but I have been thinking about a Black Mountain College for Iceland.
LIST Icelandic Art News. Page last updated 8 August 2007. Texts and images copyright © by the authors. For inquiries and contact information see about us.