Warmer Than You Think: Due North at Icebox Project Space
Due North / í nordur at Icebox Project Space
January 9 to 25, 2014
Crane Arts LLC
1400 N American Street
Philadelphia, PA 19122-3803
Many Americans declare their credo by displaying Warner Sallman’s soft-focus portrait of Jesus in the front hallway. Icelanders used to do the same by hanging a portrait of a cold and unreachable rock—the legendary “Lonely Mountain.” The choice encapsulates the outside world’s image of Iceland as a forbidding place, and one that prides itself on difference. Its population of 320,000 keeps alive a language so archaic that speakers more easily read thousand year-old poems than the words of its modern-day cousins, English and German.
The exhibition Due North at Philadelphia’s Icebox Project Space exposes cracks in Iceland’s ice. Juxtaposing well-known Icelandic artists’ work with that of Americans who recently visited their country, the show affirms, but more often demolishes stereotyped views of the country. It also suggests that in this globally-connected world, Iceland’s singularity is likely to fade.
That Iceland is warmer than we think is evident in the experience Philadelphia artists had when they journeyed to the country as part of a grant-funded trip. Arranged by the exhibition’s curator Marianne Bernstein, who is also an artist in the show, the excursion brought five U.S. artists to the island country in February 2013, and this group later met other Americans at the Nes residency in Skagaströnd, a rural village in the north. The curator describes carefree car rides around the country, the unbridled hospitality of locals, and a cadre of Icelandic counterparts who were open-minded and free of the art world’s cutthroat mentality. Unique to Iceland was a culture of “singing and making” in which visual artists crossed over to the music world.
This “cold country, warm people” theme expressed itself in the Icelandic artist’s friendly and exuberant formal choices. Examples include Hrafnhilder Arnardóttir’s Raw Nerves II and Sun, both of which contain bundles of fluffy red synthetic hair; Haraldur Jónsson’s colorful, blob-like vinyl TOKENS; and Magnus Sigurðarson’s Contained STORM I, consisting of white Styrofoam balls blowing like popcorn kernels in a glass case. Most telling was Guðmundar Hallgrímson’s (aka MUNDI’s) cartoon-like textile version of the above-mentioned “Lonely Mountain,” made of soft, thick wool.
The Americans’ art was by contrast much more severe. Katie Baldwin’s prints were more stripped-down than in the past, with large empty areas punctuated by dark forms. Looking like a foggy horizon view from the bridge of a fishing boat, Marianne Bernstein’s Braille Constellation series consisted white squares embossed with a line of braille. And tucked in a dark corner of the exhibition space, Cindi Ettinger and Katya Gorker’s video What we Did projected the Martian landscape of northern Iceland onto a pair of boulder-like forms.
The exhibition’s video art, in fact, showed the largest contrasts of style and aesthetic. The show’s centerpiece was a sequence of enormous projections that turned the 100 foot expanse of the Icebox into a colossal View-Master. David Scott Kessler’s Lopi: A Traveler’s Saga in Four Divinations was a Wagnerian epic of Iceland’s harsh landscape. With the iconic Icelandic fortune-teller as a narrative nexus, the video showcased steamy geologic formations, the northern lights, and nighttime shots of shaggy Icelandic horses. Compare that to Ragnar Kjartansson’s Guilt Trip, a 10-minute piece running on a standard-sized monitor. In it, the well-known Icelandic artist wanders the icy landscape dressed in a city overcoat and pointing a shotgun at nothing in particular. With a goofball humor reminiscent of Jon Stewart’s fake news correspondents, this video took pot-shots at the business corruption that led to Iceland’s recent banking collapse.
Subjects like this one—and that of artist Rúrí’s Future Cartography III, a pair of large printed maps showing global climate change’s subtractions from the coastal landscapes of both Iceland and the eastern United States—were a sign that Iceland’s artists are thinking about the same issues as artists everywhere. Although the rocks on which they live are strange and wonderful indeed, Icelanders’ DNA seems to be same as everyone else’s.