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Dreams of the Sublime and Nowhere in Contemporary Icelandic Art
Olga Bergmann, Panorama, 2001. Courtesy of the artist.

REYKJAVIK.- This exhibition includes many new works of photography and video art by Iceland’s most outstanding artists, building on their disparate ideas about nature as a phenomenon. The exhibition ranges from early twentieth-century photographs to recent installations by young and noted Icelandic artists. Curated by Æsa Sigurjónsdóttir. This exhibition was first mounted at the Bozar Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels as part of the 2008 Iceland on the Edge festival. The exhibition is part of the program of the Reykjavik Arts Festival. The National Bank of Iceland is the main sponsor of this exhibition.

Anna Hallin , Daníel Þorkell Magnússon, Gjörningaklúbburinn / Icelandic Love Corporation, Halldór Ásgeirsson, Hrafnkell Sigurðsson, Hreinn Friðfinnsson, Kristján Guðmundsson, Ólafur Elíasson, Olga Bergmann, Pétur Thomsen, Ragnar Kjartansson, Sigurður Guðjónsson, Spessi, Steina Vasulka, Vigfús Sigurgeirsson.

The Icelandic poets of the 19th and early 20th century spoke with veneration of the sublimity of their country, of its massive glaciers and mighty waterfalls. In 1905, the poet Einar Benediktsson praised the enormous power of Dettifoss—allegedly the most powerful waterfall in Europe—calling it a “hefty troll” and “the river giant’s flood.” Icelandic nature has not changed much over the last century, but these metaphors seem misplaced today. The mountain ranges, glaciers and waterfalls are still overwhelming. The wilderness remains dangerous and terrifying—it is a “sublime” nature in the sense that Edmund Burke understood the term. Yet everything has changed. Technical advancement has made the potential of damming “the river giant’s flood” an ever present threat. And the mighty glaciers are melting. No part of the earth, no matter how remote, is outside the range of global warming. As the naturalist Bill McKibban has argued, we have not only polluted our environment, we have changed the very meaning of “Nature”—we have deprived it of its independence: “We have changed the most basic forces around us. We have changed the atmosphere, and that is changing the weather. The temperature and the rainfall are no longer entirely the work of some uncivilizable force but instead are in part a product of our habits, our economies, our ways of life.”

This is the reality that contemporary Icelandic artists work within. As they respond to the sublime and the nowhere of the wilderness, they must grapple with the changes. They must ask themselves how nature can be “sublime” if it has lost its Otherness. They must try to rethink their place in nature. In this exhibition, curator Æsa Sigurjónsdóttir brings together many of these responses so the viewer can explore them in all their complexity. She has gathered artists of different generations and included several of the most prominent younger artists working in Iceland today. Sigurjónsdóttir is also the editor of this book, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank her for her nuanced work. This is the first exhibition that explores the place of the “sublime” in Icelandic visual arts.

The exhibition was produced by the Reykjavík Art Museum with generous support from the Icelandic Ministry of Education, Science and Culture. It was first presented at the Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels as part of an Icelandic festival—called “On the Edge”—from February through April 2008 and then at the Reykjavik Art Museum—Kjarvalsstaðir from May 17 through August 19, as part of the Reykjavík Art Festival 2008.

Hafthor Yngvason
Director of the Reykjavík Art Museum, Reykjavík

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