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Iceland and art
by Aðalsteinn Ingolfsson

Iceland´s art world is more troubled than usual. It has of course had its periods of crisis in the past. In the Thirties it was a shock for Icelandic artists to discover that landscape painting, which had helped them to forge their cultural identity at the beginning of the century, was no longer taken seriously by the arbiters of taste in the world at large.

And in the Fifties, having embraced the latest trend in European art - concrete art - with almost Messianic fervour, the next generation of Icelandic artists found their own public eschewing or reviling their work as unnecessarily esoteric, even unpatriotic. Then finally, after persuading their Icelandic audience to take them seriously, these same artists were suddenly cast aside as so much chaff by a group of aggressive anti-artists who called themselves SÚM. This was in the late 1960s. Such are the cruel ironies of art.

Icelans natur image

Today, the old certainties - Marxism, historical inevitability, the lot - have been lost, which means that battles are not being fought along the same lines as before. As it happens, apart from the cries of a few bitter painters of middle age, who think that there is a conspiracy afoot to root out painting, there is little intergenerational or interdisciplinal strife within the Icelandic art world. Like most other Western artists, Icelanders live in a polyglot world, where various visual languages compete. If there are any guiding principles at work, one thinks of fluidity, ambiguity and deliberate instability. In a number of cases, some of whom are to be found in the present exhibition in the North Atlantic House, those old enemies, abstraction and representation, come together in a heady mix, emphasizing the mutable nature of our civilization.

Thus, like artists everywhere else, Icelandic artists are struggling to develop a visual language adequate to the demands of the present, while seeking values that will endure.

The crisis that I mentioned at the outset is definitely not a crisis of confidence. If anything the present generation of Icelandic artists is more sure of itself, more convinced of its role in the wider world of international art than its predecessors. Artists such as Ólafur Elíasson, Georg Guðni, Finnbogi Pétursson or Ragna Róbertsdóttir are major players on the international circuit. They in turn are able to build on the success of older people like Louisa Matthíasdóttir, Erró, the Guðmundsson brothers and Hreinn Friðfinnsson. Come to think of it, with a population of under 300,000 Iceland really has no business producing more than half an artist of more than local interest at any given time.

Iceland natur image

At the same time these artists, along with some four or five hundred of their colleagues, feel themselves increasingly marginalized by the society that produced them. Capitalism is now rampant in Icelandic society, reducing most forms of human endeavour to the status of marketable commodities. The biggest firms in Iceland change hands in a day, like so many slots on a Monopoly board, with huge sums of money whizzing from one computer terminal to another. The general population seems to be adrift in mortaged goods and obsessed with accumulation.

Yet no one, neither public bodies nor the private companies reaping the benefits of the present boom, seem to regard art as something to be coveted, either for itself, as investment or for its social cachet. The sales of works of art by Icelandic artists under the age of 40 are at an all time low. In recent government budget proposals, the acquisitions fund of the National Gallery, for long the lifeline of many avant-garde artists, has even been cut by about 20%.

One can almost hear young artists begging to be taken seriously as producers of marketable commodities, sentiments which would have horrified their idealistic colleagues of the Seventies.

This state of affairs has been a long time in the making. For a start, the indifference of the young captains of industry and the stock market wizards to contemporary visual art is an indictment of the Icelandic school system at all levels.

A young Icelander can go through the entire school system without once being confronted with the works of art that have shaped modern Icelandic culture and society, let alone being made to engage in a serious dialogue with "difficult" works by young artists. In the public domain there is likewise no
medium, neither newspapers, magazines or TV, ready to instigate and sustain such a dialogue.

Icelandic natur image

On the other hand, our young high-flyers will most likely be able to remember who killed who in the major Sagas and have a nodding acquaintance with the translated novels of Isabel Allende or Milan Kundera. We are the products of a culture heavily biased towards literature. Literary culture even infiltrates the visual arts to an extent, in that narratives of one sort or another form the basis of the works of art that you´ll see in Iceland, not forgetting the frequent references to myths and legends. I think this is true of some of the Icelandic work that you´ll find in the exhibition in the North Atlantic House.

Even if there were hordes of art lovers in Iceland, they would be hard put to find recent works of art to look at. Perhaps because of Iceland´s small population, there´s always been a personal dimension to art commerce in the country. Artists would hire exhibition rooms in different places, hang their work themselves, sell directly to their friends and admirers, thus cutting out the middlemen. Or they let it be known that interested parties were welcome to visit them in their studios. The major public galleries and museums even had an "open door" policy, whereby artists of repute could hire exhibition spaces and the necessary services that go with them.

This easy access to art and artists is now a thing of the past. With increased specialization and alienation, not to mention the increased competition from the digital media, there are more barriers, real and imagined, between Icelandic artists and their public than ever before. Still keeping in mind our high-flyers, the visitor to their ultra modern homes will most likely come across whole libraries of DVD films, but hardly any art except the odd print or poster.

Icelands Natur Image

Like public galleries and museums elsewhere, public art institutions in Iceland now have their own exhibition programmes, where a handful of major artists are invited to show their latest work. Other artists, including the 20 or so would-be artists sent into the world each year by the Icelandic Academy of the Arts, end up competing for small exhibition rooms that are run on an ad-hoc basis by some of their colleagues, unsuitable rooms in community halls, churches, even coffee bars. Moreover, these places seem to change from one season to another, making it difficult both for the media and the public to keep up with the exhibition activity. Which doesn´t help sales. It´s a vicious circle.

I think it´s fair to say that most, if not all, of the Icelandic artists in the North Atlantic House show have had to eke out their living with other activities, teaching, illustration, design- or theatre work. Or they have been supported by their significant others.

For many Icelandic artists, "abroad" is the key to better appreciation, better sales, better life. Which is why exhibitions such as this one are so important to them.

Then again it takes a long time for artists from a far-off island to infiltrate themselves into the art scene in Sweden, Holland or Germany, let alone to catch the eye of gallerists and exhibition curators. It´s often forgotten that artists like Ólafur Elíasson or Erró were virtually brought up in the countries where they found their success.

It is easy to blame Icelandic governments, past and present, for not doing enough for the country´s visual arts, considering the money annually spent on Icelandic literature and theatre. They are the only ones with the clout to put art history and art appreciation on the curriculum of schools at every level. It would also be easy for them to offer private companies tax incentives to buy art, thereby reducing the strain on the budget of the museums.

Icelands Natur Picture

But there are things that even they can´t do, despite the optimism of some cultural commentators. They can´t make anyone famous abroad, no matter how much money is spent on promoting him or her at all the world´s biennales and triennales. It is even doubtful whether a small society like Iceland can ever guarantee each and everyone of its 500 artists his 15 minutes of fame at home.

Despite all of this, Icelandic art continues to be guardedly optimistic, imbued with a respect for the world of feelings, yet intrigued with the governing logic of thought. Figurative artists, such as the bulk of the Icelandic artists in this show, proclaim the need for direct, unmediated experience. Those who turn to the Icelandic landscape, tend to see it as depopulated and imaginary, suggesting both an alienation from as well as a reverence for nature.

This art, as accomplished, multi-faceted and contradictory as the society we live in, continues to surprise us and sustain us with its vital, regenerative power. It deserves a better deal.

(The author is indebted to an introduction by Richard Armstrong in the 1989 Whitney Biennale for some of the insights in this article)

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