Beginning its development in the early twentieth century, visual art is now becoming an important part of Icelandic culture. Throughout the years, the small island has produced many distinguished artists and received more and more attention from both local and international audiences.
Elsa talked to the owner and director of i8 Gallery Reykjavik Börkur Arnarson (BA), and two Icelandic visual artists Sara Riel (SR) and Gabríela Friðriksdóttir (GF) seperately to get a deeper view of Icelandic contemporary art.
Gabríela Friðriksdóttir – “Crepusculum” animation (2011), Photo: Jiri Hroník
Sara Riel – Hands (2008)
How do you describe Icelandic contemporary art in one word? and why?
BA: Blossoming – These are good times in many respects for Icelandic visual artists, who are finding various opportunities to show their works around the world.
GF: International, because it is and Icelanders go all around the world for their artistic education.
SR: Smart. The scene is diverse, but the ideas are usually pretty clever and are referring to a wide range of elements or themes, may it be feelings or ideas. But usually one goes a bit a-ha I get it.
Also, this word has another meaning in Icelandic, referring to something that is nice looking or cool and contemporary.
Do you think contemporary art has become an important element in Icelandic culture?
BA: Slowly, slowly perhaps. Visual art comes third in the nation’s priorities. Iceland is a verbal and literary nation, but also with international stars in music. I think, it is only once we have a couple of Icelandic superstars within visual arts, that there will be a general understanding on its importance.
GF: Contemporary art is the main field artists in Iceland are practising, at least in the visual arts. The Academy of the Arts in Iceland is contemporary, so it’s a big part of the whole culture.
SR: Yes, if you mean how we all influence each other, the constant stream of inspiration that goes back and forth between the music scene, fine art scene, literature scene, film scene and theater and dance scene it is all one large scene. These creative people are in close relation to each other, many are friends and the boundaries are truly blurry. Just look at Ragnar Kjartansson’s work, it is a mix of music, literature, theater and fine art, sometimes even dance and definitely film.
Gabriela Fridriksdottir – Inside The Core, Sculpture No. 9 (2006), Photo: A.Burger
Do you think Icelandic art has got enough publication and attention in Iceland itself? How about from the international?
BA: Icelandic art tends to get much better coverage in the international media than the Icelandic one. This is not limited to visual arts. It is only when Icelandic artists have gained some international recognition or even fame, that the Icelandic media wakes up and starts to think: “Who is this guy / girl?“
GF: Icelandic Art is well published in its own country and has spread fast internationally in the last ten years.
SR: No! Fine art has never gotten much attention, it has been through the years mainly presented in the radio and literature and theater is presented in the television. The event recently cancelled the only cultural television show and made it into a lame a** bit after the news that does not even have professionals reporting the cultural news. It’s just very sad. Openings are sometimes at the back of the newspaper in the people section but there is rarely a review, and when there is one it is more of a description of the exhibition than a critique. Only on the rarest occasions there is extra money in a project to make a publication, a catalogue or anything of that sort. Some artists have gotten international fame and the one that is riding the largest wave any fine artist from the island has ever ridden is Ragnar Kjartansson. He is very generous in presenting Icelandic art to the world, a bit in the same tradition as Björk has done for music, but we still have to see if it will fly as high as the music scene has managed to do. Because in reality most of us are stuck here in the middle of the Atlantic ocean, wanting to live here but craving for adventures and opportunities around the globe.
What is it like to be an artist in Iceland?
BA: It is no less a struggle to be an artist in Iceland than in many other places in the world. Living in Reykjavik is expensive, and the current gentrification of the old town is pushing artists out of their studios. On the upside, it is still relatively easy to produce artworks. The smallness of the place, means that you are on average two phone calls away from the drawing board into the production of a project.
GF: It’s absolutely great to be an artist in Iceland.
SR: It is different for each and everyone. Like everywhere else people struggle to live off it and many fall short and abandon the field because of lack of financial security. Other than that, it is pretty interesting, the level of quality is high, there is a bunch of ambition, unbelievable amount of exhibition openings each month, in regards to the size of Reykjavik city.
Maybe the best of all is that the history of Icelandic art is super short so we are still not bound to anything. It is truly whatever it likes to be, it is free, with no rules to speak of. The art market is unfortunately rather small, but maybe on some other level it is a blessing in disguise. Because of that, no one I know that is a legit player is making art for the market, everyone is making it out of sincere love of contemporary art. If the works sell and bring in cash, that is well appreciated but not the main goal.
Sara Riel – The Mushroom (2012)
How do you wish to see Icelandic art in 10 years?
BA: I would wish for its future success. I think it is based on the continued quality of the Iceland Academy of Arts, that it will have the reputation to continue to attract foreign teachers and students. I hope that art students will carry on seeking further education and experience elsewhere, which is a bit difficult at the moment. It would be disastrous if a whole generation grows up without any connection to the outside world. On a personal level, I would welcome more colleagues into the art world, would love to see more galleries in Reykjavik, to continue the conversation between artists and collectors.
GF:That the art scene will still be as dynamic as it is today and more so!
SR: I wish I will never know what the art will bring because the main purpose is to be surprising, mind-blowing, exciting, eye candy, soul food and ever fresh.
Sara Riel is a visual artist based in Reykjavik. She elaborates visual language and personal style, addressing social concerns, nature and science. Sara is well-known for her big scale murals are around Reykjavik which can also be found on the streets of major cities like Berlin and Tokyo. She has had several solo exhibitions including at The National Gallery of Iceland in 2013
Photo: Lilja Birgisdóttir & Jet Korine
Gabríela Friðriksdóttir is a contemporary visual artist from Iceland. She received the Annual “Penninn” Prize for young artists in Iceland in 1999. She has collaborated with several Icelandic musicians including Björk and Michael Wookey. Gabriela became Icelandic representative for the Venice Biennale in 2005.
Photo: Kristinn Ingvarsson
Börkur Arnarson is the owner and director of i8 Gallery Reykjavik. i8 Gallery was founded in 1998 and represents an eclectic mix of Icelandic and international contemporary artists. The gallery represents 20 artists including Ragnar Kjartansson.
Photo: Ari Magg.
Elsa Hestriana, 2015.
Featured image by Gabríela Friðriksdóttir