Shauna Laurel Jones:
Hrafnkell Sigurðsson Aims to take You Away
Some of the photos are more abstract than others, their bright, saturated reds or yellows filling the picture plane with a smudge of black here, light glistening there. Loose folds suggest the heavy drapery worn by figures in Renaissance paintings, though despite the appearance of fabric, there are no figures here to be seen. And then slowly, the sense of bodies behind slick, greasy jackets brings Hrafnkell Sigurðsson’s photographs out of abstraction into representation. The fishermen in Hrafnkell’s Crew series hover somewhere between concretely present and merely suggested: they are iconic in their historical significance and cultural importance and yet, simultaneously, they are anonymous workers identified only in terms of their waterproof gear. In a way, it ceases to matter whose body we sense behind the crew’s jackets, for it is rather the concept of the body that becomes foreground.
Along with his Function Ground print series, the Crew photographs were the basis for Hrafnkell’s nomination for the 2007 Icelandic Visual Arts Awards. Now in its second year, the Visual Arts Awards acknowledge the contributions of artists to Icelandic society and to the international art world, with one award granted in the two categories of art and design. In September, Hrafnkell was announced as the winner of the former category, with the award for design going to Studio Grandi.
Originally from Reykjavík, where he continues to live and work, Hrafnkell studied at the Icelandic College of Arts and Crafts, the Jan van Eyck Academie in Maastricht, and Goldsmiths College in London. For nearly two decades he has been exhibiting internationally in solo and group shows in Europe, North America, and East Asia, including a recent solo exhibition at the Louvre in 2006. Not to be confined to one medium, Hrafnkell works in photography as well as mixed media installations and performance.
The photographs comprising the Crew series were originally created for the Eiland exhibition at Grotta—the lighthouse nearest Reykjavík—in the summer of 2006. The five participating artists created work specifically for the unique occasion of the use of the lighthouse as an exhibition space. Just as the figures of the Crew fishermen slowly manifest themselves before the eyes of the viewer, so too did Hrafnkell originally conceptualize this project while he spent time at Grotta before the show. In our conversation in August 2006, Hrafnkell said:
“I visualized an old fishing boat on the other side of the shore…Fishermen from a hundred years ago came to this shore [at Grotta] and camped here overnight. I imagined I would come across their tent and hear them laughing and talking, and I would come across their work gear hanging up to dry. I had an idea that I’d just hang the undeveloped photo paper on the wall, and the images of the spirits of these robust fishermen would just appear.”
As he began making these photographs, he told me recently, he thought of them as icons: symbols of the timeless Icelandic fishermen to which they allude, but representation that transcends physicality. This aspect of going “beyond the body” is a connecting theme in Hrafnkell’s work, and it is one that links the Crew photographs to Function Ground. In the latter, the artist fashioned subtle monochrome patterns in black ink and oil by means of his own handprints on paper, or directly on the wall of his installation at Gallery Suðsuðvestur in Keflavík in 2006. Here, there is no representation, but rather the mark of the human body. But the spaces in between the separate square panels arranged into a grid suggest an opening into and beyond the physical.
Function Ground is partly a response to the oil spills left behind when the NATO base in Keflavík closed last year. The oil inspired the medium used in the prints, but the idea of the masculine workers at Keflavík involved in ritualistic labour—like that of the fishermen—was the deeper inspiration behind the work. Ritual elevates its practitioner to a higher plane of existence, or brings one in touch with something. “But,” the artist asks, “what is it that we are disconnected from?”
Hrafnkell’s work is not necessarily about nature, but it would not exist, he told me, without his retreat into nature, where he finds a state of balance. His recent Conversion photograph series (2006) achieves his goal of transporting his viewers somewhere else, in this case by literally opening two front panels with mirror images of trash and revealing a snowy panoramic landscape inside. It is not the image of the landscape or the “purity” of nature, but rather the stillness of the empty land with an infinite, unbroken horizon that evokes a bodily feeling of weightless otherworldliness. Perhaps it is from this other world that the spirits of the old Icelandic fishermen emerged, and into which we might find ourselves if we enter the gaps between the panels of black oily handprints. Hrafnkell’s world is one of primal feelings, and he says to his viewers, “I want to bring you there, to make you feel what I feel.”
LIST Icelandic Art News. Page last updated 15 January 2008. Texts and images copyright © 2008 by the authors. For inquiries and contact information see about us.