Collapse. A word replete with meaning, yet vague. Referencing certain dates, shifting currency market statistics, a different reality, and at best, even a changed world view. Like it or not, the collapse marked a certain divide in the Icelandic discourse. Whether it makes us laugh or cry to hear people declare that only post-collapse did many begin to put values such as togetherness, friendship, and raising children above material goods, yet the dominant discourse on it all—happiness and money—has unquestionably undergone a sea change. We now have permission to speak differently than we used to: we can say things it used to be best not to have bruited about; it is permissible to think—differently, and given different assumptions than before.
In 1966, French thinker Michel Foucault coined the term episteme to describe the possibilities and limitations of thought at any given time. Foucault divided the history of human thought in the West into several epochs. Concerning us most closely is the modern epoch, which succeeded the classical around 1800. Crisis characterised the opening of modern times. A deep crisis of the soul of the civilised white male forced to face the fact that between his own consciousness and the surrounding reality there was, in a certain sense, an unbridgeable gap. Certainly, human consciousness enabled him to experience the reality all around (and himself as a part of it); to describe it, understand it and define it. But at the same time, it bound him to a given place and time. Man was unable to transcend his experience. His view of reality was formed by his own experience, his own past, his point of view and his assumptions. The human longing for a firm foundation, reliable information and measurable truth was channelled into science. New means were invented to analyse reality. The microscope, the camera, sound recording equipment and a variety of other instruments were used to bring out what human consciousness had been unable to sense, and had not previously been viewed as part of reality. The invisible was made visible, the inner acquired a new meaning, and everything was organised in a system, making the world more manageable. Suddenly, life became more efficient. Aims grew clearer. Factories grew more productive. Adam Smith’s theory of supply and demand moulded the world of business. The concepts of production and productivity acquired a new meaning. Individuals became small cogs in the capitalistic system of production.
Literature and history, formerly intertwined in a turbulent tale of the past, went their separate ways. The text was not allowed to flow. Literature was meant to bring order to the mind, to describe reality in the most profound detail, the inner as well as the outer. Science put its mark on music and visual arts, no less than literature. At some point in time, it became generally agreed that the visual artist’s role was first and foremost to express a personal view of reality, rather than to depict it faithfully. Here, photography came to the rescue. Despite the fact that anyone who wanted to know knew that a photograph, not a pure replica of reality, was actually a complex interplay of matter and spirit, yet photography had a certain air of neutrality. Its relation to objective reality was of a different kind, and in a certain sense clearer, than the relation between other media and the world around us. The photographer might control the point of view and play with chemistry and light, both while the picture was being taken and in the darkroom. But you could not deny that it was reality itself which left its trace on a photosensitive surface. This connection with reality was extolled in all marketing of photography. The camera was a simple piece of equipment that anyone could use to capture true reality. The black-and-white photograph was thus felt to be truer and closer to reality than a painting, which reflected the artist’s present experience, past practice, talent and personal view of the world.
The twentieth century ran its course within the modern knowledge space. The shake-up led by Michel Foucault and other French thinkers (such as Claude Lévi-Strauss, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida) during the final thirty years of the century cracked open the modern knowledge space, creating new possibilities for thought. A new balance of power post-Cold War, a desperate search for a new enemy, new communication patterns and technological innovations at the turn of the 20th century—these developments have not only changed our experience of time and space, providing new solutions and creating new problems. They have also erased boundaries that seemed self-evident during the 20th century, such as the boundaries between work and home, production and consumption, science and the arts. The possibilities and constraints of thought are not what they were before.
It is within this new knowledge space that Ósk Vilhjálmsdóttir creates works that not only reflect our times before and after the Collapse, but also nudge reality, even making it look away shyly or laugh merrily.
Her work, Power in Your Hands re-creates a moment many people would no doubt rather forget. Six men in suits and a short-haired, black-suited woman, who blends into the group remarkably well, have joined hands, making a human chain that nothing can break, unless possibly changing economic fundamentals. Valgerður Sverrisdóttir, then Minister of Industry, the only woman in the group, has hooked palms with Alain Benda, CEO of Alcoa. It looks like she won’t want to let go. The work is a visual expression of the collusion and cosiness between Icelandic authorities and foreign and local capitalists. The scene is taken from reality, it springs from reality. The scene was originally caught by camera at a ceremony where Minister of Industry Valgerður Sverrisdóttir and Prime Minister Geir Haarde, on behalf of the Icelandic nation, along with representatives of national power company Landsvirkjun and the CEO of Alcoa, signed an agreement for the use of energy from the Kárahnjúkar dam and construction of Alcoa’s 322,000 metric tonne aluminium smelter at Reyðarfjörður in March of 2003. More than a thousand guests watched. An aluminium smelter was to be built in town, and for the occasion, the CEO of Alcoa decided to present the town with a sports facility and the local nursing home with a flag. The townspeople heartily rejoiced. Capital had arrived in town. A photograph of the event appeared in the media. The nation watched, but may not have realised the symbolic nature of the event, and how symptomatic it was of the dead end where the Icelandic nation found itself. Everything was up for sale on the international markets, both spirit and matter.
The photograph confirms the reality that characterised Iceland’s national life and thought at the opening of the 21st Century. Ósk catches the moment and enlarges it. The photograph capturing a decisive moment in the flow of time becomes an art performance when Ósk picks up her brush and turns a photograph into a painting. Still, she doesn’t change a thing. The colours are the same. The facial features, the wrinkles, Friðrik Sophusson’s sincere joy and Alain Balda’s awkwardness. All of it is conveyed through Ósk’s brush strokes. The painting is a faithful replica of the photo. Still, the transformation does have other effects. Despite all shake-ups, despite all the blurred boundaries and the digital revolution, a painting has a more tenuous connection with reality than a photograph. Looking at Ósk’s work, it is easy to disbelieve. Easy to think: I can’t believe the American flag was on stage; I can’t believe they held hands like that; I can’t believe their eyes had that eager shine; I refuse to believe there was that strange mix of joy and embarrassment conveyed by the work. But looking at the photograph on which it is based, I’m forced to believe. The photo demonstrates it to me, black on white. The reality of that moment was as surreal as Ósk’s work. The painting exalts this feeling of unreality, capturing and sharing with the viewer what we might call the aura or the essence of the times we experienced in Iceland at the outset of the 21st century.
In the knowledge space we currently inhabit, the formerly exalted contrast between photography and painting has been eliminated. The digital revolution has cut the chemical connection to reality, giving greater scope to the creative elements of photography. We know, just like people always did know, that the photo is not a pure replica of reality. Rather, it is formed partly by the photographer’s point of view and by the assumptions made while working on it. Just like the meaning we attribute to the photograph is formed by the assumptions we, as viewers, make in interpreting it, locating it within reality and our world of idea. Despite all that. Despite the fact that people form both the photograph itself and the meaning attributed to it, the photographer does not completely control it. The photographer does not form each movement, every unanticipated disturbance of the backdrop, the expression of those photographed and the look in their eyes. Perhaps this disturbance, beyond our control, is what is the essence of the photograph. We can view it as some sort of evidence of reality, a reminder that reality exists not only within us and in our relation to the external; it exists independently of us. And just as we can form and change it, it can also shape us and surprise us. Reality itself puts its mark on the photograph. We can’t look away, pretending this moment never existed, because the disturbance has already occurred.
Ósk Vilhjálmsdóttir does not attempt to look away, does not try to gloss over the marks reality has carved into the picture. She exalts them. She enlarges the moment, giving it a new texture, a new context.
Tycoon Jóhannes of Bónus presents the Mothers’ Aid Commission with a food basket for Christmas. The gift is accompanied by the promise of a bigger gift. The Mothers’ Aid Commission receive a present of ISK 21 million in December of 2006. Yes, 2006. Two years before the great collapse. A newspaper photographer arrives to catch the event on film. In the foreground: some Ora canned peas and a bottle of Coke. Jóhannes has a paternal air, powerful, yet kind-hearted. Bishop Karl Sigurbjörnsson watches from a distance. In a newspaper interview, Jóhannes says he’s feeling the Christmas spirit. “You always feel good when you give, and from day one, it’s been our guiding principle that if you don’t give, you don’t get,” says Jóhannes.
Ósk’s work brings out the sanctimonious air caught by the photo. Rather than creating an exact replica, she plays with the subject matter, stylising it in the manner of propaganda posters from the 1920s. While making the moment unreal in a certain sense, this brings across the heart of the matter. The painting’s texture and the mood created by Ósk underline it. The light flooding in through a window gives the picture religious overtones, emphasised by the cross of the bishop who watches in the distance and the gaze of the three persons drinking in the kind-hearted capitalist’s every movement as he nicely arranges the gift basket on a table facing us, the audience. The capitalist’s benevolence and generosity are thus sarcastically exalted.
In Bónus, Ósk highlights the reality that characterised Icelandic society during the boom years before the Collapse. The obvious stands out a mile; he who has too much gives to those who have too little, but the underlying question is why some people have too much while others have practically nothing. In this sense, Ósk’s work may be seen as criticism of the discourse claiming that everyone participated in the excesses, everyone spent more than they earned, everyone was addicted to consumption, everyone was divorced from reality. Such an interpretation resonates with the meaning we can attribute to Lán, which can ambiguously mean either Good fortune or Loan, where the Icelandic tycoons, cloaked in the garb of responsibility, appear about to make an enticing offer which will subsequently mire Joe and Jane Consumer in the quicksand of debt. The nattily clad tycoons need the working people’s money to support their house of cards.
The working people, the proletariat who have nothing to lose, except perhaps their debts, appear to us in a painting painted from a photograph taken by Ósk herself on the Seaman’s Day at Stykkishólmur. The work was originally exhibited at her show “Rowing for Your Life” at Hafnarborg in 2009. Perhaps the subject may be described as rowing for your life with no destination in view. In the boat nearest to the viewer, we see two men rowing with implements—ordinary garden spades—that appear ill-suited to the task. They sweat and struggle, but don’t seem to be making much headway. Their voyage comes across as aimless splashing. The leader sits in the bow, holding a beer. A slight belly protrudes above his waistline, and the statement on his T-shirt forces itself on our attention: Brown is the color of Poo. Ósk adopts this title for her work, thus drawing our attention to the words and to the man who sits idly by while his comrades row full tilt on a calm sea, not giving shit for any of it. Pointing out the obvious. Poo is brown. Were it not for this simple but disconcerting statement, the work would be in better balance. The words, which only state the obvious, disturb the equilibrium. Somehow, this unexpected disturbance is what points out the reality out there. The painting thus not only shows us working men making merry on Seamen’s Day; it also raises questions about the life they lead, the feelings they have, the thoughts they think, or might think. We must not forget that this is a painting. Not a photograph. So the people aren’t real. Or are they?
Ósk Vilhjálmsdóttir not only finds her models in the real world; she pulls reality into the picture. In this way, she raises questions about truth, glorification and values. Although the surface may look simple, nothing is given. The past acquires new meaning. The meaning is formed by the knowledge space we inhabit, our opportunities to think about reality as it is and as it was. Art involves the possibility of breaking through these boundaries. To think what you were not allowed to think. To point out what most people proved unable to point out. What appears to be only a minor disturbance may later provide a clue as to how and why things were the way they were. Are. Before the Collapse. After the Collapse.
A consideration on a few of the works of Óskar Vilhjálmsdóttur in terms of (art) space
The works of Ósk Vilhjálsmóttir are varied and connected to their time of creation. Because of that it is not productive to talk about style or form in discussing them. It is rather a question of process and space. In order to examine the process of her work it is necessary to examine her methods and the way the works come into being in relation to the social and natural space Ósk chooses to work with ant to work into. It is in this context that it becomes interesting to examine the ideas of the french sociologist Henri Lefevbre about social space and its production.
It is fundamental in Lefevre’s theories that it does not suffice to research the manner things are produced, either for consumption or for use. He maintains that in order to understand the way power and struggle function one has to accept that space itself is also produced, but not merely an empty receptacle. He is therefore interested in an examination of how the frame of meaning itself comes to be, the “space of representation”, the vehicle of power and politics. Additionally, he thinks it important to get to know how the “representation of space” works, how it appears in culture, art, and the environment.
The question I want to propose in this context is therefore: How does the art of Ósk Vilhjálmsdóttir exhibit the contemporary representation of space, and how does that affect the general framework, the space of representation?
The Production of Space
Just as other goods produced for consumption produced space, including social space, is characterized by increased standardization, efficiency and effectiveness. Space is produced in order to facilitate an increase in production and consumption. The production of space works as to enforce the foundation of the economic systems and modern capitalism. The opposition to production is the ouvre, or body of work. The ouvre is a thing that can be enjoyed instead of being consumed. It is not based upon an demand of return. The concept of the oeuvre is analogical to creativity as a concept. The oeuvre is in no way standardized but rather unique and particular, non-categorized and does not provide any return. That is the case with nature. Natural space outside of production is an oeuvre that is a basis for non-standardized and non-habitual enjoyment, outside of return and profit. Artwork as well can fall under this category, as long as they are oeuvres, works in that sense that are not produced. The different approaches of oeuvres and production is also related to the system behind power, especially in connection with control of conslumer society under capitalism. The system of production, where revenue and profit are adamant, makes it necessary to control space and its constituents. The production of space therefore is to a great deal a question of domination. The one who controls space and the objects within it is able to subsume space under production and its premises and thus is able to systematically increase his revenue and profit. Oeuvres are in their context not under the control of the financial system or the system of production—you don’t need to dominate an oeuvre, but rather the enjoyment of oeuvres is based on their appropriation, in the way they are incorporated without becoming a part of the system of productiona, without needing to be dominated. When nature, or art, is enjoyed as an oeuvre there is no more any need to dominate space—the space of the oeuvre is open and free when its context is based on appropriation and not production.
It is not just space that becomes produced according to Lefevbre—that also applies to time, although in a negative way. Time can only be spent (as it is in Momo by Michael Ende). That is precicely what happens in the process of production, time is spent and no longer exists. Time is indeed the greatest threat to the forces of production and and the processes of production because it cannot be dominated. Time is for ever ephemeral, and, as Lefevre says, it is only ever present in its remnants, in what is left behind. Production is based on constant renewal, and in making time disappear in a ever present modernity where standardization, and profit, reign over every demand. The production of space and in the constant emphasis on space instead of the makes time fall into shadow, to fade and whither away. Therefore no time is left, no time to enjoy the oeuvres because that does not suit the system of production and returns.
Ready-Made Family Pictures
Let’s watch select examples from Ósk’s oeuvre, to see how her works represent space to us, and how that informs us in respect to our living space. Is our entire space dependant upon the forces of production and streamlined practicality? Can the work of Ósk indicate ways of valuing space, to create space that is not in constant production and does not depend upon the premises of the forces of production?
At one point Ósk used family snapshots she managed to acquire in the Berlin fleemarkets as material for her work. These were slides that families had made over time, which had later, probably after the people involved had passed away, been sold to the fleemarkets because none of the other family members were interested in them. These were therfore obsolete family pictures, images that at some time been the joy, and central point, in the registration of family history, but that had now lost that purpose when the survivors no longer were interested in that articular history.
Ósk utilized this found imagery in many ways in her exibitions over a period. In an exhibition in I8 Gallery in Reykjavík she exhibited the images in a similar manner they had been presented originally, projected by a slide projector on a screen. The screen in this case was however not set up in the living room, as it had probably been originally. The images were projected outwards from the closed gallery space onto the window opeining out onto the street. The traditional exhibition space was closed to the audience, which was however able to view the show on the “projection”-window of the gallery—thus the family pictures of unrelated Berliners were projected outwards onto a narrow street in the cnter of Reykjavík.
Another presentation of this imagery was rather more candid. Ósk had a selection of images printed alongside with poetic texts by Hjálmar Sveinsson and exhibited those on the walls of Mokkakaffi, a traditional artistic coffeehouse in Reykjavík. In this context the images were elevated as works of art, and here the viewer was able to look at them in the context of each other, compare them and ponder upon how the text cintextualized the images (or not). This version of the images also became a prper publication—the works were published as a collection in a box, a multiple that people were able to buy for themselves and enjoy in the privacy of their home (or to archive in the case of museums of collectors).
Another presentation of the found images were works where a large number of slides were assembled together in in an enormous mosaic that tatally covered the windows of the exhibition space. One of these works was exhibited in the main hall of the Reykjavík City Councol building, where more than 9000 slides covered the entire area of the large windowpane. Understandibly slide transparencies are not very resistant to fading in bright sunlight. Therefore the images faded away over the time of the exhibition until all that remained were faint marks, traces of things that were.
When the different types of these works are considered in the context of ideas of space and its production, it becomes obvious that the connection between the images and the spaces they inhabit varies a lot. In the first piece, the one that follows the tradition of slide-projection, we are presented with pictures that to a large extent have lost their original meaning, a meaning that was connected with emotions related to the people they depict. Instead of being representations of feelings and memories of ones loved ones, the people become obvious and present in the pictures, the slides, in Ósk’s presentation have become representations of the universal. In stead of presenting to us specific people in a specific time in their life, these images present us with universal people in non-personal locations. In this case there are no authors to the images, no one that is able to authorize their meaning. These images instead present us with anthropological facts: this is how people photographed their family.
Each image that appears in the window in I8 Gallery does not appear but a moment. Because of that you cannot examine it in detail. Instead of that you see the universal, the habitual. It is there that the spatiality of these pictures presents itself: Unwittingly they become representations of produced space. With their specificity gone, as well as the personal context—the unique and individual—there is nothing left except production itself, the production of space that surrounded the lives of these people and the objects they chose to surround themselves with. Most shocking is the fact that the people themselves, once individual persons, are no less a part of this represented space, this social space, than are the surroundings, and the objects, and the bric-a-brac. The look, the facial gestures and the body posture becomes just as universal in this work as the environment and its objects. It is the social space that becomes an enclosure that rules the people no less than their environment. Through the workings of history and forgetfullness the photography itself has turned into just another aspect of the production that distuinguishes other aspects of the space.
The printed version uses the found photographs in a totally different manner. It is obvious here that the foundation of the images is no longer the collection, the unedited multiplicity. Rather it is based on the choice of specific images. The criteria for choosing excacly these images are however in no way evident. It must suffice that here we have to trust the knowledge of the artist and authority. Instead of the universality of the previous piece, which emphasized the production of space, we perceive the authority of the author in this one. Instead of the universal we here have the unique: Here the work emphazises the oeuvre, the unique, special. and personal. Here we can say that the elevation of Ósk in her work draws atention to new personal aspects of the images, ones they had previously lost.
The third work that Ósk made with these found family snap-shots draws these representations back into the universal. In Gallery I8 you were able to view individual large images for a short moment. In City Hall the images are exhibited in their real size. The people they represent are no longer recognizable and nothing remains but the reference to the bourgois space they inhabit. The wey this third work elevates them is not related to a select choice of images, it is obvious that no real chi-oice has been made her but that rather it is the multitude of images that creates the effect of the piece. Here artistic elevation depends on the system that underlies the exhibition—when the pictures have become a part of the colorful play of light that illuminates the main space of City Hall the power of the multitude, together with the beauty of the colors geving the piece as a whole an artistic feel and emotion. Individual images do not count any more—they are nothing but curious samples in the experiencing of the viewer when he approaches the work in order to ascertain what kind of images there are. The colorful field therefore attains meaning in terms of social space, as singular pictures become special when the viewer goes up close in order to find out what is the couse of the flickering lights. The multitude of pictures emphasizes their universality. It is no longer possible for the viewer to differentiate between them, he only sees the common characteristic—an eternal repetition of bourgeois images of family and friends, where the style of the author is long gone and where these pictures are only symbols of their production, of the production and iteration of the habits of bourgeois society.
Settlement In the first years of the new millennium Ósk did many works dealing with types of shelter. Huts or tents were constructed as temporary locations for work or staying, in the open or within traditional exhibition spaces. They therefore became spaces within spaces. These spaces, these abodes, fulfilled different needs depending upon the situation. Sometimes they became places where somthing happened, interaction between Ósk and others, discourse or the creation of art. Sometimes they were just areas for exhibiting where the audience was enclosed within the space and confined to watching, regarding, noticing—or the abodes projected their contents onto their external area, in a similar manner as the slides had been projected onto the wall in Gallery I8.
A fundamental theme of these works was the idea of settlement, both in a mental and physical sense. It is under that premise that Ósk did her research and posed questions about how society expands itself. Among these works was a peice that was simply titled Settlement. In that work Ósk was assisted by a group of children. They built the hut that became the exhibition space. They explained their ideas and dreams about the creation of their world and their home in video works that were shown within the huts. On the outside of the huts Ósk presented landscape photographs depicting the nes suburbs surrounding Reykjavík. These were neighborhoods that had shocked her at the outset but they, in a certain manner, managed to charm her while the work was in process. In this work Ósk tackles the margins of social space and natural space, how mankind literally spreads out and dominates his surroundings. The children are those that will inherit the newly produced space. Nature, or rather the oeuvre of nature, can be the raw material for production, or the ground for space itself. The creative oeuvre therefore always is the foundation for production.
Art and Society
In works like the settlement-pieces Ósk, as we have seen, examines social space with the aid of children that serve as some sort of representatives. In other pieces whe elaborates in more varied ways upon this idea of the representative. A common element in these relational works is primarily the fact that Ósk, as the artist, does not enforce her authority. She allowed the work of the author to formulate itself according to the representatives that participated in the work. “The oeuvre” therefore became a sort of place or location for a research about social space and social time that was spent in selfless interaction based on what Lefevbre describes as appropriation. This became a work that Ósk organized and initiated, but in a way that more often than not resulted in a surprizing and non-controlable outcome. Therefore these abodes of social research in reality turned into a certain kind of presentation—artistic elevation—of processes that Ósk initiated.
An example of such a process is the exhibition, or spectacle, entitled Something Else in Gallery Hlemmur in Reykjavík in 2003. There Ósk used the exhibiton space to engage in direct dialogue about art instead of making a work of art for the space. Another example is the way Ósk acted as a professor in a course in The Art University of Iceland. The course was to be about Art and Society. Ósk was the professor but in practice she refused to assume that role, in a similar way as she had refused the authority of the artist in Gallery Hlemmur. The course became a cooperative endeavour of her and her students where they turned their focus upon the social space of the institution itself where they were studying. The emphasis therefore became different from usual practice where the authority of the professor and the institution are beyond doubt. Instead of discussing ideologies and ard in a traditional manner, based on the universal aspects of society and ideas, and the individual examination of the student himself, the oeuvre practiced those ideas in a research into the institution itself and its premises. Society in the title of the course turned into the social space of the students themselves. The Art University of Iceland as an institution, and the social space that it is constantly producing, became the object of research instead of focusing outward sheltering the productive practice of the institution from itself. Here Ósk dug beneath the surface and undermined the authority of the Art University as a producer by turning the research and its premises. This proved an irritation for the habitual and traditional processes the institution and its productive habits was based upon—those that were supposed to bow to the authority of the academy had suddenly become specialists in its affairs, and empowered in a way that is usually not the lot of workers or students that most often are docile participants in the processes of production.
Appropriation or Domination
As we have already mentioned, it is fundamental in discussing the oeuvre of Ósk to go beyond the aspects of her life and work that are comfortably contained within a traditional or formal understanding of the concept of art. We have already seen, as in her work at The Art University, that it is often much more useful to use Lefevbre’s concept of oeuvre when discussing her work. In that sense her works are definde according to their effect on social or political space. Ósk often works in terms of artistic context in an organized and open manner. She has also often focused on situations that are beyond actual art spaces. This applies especially well to the activities of Ósk in the domain of the Kárahnjúkadam, around the river Jökla and in the surrounding areas in the years before the area was spatially produced in a monumental manner.
These interventions, tours into the natural spaces that were destined to be industrialized at the time, would seldom be called works of art, even though the organization of the trips and the mode of travel often carried traces of performances and performativity. Ósk organized tours into a little known and uncolonized areas, in terms of the tourist industry, into areas that had not yet been produced as utilizable areas for travel, that rather special mix of natural space and produced social space that the travel industry makes for itself. These areas were virgin territories outside of production when Ósk started organizing tours there. These tours were initially a response to the most gradioise plan for production in terms of natural space ever envisioned in Iceland up to that time. In a way the extensive plans for hydroelectric power plants and dams were on a magnitude similar to the industrial revolution. The intention was to take an extensive reach of wilderness, until then only the habitat of reindeer, gees and sheep, and turn it into a sublime feat of production and revenue. The area had up till then been to the most extent the oeuvre of nature, one which had very little cultural representation. These tours of Ósk into that unspoilt area therefore became tours of settlement where space was used in the behalf of people and their experiences.
Those tours, as practice, did not involve a production of space, except on a very small scale. The area kept its natural sense through the process, an excellent example of Lefevbre’s appropriation, where people adapt ot natural space in a manner that does not include the production that goes hand in hand with property, enjoying what natural space, in the context of social space, has to offer without the domination of property. This appropriation in terms of the groups Ósk guided in the eastern wilderness was in direct opposition to the plans she was protesting against. Those, in turn, were the perfect example of domination, on Lefevbre’s terms, when the one utilizing a space reforms it in a dramatic way, claiming it and all its aspects as property through the processes of production. The tactics of Ósk and her collaborators in her tours, however, practiced a varied form of appropriation. Even though the oeuvre was not an actual work of art, it never-the-less had elements that would be termed artistic in the way they diverged from the habitual practice of mountain tourism. Ósk’s organized actions in the torus, social actions, therefore often had more to do with artistic performance that tourism, as when women in the tours were encouraged to wear colorful and frivolous dresses instead or the traditional goretex attire of mountain tourism. The decoartive dresses led to a joyful, carnivalesque atmosphere that attributed a great deal to the appropriation of Ósk’s settlement of the area.
Unfortunately this work of Ósk and the women that collaborated with her proved no match for the machinery and power of capitalist production. Therefore this newly settled and appropriated area became the arena for the most colossal production of space in Icelandic history, a production of space that still continues unbound in the name of un-flinching domination.
Ósk Vilhjálmsdóttir occupies a special place in the Icelandic art world. Locating her art subjectively within the public space, she has addressed issues involving the artist’s political function and art’s power to influence the global situation faced by both artists and viewers over the past decade.
Ósk puts visual art in unexpected contexts, seeking for art a new – often delocalized – forum, thus joining the ranks of artists who have worked to expand the concept of art. In a nutshell, her art is grounded in participation and dialogue referring to questions of politics and ethics. An activist herself, her stance toward art and societal issues is a critical one. The nature of her subject matter is thus always societal, her work addressing nature conservation, the economic collapse, immigration and the new Icelandic identity. In her effort to engage the viewer, Ósk frequently poses questions. She encourages the viewer to participate, for her work rests on the fundamental idea that art is sparked through the situation, collaboration and togetherness of individuals.
Ósk here draws on ideas formed during the 1960s, when artists such as Allan Kaprow (1927-2006), Robert Filliou (1926-1987) and Joseph Beuys (1921-1986) pondered the artist’s moral responsibility in society. Foreseeing the need to redefine the artist’s place and find for art a meaning and a purpose in the context of the new reality taking shape during the Cold War – not least through the influence of the media and art’s changing cultural position – these artists all took part in expanding the art space, opening up new avenues for creating art. Though their art overlapped but slightly, they held in common the desire to erase the boundaries between art and reality, making art into a social force outside the institutions of art.
The conviction of art’s political power now back on the agenda, the ideas of Beuys and American performance artist Allan Kaprow have been rebooted. This is why Kaprow’s words have such a familiar ring: “Power in art is not like that in a nation or in big business. A picture never changed the price of eggs. But a picture can change our dreams; and pictures may in time clarify our values. The power of artists is precisely the influence they wield over the fantasies of their public. The measure of this power lies not only in the magnitude of this influence but in its quality as well…As it is involved in quality, art is a moral act.”
Fluxus artists Joseph Beuys and Robert Filliou also believed in art’s moral power. Beuys held words and discourse to be sculpture, defining art in terms of political action. Robert Filliou viewed art as the perfect form of creative communication, seeking to make art into a part of society as natural as trade and business, while Kaprow advanced ideas to the effect that art should be based on the shared experience of artist and participants.
As the 20th century drew to a close, artists were in search of a new extra-institutional forum for grappling with these changed artistic norms. Their work called for a larger context, for the nature of the subject matter was political, often touching on international or environmental issues. This “new genre public art” has been characterized both as an open expressive space and an untraditional place of sorts, off the beaten track, where artists grapple with current issues through unconventional media and methods. This new public space can be a situation where opinions are formed through an open, unconstrained process. In everyday terms, it may be likened to a forum for discussion and a free exchange of ideas. While network media and the World Wide Web have certainly developed into such a public forum, visual artists think of this kind of forum in terms of ideas of space and people’s real-world connection with their environment and other people.
The debate over nature conservation and the value of the wilderness exemplify the opening up of this new public space during the controversy over a hydroelectric power project in the Icelandic highlands around year 2000. The controversy surrounding the project and its highland reservoir forged a new awareness in Icelandic discourse and thought about the wilderness. Up until then, Icelandic artists had shown scant politically oriented interest in the wilderness. Ósk did more than most artists to expand this unexpected art space in novel ways. Her biggest effort, highland project Kárahnjúkar (2002-2006), exemplifies such a project involving the public. Grounded in participation and dialogue, it directly engaged with the national discourse of the time, where debate was raging over questions of the future direction of the economy, energy and conservation.
The same note was struck in Ósk’s Eitthvað annað (Something Else) (2003) at Gallerí Hlemmur, Reykjavík, an idea lab reacting to the arguments of politicians maintaining that in a globalized world, following the policies of the authorities was the only alternative. Social criticism of this type had not been seen in Icelandic art in a long while. In fact, one must go back to the 1970s to find comparable political touchpoints, back when Róska burst on the scene with her radical installations and documentation of Italian revolutionary slogans.
Ósk’s hydroelectric-related pieces first and foremost bring to mind the real and inestimable value of Iceland’s unique highland landscape. A number of foreign as well as Icelandic artists joined the discussion, including American artist Roni Horn, who pointed out Iceland’s difference and the dangers posed by a transformed environment for the country’s image. Iceland, Horn says, is one of the greatest sources of nowhere in the world. According to Horn, the experience of nowhere is the rarest, most vulnerable and most wonderful experience anyone can have. The subjective nowhere is a precious and endangered resource.
In her Kárahnjúkar work, Ósk steered clear of art’s symbolic exhibition value, instead adopting business methods and founding travel agency Augnablik with friend Ásta Arnardóttir. Stepping out of the art establishment into the world of travel services, she in effect performed an appropriation, a well-known modern art technique. She published a promotional booklet, marketing the trips as walking and sightseeing tours for the general public. In the booklet, the strong connection between the national identity and the land’s image is evident. In addition to informing the public of the changes in store for the land, its vegetation and wildlife, were the hydroelectric project to go forward, Ósk emphasized the individual wilderness experience and participation. In fact, while contributing to an aesthetic upbringing, the trips also shaped an important facet of the national identity.
Incorporating nature this way in participatory art was a new departure in Icelandic art. The project, presented as enlightened eco-tourism taking the form of conventional highland walking tours, could thus be categorized both as participatory and as environmental art. This obliteration of the distinction between travel services and art was a novelty; indeed, not all the participants may have realized their membership in a project, a form of art-making seeking to erase the boundary between art and reality. The methods employed by Ósk in this context have close ties to Beuys’ ideas of the artist as educator and activist, and to his theories on the social and political function of art. For that matter, the treks could be characterized as social sculpture, since the artist’s intent was to create a space for discussion and dialogue to take place.
Although many of Ósk’s projects rely on participation and communication, yet her work primarily focuses on the utopia of the open forum, rather than on what have been termed relational aesthetics. She wants to create ideal conditions for dialogue and discussion, making a place for art and politics to meet.
In most cases, it follows that these works are more projects than objects, relying on movement and process rather than on viewing. Philosophically, they clearly fall within the above-mentioned ideas of the fluxus artists, who believed in art’s social and political power. Since Ósk’s art always relates to contemporary issues, her pieces serve the democratic function of opening a discourse on what matters to everyone. The works are active in the public space – this space, which is not just objective and local, but which also stimulates communication and dialogue. Since these works also rely on the participants’ common experience, their reach stretches beyond local surroundings and institutions, seeking their channel elsewhere –in the wilderness, for instance, thus reflecting all the most hotly contested issues of the first decade of this century.
In this context, Kaprow, Filliou and Beuys’ new definitions of the art space fundamentally influenced late 20th century art, laying the groundwork for an important evolution of collaborative projects and for action by later generations of artists. Indeed, the Kárahnjúkar project and Power in your hands exemplify art’s expanding reality along with efforts to examine the connections between politics, business and trade from a new standpoint, presenting conclusions through business methods, not unlike what artists such as Hans Haacke (1936–) did during the 1970s. Ósk in fact emphasizes the dissemination of information, for instance through the use of the Kárahnjúkar project travel booklet. Ósk’s works have also addressed the importance of dissemination for the individual’s aesthetic experience, now that technology has become a general intermediary for the experience of most human feeling.
Ósk’s direct social criticism peaked in Scheissland (Shitland, 2005), a performance at that year’s Icelandic culture and arts festival in Cologne, Germany, where she painted in red graffiti:
“In Shitland, everything is going to shit. The Shitgermans love Shitland. They think the Shitlanders live at peace with Nature. The Shitgermans see a shitelf or a shittroll in every last Shitlander. In the highlands of Shitland a giant shitreservoir will appear so that an American shitcorporation can buy cheap shitenergy to run a giant shitaluminum smelter. This giant shitproject will ruin the highlands of Shitland. The Shitlanders think they’ll make a bunch of shitmoney. Now Shitgerman art curators have put on an exhibition of shitart from Shitland.”
As pointed out by philosopher Sigríður Þorgeirsdóttir, this work quietly fell by the German wayside. Indeed, mammoth Icelandic hydroelectric projects received scant attention in the land of environmentalists.
Turning away from activist methods, Ósk’s most recent works are quieter. Her piece, Tígrísdýrasmjör (Tiger Butter, 2011) even turns inward, though also intended to create a place fostering togetherness. Here, contributing to an effort by the Reykjavík Art Museum to make the museum into a discussion forum, initiating discourse within the museum walls, Ósk worked with the contrast between the sanctity of museum space and the ordinariness of the street.
As often before, Ósk created a context rather than specific content. Here, the work was installed in the aesthetically protected space of an art institute, not out in the open. The location enabled Ósk to permit herself a finely honed approach and a certain polish deliberately broken with in some of her other work, for instance when scrawling graffiti in red revolutionary red letters on exhibit hall walls. Conscious of the protection afforded her piece by the museum, Ósk broke with the institutional context by projecting pictures into the street through the museum windows. The work thus existed both outside and inside. Within, she built a structure consisting of a tent of sorts suspended upside-down from the museum ceiling. Light warmly glowed through the yellow walls, calling to mind the yellow tent illumination used by Ósk in earlier work, for instance at the ASÍ Art Museum in 2005. The light was homelike and enveloping. Crawling into the tent was not possible, yet its presence created that sheltered feeling we need to talk with each other, quietly drawing close. In a certain way, such shelter is the converse of the open public space, yet, at the same time, it creates the trust needed so that a conversation can take place. Perhaps Tiger Butter can be characterized as a conversational piece in the sense that it is meant to create the surroundings, to be a place where some sort of contemplation or conversation can come alive.
Ósk keeps asking new questions about the artist’s purpose and art’s power in society. Most of her work aims to desanctify the museum space, and by visually connecting outer and inner spaces, narrative and experience, she wants to awaken the viewer to the difference between taking in art on the street or inside a museum. In this sense, her work might be termed Dialogue Art – art grounded in the structure of conversation, rather than in visual structure. In this sense, she belongs to a group of Icelandic artists whose pieces often involve collaboration with ordinary citizens, their immediate surroundings, or even with family. Þorvaldur Þorsteinsson, Ólafur S. Gíslason and Hlynur Hallsson also work at this social boundary between outer and inner space, the public and the personal, where participation and narrative are what matters most.
Ósk’s art is about creating other spaces, a new forum. Ósk erects tents, builds wooden huts, creates places where people can spend time together. She uses simple, accessible materials, and her communication methods often refer to children’s games and their direct connection to reality – wall slogans, printed booklets, photographs and videos. In every case, her effort is to present images simply and unaffectedly. The artist creates a situation, relating to the viewer by means of a certain reality, exploding the idea that a work of art has to be a symbolic object located in public space.
Ósk’s stance is decisive, even categorical. Taking the artist’s place as a social critic very seriously, she gives priority to art’s moral and educational role. At issue are not artworks, but the conversation’s subject matter. Ósk walks the distance. She stays away from objectifying art or making a product.