Video installation in Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin with seven participating teenagers
Video installation in Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin with seven participating teenagers
An endless stream and a constant sound of flowing water. Its a grey-brownish glacial water. The current can get heavy. Some appear to be wading through and over the current. Where are they going? We never see them reach land. The video clips are crude, edited into loops. By nature they are infinite.
All things are in movement, phanta rei, the greeks quoted the philosopher Heraclitus. The stream is the symbol of that thought. You cannot step into the same river twice. It runs from under the glacier and down to the ocean. There it will evaporate, condense into a cloud and fall to the earth as rain or snow. Stillness is stagnation, a deception, reality is movement.
Where are you coming from? Where are you going? Our life is a river we cannot step into twice. Each day we are carried onwards, with every hour, every minute. We can never be certain on where the current takes us, but one thing is for sure – we will never return.
Í hinu þekkta riti Orðræða um aðferð frá árinu 1637 færir heimspekingurinn René Descartes okkur grundvallar hugmynd nútímans. Eftir að hafa velt fyrir sér hvort hann sé að dreyma að hann sé blekktur af illum anda og heimurinn sé tilbúningur, sér hann að það þurfi þá einhvern til þess að blekkja. Meira en það, hann kynnir Sjálfið með listilegri sönnun fyrir því að hann sé annað en líkami sinn og umhverfi. Sjálfið sé þenkjandi andi (hugur eða sál) en líkaminn sé efnislegur og vélrænn.
Það sem Descartes gaf okkur var ekkert minna en sú hugmynd að maðurinn, einstaklingurinn „ég“, sé aðskilinn frá hinum lögmálsbundna efnisheimi líkama, náttúrunnar og dýranna. Og um leið gefur Descartes okkur vald í krafti þessarar aðgreiningar, leyfi til þess að kryfja og kanna hinn efnislega ytri heim, stjórna honum og nýta. Með annan fótin í gall- og vessakenningum Galens tekur Descartes síðan til við að lýsa starfsemi hjarta og æðakerfisins með áherslu á hið vélræna eðli þess og tengir saman á áhugaverðan hátt tilfinningalíf mannsins og hita blóðsins. Draumarnir fæðast í hitagufum, melankólían af svörtu galli, en samspilið við andann verður alltaf dálítið stirt því tengslin eru endanlega rofin.
Í verki Óskar Vilhjálmsdóttur PUMPA (2012) sjáum við inní æðakerfi samtímans. Háræðanet sem dreifir blóði neyslusamfélagsins, mjólk og olíu, í kerfi sem er að mestu hulið flestum okkar og fjarlægt þó við töppum af því á hverjum degi. Svo aðskilið frá hinu daglega að með því að líta á það setjum við veruleikann á hliðina. Ósk tekur myndir, hugmyndir og tálmyndir, úr sínu náttúrulega umhverfi, út úr heiminum, þannig að veruleikinn verður berari á eftir, jafvel hættulegri. Andspænis því sem er svo venjulegt, hugmyndir sem koma og fara, ímyndir sem virðast hversdagslegar á yfirborðinu en birtast nú í nýju ljósi. Við erum háð þessu dreiradreifikerfi eins og sjúklingur með næringu í æð.
Líkt og í vísindaskáldskap eru slöngurnar tengdar við kjarnann sem aldrei sést. Martröð sem viðheldur blekkingunni, veruleikinn er bara ímyndanir og avatarar, og draumurinn er það sem við viljum ekki vakna upp af. Neyslusamfélagið og samspil þess við náttúruna eru megin stef þessa afhjúpunarleiks en óhuggnalegt vald peninga, tækni og framfarahyggju er skugginn sem skerpir línurnar. Þannig leikur Ósk sér að mörkunum milli þess krúttlega og skelfilega þannig að veruleikinn verður ekki samur eftir. Það eru komnir brestir í drauminn.
Ósk Vilhjálmsdóttir hefur unnið með ólíka miðla og tækni, málverk, myndbönd, innsetningar og þátttökuverk. Mörg þessara verka hafa sterka samfélagslega skírskotun, ákall um vernd nátttúrunnar og gagnrýni á efnishyggju. En fyrst og fremst eru verk Óskar vel útfærð og sannfærandi skoðun á samspili valda og ímynda listheimsins. Gagnrýni sem sveiflast frá draumkenndum órum um fjölskyldulíf og „eitthvað annað“, yfir í martraðir skítlands og óljósrar ógnar af hjónabandi peningavalds og pólitíkur. Skilaboðin eru ekki áróður, ekki banal, heldur áminning um að við erum ekki aðskilin frá heiminum og náttúrunni, heldur tökum við ábyrgð á og höfum möguleika á að breyta. Að við erum ekki ein og að við þurfum að minna okkur á að kýrin gefur okkur ekki mjólkina, við tökum hana frá henni.
Njörður Sigurjónsson & Magnús Helgason
Text by Margrét Elísabet Ólafsdóttir
In 1906, a stock company called Málmur (Metal) was founded in Reykjavík for the purpose of digging for gold in the Vatnsmýri bog. The company operated for a few years until it was riddled with the cost of the unsuccessful quest. The faith in the project was, nevertheless, great. In order to enable the digging, a drill was purchased and installed in Vatnsmýri where it stood for several years, keeping alive the hope for a quick profit.
Ósk Vilhjálmsdóttir has now remade this drill as part of the exhibition Bog of Gold. By remaking the drill in the bog surrounding the Nordic House, Ósk links the exhibition with the gold rush at the same time as she refers to the present. Her drill, however, has no intrinsic function and has instead become a symbol for its role and the role of other similar machines. Drills are ingenious inventions capable of extending and multiplying human forces. A large drill allows the man to undertake large-scale constructions, interpenetrating the earth in a quest for herbal remains which have — during long geological time — metamorphosed into matter rich of desirable qualities such as energy.
But the Vatnsmýri drill reminds us of the fact that drills are not only used to search for the known, but also for what is believed to be out there. Immediately as it pressed into the earth, it brings up minerals that need to be examined in order to determine if to continue deeper or not. When the drill enters the earth, it loosens soil which then travels up onto the surface.
Its function is thus related to the pumps in Ósk’s artwork, Pump, which are also part of the exhibition. The work consists of two videos, each of them projected on a separate wall in the same room, demonstrating the modern man’s modus operating at two different and seemingly unrelated jobs. One of them shows automatic milking machines whereas the other shows a giant tank lorry pumping oil onto petrol station tanks. After being sucked out of the udders by efficient pumps, the milk is transported to a dairy farm where it is used for the production of human nutrition. The oil is pumped out of the earth and then transported to petrol stations where it is pumped onto cars’ fuel tanks.
Both these forms of energy — the one put onto cars and that which men get from milk — are fetched from nature. There is, nevertheless, a huge difference between the two acts. The farmer knows that he needs to nourish the cows for them to continue providing milk — a repeated circulation of milking and nourishment.
But does the same apply to those fetching black gold from the earth’s innards? Oil production is different from milk production insofar as the former product is not the result of a renewable manufacturing process. As it takes such a long time for oil to form, humans are not able to assist its renewal in any way. Consequently, the oil pump questions how much longer we can continue sucking energy out of the earth.
Ósk does not answer any questions, but rather forces the viewer to think. She shows what stands between man and nature, the tools used by humans to connect with the nature that they utilize in their own interest, without which they cannot survive.
At the bottom and running in circles. Biting in tails. Registered on a ship that hangs on fixed strange place. Is this a greenhouse on fire? Or camping tent in the autumn dusk, is anyone there? We have always been on this ship. It has always been hanging around there. Inside it holds animals and humans, a whole world.
Einar Garibaldi Eiríksson
Verk Óskar sverja sig í ætt við þá samtímalist sem losað hefur sig við rammann og stöpulinn sem óvéfengjanlegan vitnisburð um sjálfan listhlutinn og frammi fyrir slíkum verkum vaknar oft og tíðum spurningin um: Hvað hafi orðið um listina? En verk Óskar leitast undan skilgreiningum af þessu tagi, hún er aðgerðarsinni er helgar sér svæði með gjörðinni, með þeirri skapandi og læknandi ástríðu sem engin bönd halda. Þegar hún boðar til málþings, leiðangra um hálendið eða kennir í skólastofunni, þá hugsar hún ekki um fyrirfram skilgreind mörk listarinnar. Hún er drifin áfram af hvöt sem vill umbreyta og gera sýnilegt hið hversdagslega. Hún lítur ekki á sýningarrýmið sem upphafið og einangrað rými fyrir listina –slitið úr samhengi sínu við umhverfið– heldur vill hún virkja almenningsrýmið til lækningar á því sem aflaga hefur farið í samfélagi okkar.
Ósk spyr sig ekki hvort hún sé að búa til eða framleiða listaverk, heldur felst aðgerðin sem slík í því að gera verk sem hreyfir, læknar og lagar frammi fyrir þeim öflum sem eyða, eigna sér og tileinka. Það er ekki hennar að gera verk sem þarf að skilgreina sem listaverk; hún framkvæmir einfaldlega vegna þess að hún finnur sig knúna til aðgerða. Svarið við spurningunni um hvað hafi orðið af listaverkinu, felst því í hvaða skilning við leggjum í gjörðir hennar; hvort að þeir sjálfsögðu og hversdagslegu hlutir sem verk hennar eru geti talist list og – ef svo er – þá hvaða merkingu það hafi fyrir okkur.
Þegar komið er inn á sýninguna er gengið inn í myrkvaðan sal og það fyrsta sem við augum blasir, er upplýst ferlíki sem líkt og ristir niður úr lofti sýningarsalarins. Þetta ferlíki líkist einna helst skipsskrokk sem dúkkað hefur þarna upp. Tilfinningin er einna líkust því að vera staddur neðansjávar og horfa undir skip og þannig dregur Ósk mann niður undir yfirborð sjávarins, ofan í höfnina handan við safnið.
Tilfinningin fyrir því að vera staddur á kafi styrkist þegar lengra er gengið inn í salinn, þar sem myrkrið umvefur áhorfendur, ásamt hljóði þar sem heyrist í manneskju líkt og að hlaupa hring eftir hring í kringum ferlíkið. Hljóðið er líkamleg og vitnar um áreynslu og ákefð, um leið og það er allt að því örvæntingarfullt svona innilokað í sjálft sig. Þessi innilokun er undirstrikuð með því að loka salinn frá götunni; því fyrir gluggum liggja hlerar og slagbrandar yfir, á meðan á þeim leika myndir sem varpað er með sýningarvél á flötinn, þar sem við greinum kappsfull sundtök manneskju er syndir án afláts að því er virðist út úr gömlu höfninni í Reykjavík.
Titill sýningarinnar Tígrisdýrasmjör vitnar í þekkt ævintýri, um dreng sem fer inn í skóg í sparifötunum sínum –sem hann er nýbúinn að fá– og hittir þar fyrir tígrisdýr sem vill hafa af honum jakkann. Ástæðan er einföld, tígrisdýrið vill verða voldugasta tígrisdýrið í skóginum. Sagan endar á því að af honum eru tekin öll fötin og tígrisdýrin takast á um völdin í skóginum, eltandi skottið hvert á öðru, hendandi af sér spjörunum, þar til að því kemur að þau bráðna og verða að smjöri. Og það er þetta Tígrisdýramsjör sem titill sýningarinnar vísar til.
Við okkur blasa fjölbreyttar og margslungnar táknmyndir; skip, örk, tjald, hús, heimili, gróðurhús, skjól, haf, höfn og kannski sjálft syndaflóðið. Og hér er sjálft sýningarrýmið líka tákngert, þar sem höfnin sjálf er dregin inn í salinn og tilfinningin sem fylgir því að ganga þangað inn er eins og að sökkva rólega á kaf ofan í gömlu höfnina.
Þessi sýning Óskar er í senn líknandi og endurnærandi; hún er opin og óræð um leið og hún er upplýsandi fyrir ástand eða sérstaka upplifun af því samfélagi sem umvefur okkur með hraða sínum og óreiðu. Þetta er ekki list sem er einangruð frá samfélaginu, hún er ekki skreyti, afþreying eða flótti. Hér leggjumst við líkt og undir feld; ráðum ráðum okkar um framtíðana, um það hvert beina eigi skipinu – kannski sjálfri Þjóðarskútunni. Sýningarsalurinn er líkt og vin, staður til að taka ákvarðanir, hugsa og framkvæma; nálægð, myrkur, höfgi grípur líkama manns sem sekkur rólega til botns, umvafinn köldu vatni hafnarinnar.
Hér deyr maður á vatni til að öðlast nýtt líf. Og það er hér á botni hafnarinnar sem sjálfur viskusteinninn kristallast. Við samsömumst ákefðinni í röddinni, könnumst við þessa manneskju sem hleypur hring eftir hring í ráðaleysi sínu. Hér fáum við tækifæri til að kynnast okkar leyndustu þrám og hugsunum, í veikri von um að geta umbreytt þeim í athafnir.
Osk’s work harks back to those forms of contemporary art which eliminated the need to use a frame or a plinth to identify the art object itself. Encountering such works, people tend to ask: But what became of the Art? Ósk’s works, however, sidestep such distinctions. She is an activist whose acts claim their space through a creative, healing passion which nothing can hold back. When she announces a workshop, organizes a highland trek, or teaches a class, she does not care about pre-existing limits to art. She is driven by an urge to transform and render visible what is taken for granted. Thus, she does not see the exhibition space as an exalted and isolated space for art, divorced from its context; she wants to activate the public space and heal what has gone awry in our society.
Ósk does not ask herself whether she is making or producing works of art. Her action consists in creating a work which moves, heals and mends in the face of the powers which destroy, appropriate and co-opt. Her intent is not to create pieces that need to be defined as works of art; she simply takes action because she feels impelled to act. The answer to the question as to what became of the art object depends on our interpretation of her actions; whether the self-evident and ordinary objects of her work can be classified as Art, and, if so, what significance they have for us.
Ósk’s exhibition at the Hafnarhúsið surprises in many ways. Clear, as ever, is her strong need to mend, improve and salve wherever things have gone wrong. Now, however, this need is manifest in a range of dream-like symbolic images, where fantastic associations are continually revealed to the viewer. On arrival, one enters a darkened hall where the first thing to meet the eye is an illuminated hulk which appears to have punched through the ceiling. Resembling nothing so much as the hull of a ship, it looks as though it has somehow materialized out of nowhere. It feels as though we are beneath the surface of the water, looking up at the ship’s hull. Thus, Ósk pulls us into the water, down into the harbor just beyond the museum.
The sense of submersion grows more intense as one proceeds into the room, where darkness envelops the audience along with a sound of a person seemingly running in circles around the leviathan. The physical presence of the sound conveys a sense of intense exertion and a near-desperate sense of being shut in upon itself. The claustrophobia is enhanced by isolating the exhibition hall from the street. The windows are shuttered and barred, while on the shutters play images in which we can make out the strenuous swim strokes of a person apparently swimming ceaselessly out to sea from Reykjavik’s Old Harbor.
Ósk is known for her hard-hitting pieces where she takes on the big issues of her time. In this show, however, she moves to more symbolic ground, touching strings more lyrical than has been her wont. This time, she did not feel it right to put on meetings or raise a commotion over any particular issue, for; after all, such activity is all around us. The show’s title, Tiger Butter, refers to the familiar tale of a boy who, wearing his newly acquired best clothes, wanders into the woods, where he encounters a tiger who wants to take his jacket away from him. The reason is simple – the tiger wants to become the most powerful tiger in the forest. By the end of the story, all the boy’s clothes have been taken away from him, while tigers engage in a struggle for control of the forest, chasing each others’ tails, reducing the clothes to rags and casting them aside, eventually melting and turning into butter – the Tiger Butter of the show’s title.
Before us are arrayed diverse and complex symbols: a ship, an ark, a tent, a house, a home, a greenhouse; shelter, sea, harbor, even the Flood itself. Indeed, even the exhibition space itself has taken on a symbol- ism, pulling in the very harbor, so that entering the space feels like a slow sinking into the depths of the Old Harbor.
Ósk’s show brings both grace and refreshment; it is open and indeterminate while illuminating the stateor experience of the society with its ever-present speed and chaos. This is not art apart from society; it is neither ornament, entertainment nor escapism. Here, we take time to ponder; we confer on the future and on which course to set for the ship – perchance the Ship of State itself. The exhibition hall is like an oasis; a place to make decisions, to think and to act; closeness, dark, drowsiness takes hold of one’s body as it slow- ly sinks to the bottom in the embrace of the cold waters of the harbor.
Here, one dies by water to attain a new life. And it is here, on the harbor floor, that the Water Stone of the Wise – the Philosopher’s Stone itself – takes form. We identify with the insistence of the voice; we are familiar with this person running around in endless circles of confusion and perplexity. Here we may discover our most hidden thoughts and desires and the faint hope of transforming them into action. The only thing left is to thank Ósk for bathing us in Tiger Butter.
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.
Text by Sigrún Sigurðardóttir