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Borrowed Time: Icelandic Artists Look Forward

Icelandic Love Corporation “Evolution” 2010, Photographs and plywood, Collection of the artists

By Kristine Jordan 

In an age when the effects of climate change are visible like never before, have efforts to sustain the environment come too late? Can balance still be restored to the delicate ecosystems altered by industry? Is humanity living on borrowed time?

This fall, Scandinavia House presented Borrowed Time: Icelandic Artists Look Forward, bringing together the works of contemporary artists immersed in the global art movement for environmental preservation. Featuring collage, photography, sculpture, and video, the exhibit will be open through Feb. 11, 2017.

Iceland’s role in international cooperation for environmental preservation is often inspiring; the country’s abundance of fresh water sources, hot springs, and volcanoes make Iceland the poster child for geothermal and hydropower development. Ironically, the thriving renewable energy sector also fuels growth in aluminum smelting, an energy-intensive and resource-depleting practice. The artist collective, Icelandic Love Corporation explains, “The conflict is that while most of Icelandic produced electricity is made at hydroelectric or geothermal power stations, it is still used for banal purposes, which so often goes un-recycled after use. For a country which prides itself in its ‘untouched’ nature, the local fight for environmental preservation of the interior part of the country is still rampant.” 

Libia Castro & Ólafur Ólafsson “Untitled” 2000/06 C-print, Courtesy of The National Gallery of Iceland, Listasafn Íslands

Moved by Iceland’s increasing economic dependence on the aluminum industry, Libia Castro and Ólafur Ólafsson staged a performance art series, Straumur: The Last Minute Show outside the country’s first aluminum plant in Hafnarfjörður. Dressed in the national Icelandic women’s costume, peysuföt and upphlutur, the artists consider the links between social and environmental justice. “Complicating the photograph are the queer aspects of the situation, and one of us is an Icelander and the other a Spanish foreigner, so it’s like double cross dressing,” says Ólafsson. With solemnity reminiscent of American Gothic, Castro and Ólafsson pose, mimicking pre-industrial era styled family portraits. The artists are framed by the historic Straumur farm to their right and the aluminum smelter to their left, emphasizing the presence of economic production.

Bjarki Bragason “It” 2005, Still Images from the Digital Recording, Collection of the artist

Also exploring the intersection of time and nature, multimedia artist Bjarki Bragason created the video It. In the still images above, Bragason films himself cutting ice from the Sólheimajökull glacier with a hot knife and melting it with a heat gun. The liquefying substance, symbolic of the glacier and the Arctic environment as a whole, meets physical change at the hands of man.

Inspiration for the piece came at a glaciological conference, where Bragason witnessed scientists use the Sólheimajökull fragment to explain how time can be measured through carbon deposits. As he was exiting the conference, however, Bragason noticed the ice had been thrown in a waste bin. “I was interested in how this thing, now discarded, had just a bit before been viewed as something spectacular. But once its purpose was filled, it returned to being just ice,” explains Bragason.

Hildur Bjarnadóttir “Re-give” 2007/09, Wool and pigment, Collection of the artist

As Bjarki Bragason deconstructs the subject of ice, inversely, Hildur Bjarnadóttir constructs subjects from her Scandinavian environment. Shown above, “Re-give” considers local resources to be handmade gifts from nature to humanity. The four mittens are displays of the country’s distinct ecosystems. Made of wool from Icelandic sheep and dyed with pigments from Bjarnadóttir’s Hvalfjörður garden, “Re-give” is constructed through nalbinding, a method of textile making used by Vikings that predates knitting and crocheting. Bjarnadóttir’s handicrafts demonstrate how environments are closely sewn into lifestyles.

Textile is also emblematic for the Icelandic Love Corporation (ILC). However, they opt for a synthetic material to construct their work: nylon. Nylon thread is the man-made imitation of thread from a silkworm. Through their work, the textile acts as a reminder of humanity’s desire to simulate nature. In Evolutions, the ILC recreates the March of Progress, dressing each body in the fabric. Here nylon is a manifestation of society’s desire to perfect itself through industry. The artists explain, “If tights are so great in correcting nature by sculpting our legs, ass and stomach, why not take it all the way and correct the whole body?” This progression imagines humanity immersing herself in a trap of her own creation.

The use of female bodies challenges default representations of the human race. “Most [recreations of the March of Progress] usually picture a black, hairy, sexless monkey that evolves into a white male in his underwear.” Pointing to the oldest fossil remains of human ancestry—Lucy, a female found in Ethiopia—the group aims to counter the gendering and racialization of progress, “how black turns white, female turns male, and how humans are constantly...changing their nature.”

Ólöf Nordal Iceland Specimen Collection “Skoffin” 2005 C-print, Collection of the artist

Ólöf Nordal’s “Skoffín” examines earth’s extraordinary diversity and mankind’s need to tame it. The photographer takes a taxidermy rendition of an Icelandic fairy tale creature, the skoffin, and positions it in the natural world. Tension between the lush scene and the lifeless subject question man’s domination of the animal kingdom.

Nordal’s use of the skoffin initiates a larger conversation about humanity’s self-destructive nature, evidenced by climate change. Known as the basilisk’s Icelandic cousin, the skoffin is a mythical monster with the cunning of a fox and the cruelty of a cat. The Scandinavian creature kills its victims instantly through eye contact; the only way to survive an encounter is to place a mirror in its line of vision. Nordal’s photograph acts as that mirror, immortalizing a fleeting moment between self-sabotage and death as mankind reflects on its place nature.

Collectively, the pieces in the exhibit broaden “sustainability” from an opaque term to a frontier of artistic exploration. Icelandic artists’ connections to their surroundings are integral to a global understanding the environment. Bragason explains, “We live in an era when the geological and human time scales have collided; human activity physically changes the way that the world works. It is obvious to me that artists will be busy taking apart what this means.”

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Click for more information about Borrowed Time: Icelandic Artists Look Forward.

Kristine Jordan is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

[Photos courtesy of Scandinavia House]

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