Icelandic Proportions

Text Steven Matijcio

Photos Sheila Spence

The Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art’s recent exhibition VOLCANA: Icelandic Panorama features five female artists from Iceland in the midst of a quiet, yet “tectonic” metamorphosis–in both personal and artistic terms. Described as “cultural archaeologists” by exhibition curator Kevin Kelly, these women work in a variety of artistic languages to translate the heritage, memory, and geology of their homeland to the societies they now inhabit. In the process, the latter of the three emerges as one of the most significant; articulated in work that reflects a land where extended twilight and stark expanses (with little or no vegetation) mask anthropomorphic legends and latent volcanic substrata in the midst of expansion and potential eruption.1 These shy, enigmatic paintings, sculptures and installations are anomalous in a North American context where every image competes aggressively for our attention, but they do not fall victim to survival of the fittest. Instead, when given the time they quietly request of us, these works lead the eye on a meandering passage entwining the geographical experience of Iceland with the spatial experience of the gallery and the social experience of globalization and passage. The ensuing, evolving amalgam reveals the human underpinnings of VOLCANA’s visual cartography.

Hrafnhildur Arnardttir describes her wall-mounted hair tapestry Left Brain Right Brain (2005) as “a portrait of a person as an imagined pattern of thoughts”–mobilizing what she regards as the spent physical traces of our mental activity in a cryptic landscape of baroque proportions. Yet as we engage, as the eye travels across ornate swirls, sinuous patterns, and the tumultuous interweaving of this mental megacity, we begin to uncover the mindset of its architect–tracing the turns of her imagination through the vellum of visual interaction. The adjacent artwork of Hildur Bjarnadttir is the “micro” to Arnardttir’s “macro,” simultaneously concentrating and expanding the act of weaving across delicate linens, a slow-motion video loop of Will Rogers’ twirling lasso, and the tacit dance of lint over 13 panels of roller tape presented as “portraits” of their respective users. Echoing the craft traditions of her Icelandic heritage, these works collectively embroider the pattern of their maker’s thoughts as she weaves a visible memento of time passed, savoured, and shared. Using the element of line as skilfully as a string filament, the nearby installation of Margrt H. Blndal weaves a related story for the eye to absorb–slowly and rhythmically recited as we surrender to her whispery narration of space. From crutch-like dowels that teeter on the verge of collapse, to a bright orange flourish above our heads, back down to a crumpled foam iceberg and half a styrofoam sphere melting into the wall it marks, she escorts the eye with a downy, yet calculated touch. This passage concludes in an opposing corner, where two protruding dowels reach into the space and lead the eye to the unexpected soul of this alchemical assemblage–an unassuming plastic bag and halo of popsicle sticks cast the shadow of a human heart upon the gallery floor.

Keeping our eyes upon the ground as she intensifies the awareness of every physical step, Bjrk Gudnadttir’s Displacement (2005) covers a side gallery with the cuttings of an exploded Rorschach test. Moving within this kaleidoscope of multi-hued polar fleece, the artist colourfully conjures the work of Mel Bochner as she activates the entire gallery and turns the term “negative space” into a marked misnomer. Abstract and endearing at once, Gudnadttir encourages us to re-envision familiar surroundings outside our Western archetypes–animating the seemingly empty intervals of wall and floor with imprints of passage. The paintings of Thordis Adalsteinsdttir work in a similar way, placing figures in spacious backgrounds of ecru, off-white, and pale pink that recall the pastel hues of Icelandic twilight–where beings come into shaper focus, and/or mutate into mythological hallucinations. In these works, exemplified in the haunting (and ironically titled) Ways to Avoid Eye Contact (2005), Adalsteinsdttir paints unflinching eyes that serve as nuclei of amorphous tempests–meeting and holding our gaze as we fill in the surrounding voids with imaginative exchange. As such, encapsulating this exhibition and the time it takes to nurture a relationship beyond the reticence of first encounters, we find people amidst the traces on display–people in motion, moving across maps that shift as perceptions become perspectives.

1 An expanding ridge of sub-oceanic volcanic fissures running the length of the Atlantic Ocean causes the physical geography of Iceland to literally expand at a rate of approximately ten centimetres per year. This land was the inspiration for many native 19th-century painters who integrated Hulduflk legends into their anthropomorphized landscapes.

Steven Matijcio is the curator at the Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art in Winnipeg. He is a graduate of the Center for Curatorial Studies and has previously held positions at the Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, Art Gallery of Ontario, and the National Gallery of Canada.