For the third time since 2005, the Reykjavík Arts Festival has a special focus on contemporary visual art. The event is curated by Jonatan Habib Engqvist and its title, (I)ndependent People, is a humorous reference to the most beloved work by Iceland’s most celebrated author, Halldór Laxness, albeit with a twist. According to the curator, the exhibition “asks if and how collaboration can operate in negotiation between contesting ideas and desires, and yet allow for unplanned action.” In a recent interview, Engqvist also explained how the requirement to co-operate with the complex cluster of institutions, galleries and artist-run spaces, which make up the art infrastructure in Iceland, provided the concept: to have the conceptual side of the exhibition reflect the structure that contains it.
Originally the idea for the exhibition came out of a symposium entitled Alternative North, organized in 2010 by four institutions in Reykjavík and funded by the Nordic Council. It covered a lot of ground, with sessions focusing on Nordic collaboration and alternative spaces. The conclusion drawn was that an active platform for Nordic collaboration, which existed as recently as ten years previous, had gone missing, despite the funding bodies still being in place. Despite this, there did appear to be a renewed interest in the idea of a Nordic identity in art practice, possibly as a result of the increasing ease with which we communicate through technology.
But what does “Nordic” mean, beyond “political co-operation […] built on common values and a willingness to achieve results that contribute to a dynamic development and increase Nordic competencies and competitiveness”? Is it a term that may be used to define and describe a common identity, even a common artistic identity?
We are used to thinking about the Nordic countries as a homogeneous region, with a shared cultural and linguistic heritage. In reality, the area is spectacularly heterogeneous linguistically, with three unrelated language groups divided into eight languages and countless dialects. Several other languages, among them Romany, Yiddish and the Nordic sign languages, have official status as minority languages. Another two hundred languages are native to Nordic citizens as a result of immigration. Nordic citizens live vastly different lives, in vastly different environments, spread out over a vast area. What unites them is difference. Considering Alternative North with this level of cultural and linguistic diversity in mind, the term “alternative” takes on a whole new meaning: the alternative might even be indistinguishable from the mainstream. And it seems clear that this cultural diversity, and the inevitable friction that comes with it, carries collaborative potential.
According to Engqvist, the concept of the exhibition was influenced in part by the Icelandic art scene. Indeed, the history of Icelandic art is the history of artists’ initiatives. Even the National Gallery, founded in 1884, did not acquire a home of its own until 1987. A historical fact, not often noted, is that the gallery’s building fund was established in 1959 with a donation by artist Jóhannes Kjarval. In fact, artists have built or otherwise initiated a number of Iceland’s museums and galleries. And when they haven’t been building actual spaces, they have been involved in creating spaces for art in other ways. The existence of SÚM, Sudurgata 7, the Living Art Museum, Mob Shop, Gula Húsid, and Kling & Bang, among others, amply demonstrates the long and rich tradition of artists’ initiatives in Iceland, which are by and large not funded by public or private bodies. This history is being documented by the Living Art Museum, which, in a rather brilliant curatorial move, has installed an archive in the National Gallery and will maintain a presence there throughout the exhibition. Another very informative gesture is Galleri Box’s collection of interviews with artists who ran exhibition spaces in Gothenburg between 1950 and 2010. AIM Europe traces the development of the Supermarket Stockholm Independent Art Fair, mapping the network of collectives that constitute the fair in an amusing installation of dolls and teddy bears. The offering provides a bridge between the historical content of the contributions of Box and the Living Art Museum, and the contemporary reality of artists’ initiatives.
In the National Gallery’s basement educational space, the Awareness Muscle Team has set up equipment for the training of the “awareness muscle”, that all-important tissue that we must train every day. The team also oversaw the press conference for the exhibition, which took place in the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa and involved critics and artists slow-dancing in the water while discussing the meaning of collaboration. The man behind the Awareness Muscle Team is Thierry Geoffroy, also known as Colonel, whose formats such as Emergency Room and Critical Run are conceived to stimulate the critical capacity of participants through the use of humor – not unlike the court jesters of yore who were the only ones allowed to get away with criticizing power.
(I)ndependent People’s emphasis on collaboration is manifested, in part, through the requirement that participants work in teams, “relinquishing their subjectivity, or momentarily placing it in parentheses”. I am not the first to point out that the curator does not himself enter into a collaboration or otherwise momentarily relinquish his subjectivity. Rather, he enforces his principle to varying degrees throughout the exhibition, most notably in his negotiations with one of the independent projects, insisting that all contributors to the work be named as co-authors, regardless of the nature of their contribution. The question is whether a rule like this needs to be consistent, if it is to achieve its proclaimed aim of revealing the art world’s obsession with individual authorship. Or does Engqvist consciously expose himself to criticism by omitting himself from the general rule, in order to drive his point home?
Regardless, I see individuals affirming their subjectivity everywhere in (I)ndependent People. Is not some degree of divergence from the program desirable, as well as unavoidable, after all? Endemi is an exhibition space in the form of a magazine about contemporary art in Iceland, with a special focus on contributions by women artists. It is run by a group of artists on a collaborative and voluntary basis. An exhibition is also held on the occasion of each issue. At the opening of Endemis Offors, at the Icelandic Sculpture Association, Kolbeinn Hugi stole the show with his performance It Came from the Return to the Blue Lagoon, featuring an inflatable and movable Blue Lagoon, hot beer cans and live music. An artist who regularly collaborates with other artists and has a healthy disregard for the rules of the art world, publically or privately funded, Kolbeinn Hugi’s subversive action that day was an affirmative expression of individuality. The performance’s highlight apparently came as the artist was joined in the pool by a man who had just been through a violent break-up and needed the healing effects of the water and beer.
Apart from the momentary repression of individual subjectivity, which I find problematic in its execution, (I)ndependent People is a thoughtfully conceived and carefully executed exhibition that strikes a fine balance between the diversity of spaces, concepts and people that it brings together. If the installation at the National Gallery may be seen as laying the conceptual framework for the exhibition, the installation at the Reykjavík Art Museum brings to the fore the variety of artistic approaches and creative processes that result from collaborations: the Icelandic Love Corporation, who work together on a permanent basis; Steingrimur Eyfjörd & Ulrika Sparre, who joined forces on The Leyline Project; Elin Strand Ruin & the New Beauty Council, who worked with students at the Iceland Academy of the Arts and various knitting communities on the production of their Knitting House; Hlynur Hallsson & Jóna Hlíf Halldórsdóttir, whose inclusive practice in TALK is influenced by Dieter Roth’s Zeitschrift für alles.
Down the street from the Reykjavik Art Museum we find the Icelandic Art Center, where four artists, who present themselves for the occasion as M.E.E.H. (Magnús Sigurdarson, Elin Wikström, Erla S. Haraldsdóttir, Haraldur Jónsson), have temporarily set up shop. Here they share with the festival’s guests a collaborative approach that they have developed over a number of months under the title Difficulty of Freedom/Freedom of Difficulty. Rather than present the visual results of their collaboration, they involve their guests in a process with a set structure and clearly defined rules within which the freedom to act is absolute. I walked out with assignment no. 7, which I have yet to carry out. Individuals have their proclivities and caprices, even under carefully controlled experimental situations.