Art Monthly JULY/AUGUST 2008 - by Shumon Basar


It is Sunday morning in Reykjavik. Rather than singing hymns at church, hundreds have instead gathered at the city's art museum. We have all just finished singing an a capella version of Elvis's Can't Help Falling In Love With You. The collective effort, led by the Professor of Pop himself, Brian Eno, goes from terrible to less unbearable. 'Singing together transforms the individual from being "me" into being "us",' Eno explains. In Iceland, whose entire population numbers a mere three-hundred-thousand, the distance between the individual and the nation is short - and thus allows for one of the best-running, socially-minded, designed democracies there is. According to the Human Development Index Iceland is, along with Norway, the most developed country in the world.

The Experiment Marathon - of which Eno's Elvis singalong was just one tiny fragment - is a sequel to Hans Ulrich Obrist and Olafur Eliasson's summer 2007 London version at the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion. The Marathon also acted as the main opening event in this year's Reykjavik Arts Festival (RAF). Though the festival dates back to 1970, the first edition dedicated to the visual arts did not begin until 2005, when Jessica Morgan and Bjorn Roth took charge and added Iceland to the international jet-set art circuit. Encompassing several institutional venues as well as commissioned projects in the north and east of the island, the RAF has a sprawling and shifting focus akin to Iceland's otherworldly collage of ancient and recent geologies.

Emily Wardill inaugurated the Experiment Marathon with a performance that strung together an impossible memory of 'a film with a diamond protected by green laser beams' and a young girl playing a Nintendo Wii boxing game dressed as one of Etienne-Jules Marey's proto-cinema protagonists. Wardill's sentimental and yet sophisticated assemblage of signs brought together various stages of image-making technology (photography, film, videogame) under the umbrella of fey remembering. Obrist is thrilled that Iceland's president, Olafur Ragnar Grimmson, was there. 'Where else would a country's president come and see a performance like this?' he exclaimed.

Hoary postmodern stories, like Wardill's, that draw together disparate threads of fact and fiction, characterised the work of a number of artists that were included in the marathon and its associated exhibition. I became extremely excited about Fia Backstrom, Aurelien Froment, Tris Vonna-Michell. All unravel unwieldy tales punctuated by images that synchronise with or contradict the words being spoken. Backstrom tells us that 'Hugo Boss made the Nazis look good', that she does not believe in relational aesthetics and wonders how 'a community of resistance can take place?', while Vonna-Michel locates Kurt Schwitters in the Lake District in a frenetic manner that is part mania and part poetic genius. All these dizzying fragments of fractured narratives make me think about Iceland's ancient sagas, as well as our latter-day addiction to surfing Google Images. Search engines produce new narrative (dis-)continuities that our minds increasingly take for granted. Earlier in the morning, various scientists, such as Israel Rosenfield, admitted that they 'don't know what memory is'. What we all do know, and adopt, is the surfeit of technologies that remember on our behalf.

Flying north to the tiny town of Akureyri (population seventeen thousand three hundred), Iceland's landscape is a gigantic memory surface, one prone to frequent volcanic eruptions that constantly create sudden new maps. It is monumental and yet unstable, proudly and nakedly exposing the marks of time. Icelandic contemporary art is still driven, it seems, by its relationship to this majestic landscape. You get feminism plus landscape; politics plus landscape; globalisation plus landscape.

At Akureyri's art museum, a show entitled Facing China displayed Dutch collector Fu Ruide's painting-heavy collection of artists such as Fang Lijun, Yue Minjun and Wei Dong. Fu Ruide began collecting in the mid '90s, before the 'New Boom', and consequently this modest show possesses a compelling quality of quiet authenticity that most contemporary Chinese art exhibitions resolutely lack. Liu Ye's paintings repeatedly resituate Piet Mondrian among symbolically loaded scenes of Chinese military power and exotic eroticism. She isn't afraid of Mondrian is a typical composition: Mondrian's Manhattan Boogie Woogie cast as a character along with a woman and a dwarf both clad with angel wings.

Across the fjord is the Icelandic Folk and Outsider Museum. This is collector Niels Hafstein's house, which contains a wealth of 'professionally' amateur cut-outs, textiles, drawings and doodles. One of the curators, it transpired, worked at an asylum, and there's a real sense of what Iceland actually might dream about, underneath the veneer of what it thinks it ought to be to itself and to the world.

To get to the east of Iceland you fly over an expanse of brilliant white snow-covered mountains. There, the remote Eidar Art Centre presented a striking outdoor project from the previous RAF. As you traipse through muddy, dung-ridden fields, the silhouette of a ruinous Macy's store slowly creeps over the horizon. Paul McCarthy and the late Jason Rhoades's sardonic yet eerily Romantic ode to commercial despoliation is a brilliant augury of what is actually happening to Iceland's famed natural landscapes. Activist groups are already taking legal action against major power companies (one of which is a sponsor of this year's RAF) which threaten to over-exploit the bounteous geothermal earth, while new aluminium smelting factories and dams bring hazardous polluting potential to this eco-haven. McCarthy and Rhoades's Macy's is like a future ruin of Iceland as its benign independence is overrun by global forces.

In Seydisfjordur, where the inhabitants can be counted in the hundreds, the Skaftfell Centre for Visual Art contained a wailing, green demon trapped in a mist-filled vitrine. Children and adults gawped at this ludicrous piece of B-movie horror, performed by Skyr Lee Bob with Icelandic dancer Erna Omarsdottir. A poster project by Christoph Buchel transposed the Swiss ultra-right wing party, SVP, to Iceland via its racist poster campaign featuring three white sheep and one black one being kicked out. And you remember that Buchel's Switzerland is, like Iceland, also an island floating in Europe, laden with a covert xenophobic history it often chooses to repress. For a country as tiny as Iceland, the Reykjavik Arts Festival has deployed an ambitious and dense programme for a surprisingly short period of time. But it never feels overwhelming. You are always made aware of how isolated you are (Reykjavik is the northernmost capital in the world), how fragile and tiny everything we build is. At the same time, the quaint sleepiness has an expiry date. Global capitalism is at Iceland's front door. You could say that global art culture is part of that threat.

Reykjavik Arts Festival ran from May 15 to June 5.