from NY ARTS Magazine, January/February 2007
Reykjavik! - Trong G. Nguyen
For a country with a population of only 300,000, Iceland is one hopping place. Of these, three-quarters live in the capital, Reykjavik. Like the volcanic lava and rock that gives its thermal pools life and energy, Icelanders are similarly teeming with a creative force of nature that is at times freakish and awe-inspiring. The number of artists, musicians and Euro-bohemians are disproportionate to its per capita. If the beautiful, alien landscape or Northern Lights aren’t enough to enrapt you, then it might be shocking to learn of the country’s 100% literacy and 0% homelessness rates. This is a well-oiled (actually geo-thermally powered) society with lots of clean air, where the inhabitants have lived in relative genetic isolation for centuries and thus conjure thoughts of Gattica. As a tidbit, the country also boasts the only comprehensive phallological museum in the world. Dick Cheney has in fact been promised to the collection after his stint with the White House.
This past year, mid-October was an especially opportune time to be in Iceland if music and art are your cup of tea. First was the seventh edition of Iceland Airwaves, the five-day international music festival that draws in crowds from all over the globe and showcases some of the best new international and local bands. At the same time, for the first time, in venues all over the city, was the Sequences: Real Time Art Festival of performance, new media and installation art, organized by the Living Art museum, Kling & Bang Gallery, Banananas and the Center for Icelandic Art. Sequences included over one hundred artists from Iceland and abroad.
On my brief trip, a typical day consisted of working in the morning and afternoon on my own Sequences project at the Safn Museum, a significant private collection situated in an early 20th century wood frame house in the center of Reykjavik. With 300 works by over 140 artists, this simple, elegant space not only houses the permanent collection of Petur Arason and Ragna Robertsdottir, but also supports rotating exhibitions by contemporary artists. The evening gave way to performances such as Egill Sæbjörnsson’s infectiously wacky and endearing An Idear 4 Thwoo Feet, Two Hands & 4 Corners. The Berlin based artist’s theatre consisted of absurdist drama, dialogue and live music interacting with singing characters and action from a projected video.
On the theme of overtaking, one of the most memorable events at Sequences took the form of “Invasionistas,” a sustained series of projects organized by the very progressive and permissive Kling & Bang Gallery. Run by a group of artists, this four-year-old establishment has made a name for itself, and rightly so. With some very button-pushing exhibits, including the recent “God’s Chosen People,” a conceptually delusional number curated by Snorri Asmundsson who once ran for the Icelandic presidency and whose project for Sequences, Pyramid of Love, was a simple, moving act of meditation in which the artist sat lotus style under a movable, Plexiglas pyramid for two hours each day and prayed for love and happiness for all.
“Invasionistas” consisted of eight artists from New York—Agathe Snow, Michael Portnoy, Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir aka Shoplifter, Rita Ackerman, Michael Jurewicz, David Adamo, Theodore Fivel and Marianne Vitale—who all came to Reykjavik gung-ho with the intent of examining the notion of invasion, attempting, in the process of “research,” to attack symbols and places of historical, political, religious and cultural importance. On varying levels, perhaps against un-defiant “invasionistees,” they indeed managed to temporarily rattle existing moirés and practices, replacing them with despotic declarations and propaganda akin to a micro army annexing a small state.
Live from her “command center” in New York, Shoplifter directed the operation overseas and gave daily instructions and briefs to her unit. From acting like colonialist assholes trying (and succeeding) to pay a large restaurant bill with their own monetary denomination (a drawing of currency by Ackerman) to one member sodomizing a giant plastic cockroach—in reference to the parting gift left behind by the recently departed American army—to evacuating children from a Reykjavik school and poisoning the famous geyser with a green pigment, “Invasionistas” was a small handful for the authorities. In typical Icelandic fashion, Kling & Bang honorably refused to give in to their own power of censorship despite witnessing what was a precariously real offensive on their own heritage by an “army of art.” The country’s tradition of cultural openness won out, as it usually does.
One of the Kling & Bang directors, Sirra Sigrún Sigurdardóttir, states that “it is kind of a basic rule that when people come here to work we never say no.” It is the Icelandic people’s excessive practice of tolerance and accommodation that most impresses the visitor. Having worked with a number of individuals in the New York art world who are, well, less than accommodating, it is a fresh take on what our own cultural values can strive toward—not only as curators, but also as policy makers and civic officers whose responsibility should, at the very least, make an effort to take the empathy of art beyond museum walls and the towers of academia into the streets.
I was walking up Laugavegur, the main street in Reykjavik one afternoon and came across what appeared to be a police escort of two motorcycles, with the colored lights flashing and everything. There was a big gap between the front and rear vehicles however, and I wondered what was going on. Just then, Nina Magnúsdóttir, the Sequences project manager, ran past me with a quick greeting and asked if I was following the Dark Matter (e.g. “invisible”) Parade that was going by.
It seems that, in Reykjavik, even the police can be persuaded to partake in a conceptual parade for foreign artists who have come with suspicious intentions. That’s because, with a little explanation and dialogue, the cops actually get it.
In a city as small as Reykjavik, everything seemingly converges. Musicians are also artists who are also politicians who are also cheerleaders, and at every event I attended there never lacked an appreciative or respectful audience. As Obi Wan Kenobi observed, “it’s a symbiotic relationship.”
I heart Reykjavik.
Trong Gia Nguyen is an artist and curator based in New York City. He has produced projects for a number of national and international exhibitions, including Performa 05 and the 9th Havana Biennial. He is currently the recipient of an LMCC Workspace Residency, and buried a time capsule filled with stolen objects at an undisclosed location in Reykjavik for Sequences. Nguyen is also the director of New General Catalog, an experimental gallery space that he established in Brooklyn last year.