Plays the Thing
Icelandic Art Center, 2019
Everyone knows that art schools make the best bands. Without art academies there would be no Talking Heads, Pulp, or Eno. There would be no Beatles, GWAR, or DEVO (how about that for three unlikely peas in a pod?). Over the years the Icelandic Academy of Arts has produced its own crop of performers, influential on the national music scene. In the late 1970s Bruni BB (an experimental noise outfit that became notorious for decapitating a chicken in the documentary Rokkí Reykjavík) stirred things up. Today, one of its members, Finnbogi Petursson, exhibits his sculptures and sound works internationally. The early 1980s saw Íkarus, a punk band that eventually furnished The Sugarcubes with two of its members, take off. A little later that decade, Oxzmá brought a raft of theatricality to their psychobilly live sets. Closer to present, in the 2000s, listeners experienced Sudden Weather Change. The group’s second LP is titled Sculpture: Not A Line But A Circle, wearing art school credentials on its album sleeve. On the other hand, ‘classically’ trained musicians and composers rarely become influential visual artists. But in Iceland, today, people who can read notation, who are versed in chamber music and the symphonic tradition (persons who know about Avo Part and Alva Noto, and who can write an interesting score) also draw, and dance, in museums and galleries. Accordingly, following the emergence of festivals such as Cycle and Sequences, it is appropriate to talk about a performative turn in Reykjavik’s ostensibly ‘visual’ art scene. That, and an artistic turn in its ostensibly ‘musical’ one.

The fact that the academy educates artists and musicians in the same building is relevant, but the present synergy of visual and aural creativity has other sources, too. Cutting across apparent disciplines, Iceland’s socio-cultural moment is particularly amenable to ‘expanded’ practices. It is sometimes said that the country has more published authors, musicians, and artists per capita than anywhere else in the world. What this actually means is that there is an accessible creative culture embedded in social life. Of course there are museums and galleries, but there is also a world class amateur scene, playing out in homes, pubs, and non-specialized contexts. Moreover, vanguard creators (academy trained, and in touch with international developments) do not only communicate their perspectives within elite learning environments. This cohort also saturates the community arts (after-school groups, youth centers, etc.). With a surfeit of high-quality education (both in terms of skills and conceptual agendas) available to most from early childhood, and with independent platforms and knowledgeable audiences booming, gatekeeping structures are minimized. Engaging with the arts is easy, and disciplining (policing boundaries between their forms) less prevalent.

In this context, the person checking groceries at your local supermarket might be a psychedelic post-digital producer/singer/video-artist called DJ Starship and Airplane; and your child’s after-school music lessons might be given by a conceptual artist whose legal name is borrowed from a well-known brand of rubbish bin. But I digress. Non-institutional contexts seem to encourage the performative, cultivating informal, familiar modes of address. There’s a confidence that comes from knowing your audience; picturing them in a concrete way, rather than abstracting them into generic types. When everyone knows each other, the default social plane of an artwork is horizontal. Let us observe that the twin poles of terrible kunst are anal-retentive conceptualism and anus obsessed performance. The libidinal thrust of Icelandic art, today, resists both of these vortices, as the formalism required for either polarity does not easily take root in a small well-educated community with a general lack of repression.

Put it this way: According to cliché, conceptual art (or music) is elitist and cold—its Olympian vanity deserving criticism like ‘my kid could do that!’. But what happens when your child’s teacher is a conceptual artist? What happens when your mum is? In Reykjavik the kids do it. And they do it early. (Bjork, Sigur Ros, and the rest, didn’t need to attend an art academy in order to find like-minded people and put together decent bands. They could do it in high school.) And with kids making good art, adult creators are on notice to maintain elements of youthful excitement and irreverence in their so-called ‘work’. As much is apparent in the quixotic musique concrète of Ensemble Adapter, whose expanded sense of instrumentation has called for trash cans to be knocked over by a speeding automobile, to name just one moment in their oeuvre. This kind of performative ideology exercises willful naiveté about what is normal, good enough, or perhaps ‘great’. It is music (and/or art) that demonstrates ludic optimism.

‘I never practice; I always play,’ said the violinist Wanda Lawandowska—a formulation that seems apropos when discussing the artistic temperament in question. It is a vibe readily apparent in a trilogy of performance/video works by Curver Thoroddsen (outside the artworld, one half of the sonic behemoth Ghostigital—along with Einar Örn Benediktsson, a former member of the Sugarcubes). Titled The Family Quintet, each video depicts Thoroddsen and his family earnestly improvising, together, on groups of instruments previously unfamiliar to them. The results variously approach contemporary classical music (2003), free jazz (2011) and Indian raga (2016)—in terms of musical suggestion, highlighting the encultured frames of interpretation that viewers/listeners bring to bear. Notwithstanding the musical (in)competence on display, these three videos convey intelligent works of performance in a broad sense. Beyond any form of concert or jam session, each quintet is a moving family (self)portrait. The last in the series was shot in the garden of a hospice where Thoroddsen’s father spent his last summer alive. In such a work the play(ing) is hardly inconsequential.

‘Play it like you mean it’ is a piece of advice often given to musical performers. It, presumably, is an instrument or song. But for the art scene in question playing it may be the most meaningful. The play’s the thing (to quote the bard). With their preponderance for matching (always eye-catching) costumes, and their name, Reykjavik’s influential performance group The Icelandic Love Corporation are styled a bit like a rock band. While their body corporate is officially made up of three women (Sigrún Hrólfsdóttir, Jóní Jónsdóttir, and Eirún Sigurðardóttir), the trifecta often functions as a centrifuge for distributing amity through wider cooperation. ‘Diversity creates a community of tones […]’, goes the lyric-manifesto of their 2009 collaboration Indeed, Of Course! with The Swan Marching Band (a high school musical ensemble). It continues: ‘Knowing the tune is one thing / Creating a new one another / Playing by different rules a third. / When is truth the song of sirens? / Knowledge useless?’. These are live questions, concerning the what of play and how it can be understood. They obtain in the deed (of course!). Which is to say, they describe the artistic act as a happening. In such a work, performed near the Gardskagi lighthouse, the Corporation act as sirens, singing/calling out from an enchanted isle where ‘The strangest idea [is] the best’. Naturally, the word siren plays another way—sounding an alarm, it seems, for any person who has forgotten the ‘truth’ of song, otherwise sailing past the shores of art and love.

Forgetting and repetition are bedfellows: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Play it again, Ragnar—Half-buried, up to his waist in soil, naked but for an acoustic guitar, strumming and singing, over and over, for hours, ‘Satan is real / He’s working for me’ (2005). Later, Kjartansson made indie band The National enact A Lot of Sorrow (2013-2014), performing their track Sorrow on repeat, live, for six hours in 105 iterations. Melodrama is a component of both works. However, as many critics observed, the latter’s repetition encompassed notes of joy; a performance where the rule of misery was sometimes played differently. Following this observation, it would seem that both works suggest that sorrow can work for you, instead of against you. The devil is in the details: In fact, it is through repetition that new aspects come to light/emerge against the same. The same, here, is the sad (satanic) rule, which is seen to work against itself through returning in/as play.

Obviously, a dialectic between work and recreation, foolishness and wisdom, tragedy and comedy, is a recurrent feature of the works discussed. If Kjartansson drew happiness from sorrow, Thoroddsen’s Family Quintet dredged existential gravitas from play. Fixing upon one part of this dialectic, artist Magnus Sigurdarson contends that ‘the cliché is the ultimate expression’. Dances with Whales (at Cycle: Cryptopian States, 2018) was his engagement with the tragic biography of an Icelandic orca called Keiko, who starred in the hit film Free Willy. For this elegy, Sigurdarson performed a slow dance with an inflatable Killer Whale pool toy, under and within a growing mass of soap-foam. Slowly, at first, looking into the eyes of his ‘dance partner’, Sigurdarson ‘made a connection’ before leading the whale through an ultimately jubilant romp through the suds. The audience of children present at this performance (which took place at the official residence of Iceland’s Ambassador to Germany) could hardly contain their enthusiasm. Even before Sigurdarson’s routine was anywhere near finished, many stripped down to their underwear, shaking with excitement—only the most minimal sense of discipline stopping them from taking the final step. Then it was too much: The kids rushed the into the foam, putting an end to the piece. Perhaps, though, they consolidated the work.

Drawing all of these ludic strands together, the emergence of a new cultural platform (in 2015) dedicated to where art and music overlap now appears to have been inevitable. But while Cycle Music & Art Festival’s intelligent and quixotic program has managed to consolidate latent cultural vibes, making otherwise achingly avant-garde material even more accessible, this has been no mean feat. In fact, it has taken some pretty special artistic direction, under the visionary Gudny Gudmundsdottir (who divides her time between Reykjavik and Berlin), and her collaborator Tinna Thorsteinsdóttir. That, and the ambitious institutional patronage of the incoming Director of the Gerdarsafn Art Museum, Kristin Dagmar Johannesdottir. Taking place, technically, outside the capital city (just a couple of miles away in the municipality of Kopavogur) the festival has been key to forging a new and more vital identity for the cultural complex that includes Gerdarsfan, Salurrin Concert Hall, and the Natural History Museum—commissioning new work and increasing international artistic exchanges.

In my own capacity, as curator of the exhibition component of the first edition (entitled New Release), in 2015, I was pleased to debut a new collaboration between video artist Sigurdur Gudjonsson and composer Thrainn Hjalmarsson, entitled Relief; an otherwise unknown video-performance by the wildly charismatic Katrina Mogensen, the lead singer of chart-topping indie act Mammut, and a huge suite of expressive drawings by musician Sigtryggur Berg Sigmarsson. The staff at Gerdarsafn, in a novel collaboration with their colleagues at the Natural History Museum, also facilitated a work by German artist Andreas Greiner and American composer Tyler Friedman: a bio-mechanical musical system incorporating a player piano and luminescent algae. Outside the museum, during opening week, a local motorcycle club gathered to rev their engines in a sonic stand-off with the Icelandic Love Corporation. For the gathered spectators, it was a true coming together of worlds under the aegis of a universal(ising) music. But, for me, it was Gudmundsdottir and Thorsteinsdóttir’s additional programming that literally stole the show, activating my own exhibition through Eyvind Gulbrandsen’s collaboration with the South Iceland Chamber Choir; and Páll Ragnar Pálsson composition for the Skark Ensemble,  undertaking a musical and choreographic dialogue with Ólafur Elíasson’s Mirror Tunnel sculpture, as the string players moved around and through the sculpture. These works turned the exhibition space into a strange hybrid between concert hall, gallery, and something else altogether. And as we followed the festival’s program to other locations, including a decommissioned mental asylum, I had my musical ears well and truly opened.

Recent editions of the festival, namely, 2017’s Sovereign Colony, and 2018’s Exclusively Inclusive taken on the serious question of postcolonial identity, and touching upon the question of ethnicity and migration. All the while, however, Cycle maintains a down-to-earth attitude. The play’s the thing, after all, and my colleagues in Iceland have it nailed.