Removing the Filter: An interview with Auður Lóa Guðnadóttir

Removing the Filter: An interview with Auður Lóa Guðnadóttir

Removing the Filter: An interview with Auður Lóa Guðnadóttir

Auður Lóa’s exhibition Yes/No at the Reykjavík Art Museum reflects the diversity, chaos, and connections between the many corners of the internet. She pulls imagery from pop culture, art history, politics, and personal photographs that she finds by letting herself fall through an online rabbit hole. Curious to see these images out of context, Auður Lóa removes her subjects from the screen into the 3-dimensional world of papier-mâché sculpture. Her exhibition aims to draw new relations, mixing the variety of images one can come across on the world wide web in a single day. In this interview, I caught up with Auður Lóa to discuss this latest exhibition.

Amanda: Starting from the beginning…how did you get your start in artmaking? Do you have any early memories that led you to where you are now?

Auður Lóa: I have been making art since I was really small. I know that it sounds super cheesy, but I think I always wanted to become an artist. I was an introverted kid that just liked drawing. And then I became an artist. It is not a particularly interesting story, but I think it was an obvious choice for me.

Your subjects range from pop culture imagery to references to fine art, is there a connecting theme behind your choices? Where do you find your inspiration?

The imagery is sourced from the internet and books, so all of the images have happened in real life. Many of them are from history, art history, and pop culture. Some of them are actual characters from paintings and some of them are the artworks themselves. Others are just things that exist in the world. For this exhibition, I decided to embrace the chaos and use whichever images sparked my interest. There is a little web of ideas within them. So many of them touch on social justice subjects like feminism and colonialism, but also internet culture, how information travels, and how we make and perceive art. I usually make exhibitions that are narrowed down to one subject. But this time I was interested in branching out and mixing everything together. I was interested to see what would come out of that process. I just wanted to make as many sculptures as humanly possible.

Let’s talk material choices. What drew you toward working with paper-mâché? At first glance, it is easy to assume these are clay figurines, is this your goal?

I initially started working with paper-mâché because it’s really cheap. A lot of the time I have a bad conscience towards working with materials I buy from the store like plaster or clay. I find it hard as an artist to produce new things into this world–especially when the things are just there to just hang around or be kept in storage. I started working with paper-mâché because it took the pressure away from every single item. I wasn’t spending a whole lot of money on each piece and if I was fed up with it, I could just throw it away without thinking about it too much. It is a better environment to create when you have low stakes, to begin with. Because if you buy a shitload of clay you have this pressure of like “yeah, I better do something really nice with this nice clay and special paint and stuff.”

Also, paper-mâché does not constrain me to a specific size and I can work however large or small I want. It is a very hardy material and is nice to work with. I like the feel of it and I like the effect. It is very lumpy and hard to control so the material starts to become present in the work. I get that it looks like clay, but I don’t mind that so much. I draw inspiration from ceramic figurines so the associations to glazed ceramic sculptures is welcome. I would like it to be paper-mâché though, that is my bottom line.

These days, it seems like the mainstream internet aims for flawless, photoshopped images. Your work begins to reject this aesthetic, but at the same time, the final layer of your sculpture is a smooth, shiny coat of glaze–which fits within the ideals of perfection. Is this something that you were thinking about?

No, I don’t think that is very present in my practice. What I like to do with these images from the internet is to take them out of the computer screen. My main focus is what happens when you take these images that are on your computer, or your phone, and make them physical. You experience all your day-to-day imagery on the same screen. So you have the same filter when you read the news, do your social media, watch funny cat videos or porn–if you like that. What I’m interested in is taking all of these images and putting them on the same, equal platform.

The D-hall exhibition series was established for up-and-coming Icelandic artists to hold their first solo exhibition in a public museum. How did you prepare for this exhibition? Did you approach this exhibition differently than your previous ones in artist-run spaces?

Well, for starters it is a great opportunity and a great platform so I was really excited about this big opportunity. This is the biggest exhibition space I’ve had to myself so far. I was really interested and also a bit frightened of that. It’s different working in an established museum because there is staff working at the museum and with you. I was working with a curator and technical assistants. So that is nice and you feel really taken care of. But I also have a real soft spot for the artist-run spaces in Reykjavík. They have a lot to offer in a different way.

Are there any specific pieces in this that have a particularly interesting story? If you can’t decide, tell me about your current favorite.

I have so many favorites! The possum with the babies on her back is one of my favorites. And the big swan vase. And the portrait of Diana Spencer…

I did make some pieces that were from family photographs. My mom and dad are both in the show. And I made my little sister. I used a photograph from an old family photograph when she was just a baby. When we were little, we lived in a former British colony called Malawi in Central Africa. I made some sculptures that pertain to Malawi’s history, and I made a sculpture of my sister where she is being babysat by Janet, a woman who worked in our house. I felt that was an interesting sculpture to make and have this opportunity to have the global phenomenon of colonialism and racism and big subjects, but also staying within a light mood.

I secretly snuck in some sculptures that are really violent, and reference bad parts of history. I have not gotten a lot of comments on it, which is interesting because Icelandic people are not thinking about a lot of this stuff. You can easily go through this exhibition just looking at the cats, so I am guessing that is what most people do. Maybe the political sculptures are a little too hidden, but they are there if somebody wants to delve into them.

Personally, I believe it’s important that they are there. I think the way that you integrate these political sculptures into the show is reflective of how we encounter this kind of information in our lives. Maybe we’re not actively seeking out news about racism, or sexism, or feminism, but it’s there and it’s on the internet. I find it more relatable in that you advertise it as “this is a show about life” instead of “this is an important show about political issues”

Yeah and I also had to think long and hard about my place in talking about these subjects, as a participant in this society. It is important to take a stance or try to talk about this stuff without doing it in a way where people are not receptive to it. Or doing it in a “white savior” way. It is complicated, and I had to think long and hard about how these images should be portrayed and how they should be put in between.

I want to emphasize that I did not want to present the political sculptures in a way that seemed like I was making fun of them, even though they are mixed with humorous imagery. I wanted to do it in a respectful way.

In conclusion, what’s next for you? What are you thinking about these days?

Well, this exhibition was actually postponed twice. It was supposed to be last winter, now it opened in March. I just got all those sculptures out of the studio. The funny thing is I am opening a show at the Leysingar festival in Kompan Alþýðuhúsið at the end of May, so I just went straight into finishing up the works for that show. And then in the summer, I’ll be exhibiting with Staðir in the Westfjords. After that, think I will take a bit of a summer holiday…

Amanda Poorvu


Auður Lóa graduated from the fine arts department of The Iceland Academy of the Arts in 2015. Since then she has worked independently, and in the company of other artists; she has been involved in group exhibitions such as Á Ferð in Harbinger project space, Still life in The Reykjavík Art Museum, and 109 Cats in Sweaters in Ekkisens artspace. In November of 2017 she curated and presented her own work in the exhibition Diana Forever which was held in three locations in Reykjavík, and for which she received the motivational award of the Icelandic Visual Arts Council in 2018.

The show Yes/No takes place at the Reykjavík Art Museum as part of the D-hall exhibition series from 18.03.2021 to 09.05.2021.
Artist website: www.audurloa.com


Photo Credits: Portret of Auður Lóa: Ólöf Kristín Helgadóttir. Photos from exhibition: Artzine

The interview is part of a collaboration between Artzine and a new MA in Curatorial Practice at the Iceland University of the Arts.

Viðtalið er hluti af samstarfsverkefni Artzine og nýrrar meistaranámsleiðar í sýningagerð við myndlistardeild Listaháskóla Íslands á vorönn 2021.

On future and fortune

On future and fortune

On future and fortune

A detailed model of a house in ruins lays on the floor on a pile of black sand, the miniature interior design furniture clashes with the wreckage scattered around the building. The roof, as well as one of the four walls, has collapsed, nonetheless two design metal chairs are placed on the second floor close to a window, a corner where to relax and enjoy the view. A white corridor with a futuristic design resembling that of Star Trek spacecrafts extends outside of the house, goes around it and leads to the inside: a fancy entrance which offers an alternative to stepping through the detritus of the torn down wall and access the house with another perspective. 

The floor of the gallery is demarcated by black lines, a sports field of a game which rules are unknown to us. A chair on the corner, the human-size version of the scaled down design metal chairs in the model of the house, opens up to the possibility of a privileged point of view which is however for no one to enjoy – the gallery is in fact closed and the exhibition can be seen only through the wide window of Harbinger. One of the arms of the chair is replaced by a small metal plinth on which a twelve-faced die lays.

The same die is presented to us in two paintings on the walls of the gallery, but this time is depicted as broken. A painting of a naked person turning their back to us and holding a spear constitutes the only human presence in the exhibition.

Dcethrone (armored luxury), polished steel, sand, dice.

Detail of dice rolling bowl, polished steel, sand, dice.

2020, prospect (20 sided die in 20 pieces), oil on woodboard and 2020, retrospect (20 sided die in 20 pieces), oil on woodboard.

The exhibition Core Temperature by Fritz Hendrik looks at the future of “our house”, planet Earth, it focuses on and brings together two specific perspectives on the fate of the world: that of those who see the future as a sort of Mad Max post-apocalyptic scenery, where extreme global warming and its consequential catastrophic natural events destroy everything humans have built throughout the centuries, bringing the human species to extinction; and that of those who have faith in the humankind technological progress and believe geoengineering will save us.

Global warming and ecology are issues which are taking up more and more space in global discussions about the future of our species, in particular nowadays, since the year 2020 brought us to face the fragility of our humankind. Coronavirus managed to bring the whole world on its knees. We, first world countries citizens and wealthy enough to be able to isolate in our own homes, have found ourselves lost and broken. We renewed and incremented our long lasting relationship with technology, a companion which gives us access to endless entertainment, allowed us to keep working from home and to engage with loved ones when restrictions prohibited us from meeting in person. 

Philosopher Rosi Braidotti in her recent essay We Are In This Together, But We Are Not One and the Same claims that Covid-19 is a man-made disease, it is the result of human interference with the ecological balance. In her opinion it is a paradox that we turned to technology as a result, because that is what caused the problem in the first place. In the same essay she calls for a reconsideration of the binarism between culture and nature, drawing from post/de-colonial and indigenous theories which, in her words, “have a great deal to teach us”. This is for Rosi Braidotti, a time to avoid and fight apocalyptic thinking, it is instead “a time to organize and not agonize”, to reconsider how we live.

Detail of core temperature, mixed media.

Detail of core temperature, mixed media.

Detail of core temperature, mixed media.

The exhibition is strongly inspired by the roleplaying game Dungeon & Dragons, in which players create their own character and embark upon adventures in a fantasy world. The success or failure of actions taken by players are dictated by the rolling of dice. Fortune plays a big role in the game, as well in the exhibition Core Temperature. Dice appear here and there as symbols of the uncertain result of our actions: the future of our world is beyond our control. A die pops up when one scans the QR code on the gallery window with a smartphone, the polyhedric die rolls into our screens and breaks apart. 

Dice are there to feedback on our actions, just like they do in Dungeon & Dragon, to give us a result on which we can adjust our actions for a better future. This does not only concern collective actions taken on a bigger scale by humankind, but also our individual commitment to a more sustainable life-style, small gestures that most of us undertake daily to take care of the environment in the hope to contribute to saving our planet. Despite everything around us collapsing, we still make sure to carefully wash jam jars and beer bottles before putting them in the recycling bin. 

The dice in the exhibition represent the questioning of these actions: Are they even useful in the short or long run? Are we contributing in a tiny, tiny, tiny way to change the course of human destiny?

An intact die lays on the chair of the privilege point of view, the empty chair on the corner to which no viewer has access. Capitalism and social and ecological issues are so strictly connected that it is hard to avoid reading that empty chair as where CEOs of big companies and industrialists sit, as they are the ones who could really make a difference, but the capitalist machine is all about one thing: Profit. 

Installation view of the exhibition Core Temperature.

Detail, Scorelord, digital print, blý.

Donna Haraway, in her book Staying with the Trouble (2016), talks about making-with, which refers to engaging with the present, staying with other planetary organisms which are facing our same fate. The Covid-19 pandemic has proved that no matter how hard humans like to think of themselves as separate from nature, we are as a matter of fact part of the same ecosystem. That single bottle that we decide to recycle might not solve the waste overproduction problem, as well as cycling might not solve the pollution problem, but all the small actions we take represent steps toward a better society, as well as normalise a way of understanding our position in the world and our role in it which leans toward symbiogenesis – becoming by living together.

The dice are broken, but, after all, it doesn’t really matter.

POV (point of view), oil on woodboard.

Core Temperature was on view at Harbinger from November the 13th, 2020 to January the 1st, 2021.


Photographs published with the permission of the artist.
Fritz Hendrik’s website: www.fritzhendrik.com

Stars are the flowers of our skies: The Wildflower

Stars are the flowers of our skies: The Wildflower

Stars are the flowers of our skies: The Wildflower

 

in conversation with Becky Forsythe and Penelope Smart

 

In The Wildflower, we’re transported into a disorienting horizon full of flowers, non-flowers, stones, glass and jelly. Bringing together artists and writers from Canada and Iceland, the exhibition questions, uncovers, and challenges various problems and possibilities surrounding nature, land, landscape, and what it means to those who dwell on it. 

As I sink into thoughts about my personal relationship to both the Canadian and Icelandic landscapes, the initial parallels are clear. They both carry postcard-like perceptions of vibrancy. Large, open space, fresh air, and curiosity – from fjords and hot springs in Iceland, to great lakes and tall trees in Canada. They share northern geographies and similar flora. Contemplating the propositions that the show offered brought forward many questions. What is considered an Icelandic landscape, and what is considered a Canadian one? Whose perspectives are given space and whose voices are missing? Where do these stories intersect, and where do they part? 

This conversation with curators Becky Forsythe and Penelope Smart, much like The Wildflower itself, spanned countries, viewpoints, and time(zones). Generously offering a glimpse into their collective vision of the show and beyond, we spoke about traditional craft in contemporary spaces, what inclusion means, notions of past, present and future in landscape, as well as the added labour of distance.

Juliane Foronda: Your shared connection to nature is quite evident. What other interests or curiosities informed this show? 

Becky Forsythe: Themes circulating nature are so vast and varied — and saying The Wildflower is solely grounded in nature only scratches the surface. Our intention was a layered exhibition, and first and foremost one about artists whose works are exciting, re-envision natural material, personal history, or land in new ways. This was sparked by an interest in reimagined craft-based practices as a way to narrow in on familiar, foreign, future landscapes and unfold the layers in those concepts. It is also quite natural for us to work with female artists spanning generations and most definitely emerging into their practices.

Penelope Smart: I think craft based practices have a lot to say to traditional visual art practices in a gallery. They are often connected to domestic skills or “women’s work”, and are now seen as something extremely alive in a contemporary art space. 

BF: Arna weaves, but none are present in the show. She does however weave together preserved flowers in Untitled (2014). Her practice is very conceptual, and I am not sure that she would consider her practice craft-based. But her work stems from a long history of weaving and conceptual fiber sculpture in Iceland with people like Ásgerður Búadóttir (1920-2014), Hildur Hákonardóttir and G.Erla (Guðrún Erla Geirsdóttir), who have opened up the reading of “women’s work” in contemporary art since the fifties, sixties or seventies.

PS: As a curator who loves craft, there’s a powerful point in the idea of permission, responsibility and ownership. Craft can immediately connect you to a community that may or may not be your own, and you may or may not have permission into it. Where I am in northern Ontario, I think there are really generative experiences of how craft is connected to Indigenous communities, traditions, and other histories that you may not be trusted into just because you think it’s interesting. We were thinking about representations of nature in the future, and there is a paradox presenting works that connect to craft practices and traditions. That tension is consciously at play in this show.

BF: This tension in the exhibition plays with work elements that would be identified as craft-based, and how they appear in the artists’ work through other means. For example, Nína’s work, where she embroidered the tablecloth with local flora. This is a skill she acquired as a young woman, and she utilizes her skills, as any artist would, in conceptualizing an installation which is in some ways about the traditional practice of stitching, but reaches beyond that and into an atmosphere of cultural awareness. 

JF: What was your motivation behind fostering this conversation between the Canadian and Icelandic landscapes, and why was this important to you? 

PS: The idea of Iceland and Canada sharing latitudes and plant histories because of their geographies is something we were interested in. The work that was coming out of the studios in each of these places were often related to each other, especially between Newfoundland and Iceland. There’s so much more research that can be done, we’ve just skimmed the surface.

JF: Both Iceland and Canada have strong and specific overarching narratives around what it means to belong to, represent and live on these lands. Many of these narratives surround notions of home, heritage, legacy and access. Are varying perspectives and experiences, such those from the many refugees and immigrants who also inhabit these lands represented in The Wildflower?

PS: I don’t know if all those views are represented. The artists included in the show from Canada and the North are Indigenous, mixed ancestry, or white and/or of European descent, and are drawing from their own experience. I’m okay with someone pointing out that there are people and stories missing from the show, because that’s definitely true and for me, isn’t a reason to feel like the show fails in terms of a show that’s thinking about landscape. If The Wildflower does play a part in bringing up conversations about what’s lacking, where stories are missing about the experience of landscape, or what it means, if anything, to talk about flowers in a northern landscape, that’s great. These conversations are hard, but they’re important.

BF: The view we present is not a universal vision of land or landscape, but an act to deconstruct or counter or address imbalance in contemporary conversations on the topic. The exhibition itself wasn’t so much about transporting the experience of Canada here, or matching it to the experience of Iceland, but about creating a dialogue where questions would arise. Break up out-dated representations, I would say, and present a new potential for landscape. There are experiences that are missing, and that is okay, this is just one open possibility gathered from many voices.

 

Installation view with Jón Gunnar Árnason, Blómið, 1967, The Wildflower, Hafnarborg 2020. Photo: Kristín Pétursdóttir

Asinnajaq, Where you go, I follow, 2020, digital photograph on polysheer. Photo: Kristín Pétursdóttir

Katrina Jane, Tools of Being, 2020, Portuguese marble. Photo Kristín Pétursdóttir

Leisure, Narrative no. 9 (cotton grass, berry hand, summer 1943 on Bonavista Bay and women picking berries on the barrens 1912-15/2016), Narrative no.13, 2017, photo montage and Invisibility Cloaks, 2020, haskap, blueberries and cranberries on canvas. Photo: Vigfús Birgisson

JF: Is nature and/or land(scape) inclusive? 

BF: The way that nature’s been handled is not inclusive. I guess it depends on who is telling the story? Whose nature is it? And who has access? But if you think about this in the environmental or cultural context, then nature has been misused in a way that’s not inclusive at all and has kept certain cultures, genders and races repressed. 

PS: This is such a good question. I do think this comes up in the sense of nature as a resource. And who has access to it. In the exhibit, there’s the idea of nature as a resource related to different histories and in terms of the materials themselves, the view of nature as something that gives or has given, and gives innately, and how we take.

JF: While this collaboration was always planned to have an element of long distance to some capacity, you came across many unexpected challenges due to COVID-19. Can you talk a bit about the obstacles, joys, added labour and findings that came from this?

BF: The long distance nature of our collaboration meant the transition into the reality of COVID-19 just happened. We had worked in a lot of research and preparation that would take place onsite in Iceland, that was affected quite early on and became impossible. We pivoted in this new vulnerability, like colleagues, exhibitions, museums and galleries everywhere are currently doing, and found new approaches. This transformed our selection of work, but also pushed us, in a good way, to reconsider the place of our work in the field.

PS: It’s unfortunate that I wasn’t able to go to Iceland. At times it felt like constantly asking do we cancel this? became the work. But this was happening for everyone. I often felt like I couldn’t do my fair share because I wasn’t physically there. It didn’t change how the show went for me in the end, as it looked exactly how it would have if I had been able to be there. It makes me excited for the next thing we get to do together.

BF: We were lucky that we walked into this with a consistent working practice, weekly meetings and reliable communication. Onsite/online, we weren’t only doing this long distance, but between time zones too. I really see the labour that went into this exhibition as balanced— whether conceptual, physical or intellectual. It was heartbreaking that Penelope couldn’t be here, because we had organized to a certain extent, but also left room to respond together in the space once we were in it, and we really didn’t get to experience that. That’s an exciting part for me to really feel works in the space, get in there and respond. 

JF: (How) will this collaboration exist after this exhibition is over?

BF:  I think we did walk into it with the idea that this project, and at least the beginnings of this research extend into something beyond. Our list of artists, contributors and writers was so huge. We definitely couldn’t include everyone that we wanted to in The Wildflower, and that leaves us with exciting research to continue. The fact that we’ve survived this massive exhibition at this time, long distance – across countries and with COVID, it’s left me really excited to attempt something new. Whether that’s realised as an exhibition or another format, it’s still up in the air. There’s still a lot that we haven’t unpacked and it’s about finding the right time for those things to happen.

PS: The ways that we experience and engage with art are shifting. It’s no longer about getting on a plane to do research and studio visits, and a lot more art is now happening outside of traditional gallery settings. This means that we have to think about how our work as curators can continue to be of value to audiences moving forward. I’m interested and learning how to talk about land, how to belong to it and where I belong, what does belonging actually translate to, how does history play out in a landscape, how do you claim it or not, and how do you revisit yourself in land. I want to be able to work with artists who are looking at these questions.

——————

Following my question about if nature and landscape was inclusive, Penelope posed a series of questions back at me. She asked how inclusivity feels, where it lives in the body, and what emotions are present when we talk about if nature is inclusive. These questions in relation to my personal relationship with land and nature have been circulating in my headspace since being asked, and I will likely continue to sit in the reality of these thoughts for some time.

I immediately thought of my family’s first winter in Canada, and the small toboggan (sled) my parents got us so we could all play in the snow. I thought of the first time I realised I didn’t know how to ice skate or ski like most of the kids at my primary school could, who were predominantly of white settler-colonial descent. I also remembered my first trip to a friend’s cottage in my teens, and how they taught me how to canoe at sunset. My thoughts also fall back to listening to my father tell me stories throughout my childhood about his rural village in the northern region of the Philippines – stories of mango trees, being showered by the warm tropical rain, playing with spiders, stones and banana leaves, and about how bright the stars were at night. This landscape is completely opposite to the one I grew up in and is one that I barely know myself, but I feel inherently connected to it from these stories that have been told and retold to me over the years. I also thought about when I moved to Iceland, and how my body surrendered to the slow pace of the dark winter. I remembered the first time I saw the northern lights, and I can still hear the sound of the strong winter wind whistling through my window. I also often think of that soft pink light that peeks out around February, which breaks the darkness and makes the whole landscape seem to glow in silence for a few moments.

These thoughts and memories led me to realise that experiences with/in nature and landscape often carry multiple markers or milestones that reveal how much you conventionally belong or fit in. This is particularly true for lands where nature and landscape are deeply interwoven into culture and cultural norms, such as in Iceland and Canada. It’s a curious place, where nature mixes with culture and its conventions, making clear that nature often exists as a refuge or pleasure for the systemically privileged, while it is a border or boundary for many others. The very specific narratives placed around land and landscape affects people’s psyche and their sense of belonging. It also brings up the notion of nature as legacy – what you pass down and leave behind. I often wondered why my father’s village feels so emotionally familiar to me, and I’ve come to realise that knowledge and histories can transcend time and physical space through the radical care of sharing one’s skills, experience and stories with others.

In an attempt to answer Penelope’s questions, inclusion and exclusion, for me, lives in the space(s) between my tear ducts and my chest. My lived experiences and the feelings they come with trigger a quickened pulse from my heavy heart, a tickle in my throat, a runny nose, and misty eyes. Nature exists in multitudes, and for me, can bring up feelings of wonder while often being laced with a mix of gratitude, guilt, clarity and confusion. I like to think of my relationship with nature as a private one in a public space; it’s complex, changing and challenging, and it’s the only one of its kind that I’ll ever know. 

This conversation exists in two parts, with the other being on Femme Art Review.

 

The WildflowerVilliblómið, was exhibited at Hafnarborg – Centre of Culture and Fine Art (Hafnarfjörður, IS) between August 29 – November 8 2020.

Artists included: Arna Óttarsdóttir, Asinnajaq, Eggert Pétursson, Emily Critch, Jón Gunnar Árnason, Justine McGrath, Katrina Jane, Nína Óskarsdóttir, Leisure, Thomas Pausz, Rúna Thorkelsdóttir

Curated by Becky Forsythe and Penelope Smart

Becky Forsythe and Penelope Smart met at the Banff Centre for the Arts and Creativity in 2017. Their shared work is based in new and meaningful conversations about nature, materials and the feminine. The Wildflower is their first collaborative project.

Becky Forsythe is a curator, writer, and organizer in Reykjavík, Iceland. Penelope Smart is curator at Thunder Bay Art Gallery and writer based in Ontario, Canada. 

Writer’s note of Land Acknowledgement: 

For thousands of years, Tkaronto (Toronto) has been the traditional territory of many nations including the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishinaabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat, and it is still home to many diverse First Nations, Inuit and Métis from across Turtle Island (North America). Tkaronto is covered by Treaty 13 with the Mississaugas of the Credit. I have lived on this land for the majority of my life, and it continues to significantly shape and impact my trajectory. I acknowledge and recognize the many privileges that I have because of immigrating to and having grown up on stolen land. I conducted this interview from Glasgow, Scotland, where I am currently based. 

Penelope spoke to me from Thunder Bay, Ontario, located on the traditional territory of the Anishinaabeg, which is covered by the Robinson-Superior Treaty. She is grateful to live and work on the traditional territory of Fort William First Nation. Becky spoke to me from Reykjavík, Iceland. She acknowledges traditional territories of the Huron-Wendat, the Haudenosaunee, the Anishinaabeg, specifically Ojibway/Chippewa, the Odawa and Wahta Mohawk peoples whose presence on the land continues to this day, and where her time and experiences lived on this land continue to influence her person and practice. 

Femme Art Review is based out of the traditional territory of the Anishinaabek, Haudenosaunee, Lūnaapéewak, and Attawandaron peoples (London, Ontario). Artzine is based out of Reykjavík, Iceland.

 

 

Cover picture: Nína Óskarsdóttir, The Feast (Veislan), 2020, mixed media, table cloth embroidered with Icelandic wildflowers and assorted beer jellies. Photo: Kristín Pétursdóttir

Vanishing Crowd: Una Björg and COVID-19

Vanishing Crowd: Una Björg and COVID-19

Vanishing Crowd: Una Björg and COVID-19

From the 16th of January till the 15th of March 2020 Una Björg Magnúsdóttir had an exhibition in the D-gallery of The Reykjavík Art Museum titled Vanishing Crowd. It was, at the time, an intriguing exhibition: integrating the whole space, it was simple and slow but complex, engaging and intimate. It was her first solo-exhibition in a museum, a big opportunity to exhibit in a big space and to work with our biggest museum – an institution that wants to give young artists opportunities. In this exhibition, which could be described as an installation, where the whole space was the work, Una played with our ideas of the event, of magic, of our belief in our common, societal habits; she played with our ideas of rationality, our tendency to venerate and revere, our ideas of expectation and action.

I am not talking about this exhibition today because there is nothing to talk about in art today – no, there is a lot to talk about in art today. I am talking about this exhibition today because the meaning and idea of this exhibition has changed completely in the months that have passed since it’s opening. Our whole art scene is in flux, art everywhere has been cancelled, postponed, made virtual, taken on a completely different form. As I write this our museums are closed, art venues are treading a fine line between wanting guests and keeping them away. The crowd has vanished. We do not know when it will come back. It might not come back, completely, for a long time.

Vanishing Crowd, courtesy of the artist.

Una takes this title, Vanishing Crowd, from the magician David Copperfield. It is a trick he created where he makes a group of people vanish from a stage in a blast of smoke and noise and makes them reappear, almost instantly, somewhere else in the space where he is performing – to the audience’s shocked pleasure. In 2018, however, Copperfield had to explain, in detail, how he executed this trick when a volunteer sued the magician after being injured while taking part. The trick is sadly not as magical as Copperfield would like to have us believe. It mainly involves the people who vanish to go down a hole in the stage and to run, quickly, through a makeshift tunnel leading to the other side of the room. Magic does not have to be complicated, or necessarily a mystery, to work. This is where Una picks up the idea. The magic in her exhibition was partly in how she showed it to us, and then how she showed us how she showed it to us. If she asked us: is this magic? We would answer: no, this is not magic. If it is not magic then it must be reality.

If we are going to construct a convincing narrative for this year 2020, artists – if given the chance – could be the ones to do it. As has been said by others now as we come to terms with this in-and-out dance with the virus, art (maybe especially visual art) can be a tool to look at, interpret, see clearer what it is we are getting used to, what we are being asked to do, what has changed and what is changing.

Today we see the title of Una’s work in a completely different light, obviously, but everything about the work has changed. In a piece for the radio program Víðsjá Sunna Ástþórsdóttir said: Since suspense and excitement are highly infectious emotions, this exhibition is best experienced in a crowd. The crowd, and the different way people behave themselves in a crowd as opposed to alone, changed the way the work was magical, even artistic. Today the most magical thing about this exhibition is possibly that people were able to see it. The opening on the 16th of January was the last “normal” opening of the D-gallery before our present touch-free society took over. At the opening there were lots of people – close to each other, hugging, touching, together – it seems a long time ago. Our idea of the crowd has become complicated. The first COVID-19 infections in Iceland were confirmed on the 28th of February. The Minister of Health instituted a ban on public gatherings on the 16th of March, the day after Una’s exhibition closed. The crowd vanished, overnight. Not by magic but by a forceful intrusion of a very real event into our lives. This reality has changed Una’s exhibition. And it has changed every other exhibition since. And we should think about how it has done so.

Vanishing Crowd, courtesy of the artist.

We could say a ghost has gotten into Una’s work, has taken possession of it. It is unnerving, the exhibition has become a bit frightening, and it has maybe become less understandable, but extremely relevant. Now vanishing means vanishing, we know what that looks like. Vanishing from the streets, from the museums, the pools – to no longer see or be seen in the shared arena of our society. Vanishing means to stay home, to be forced back home, to be sick. For too many people it means to grieve, to pass away. Last winter vanishing meant to go away but it still also meant to come back. We expected to come back, that it would be possible to come back, like the screen in Una’s work that appeared and disappeared on a regular schedule. Today it looks like this timeframe could be longer, the coming back more complicated. It might become a regular thing to open up and close again according to how the virus spreads each time. This is not only forcing postponements and cancellations of events that were supposed to take place over the summer or this autumn, but now having an effect on how and what we organize in the coming year, and even beyond. An indefinite timeframe will only continue to complicate our work. How can we make this situation clearer, more accessible, less claustrophobic?

Because the question now is not if we can come back to normal but rather what will be the new normal we come back to? Should we expect a crowd or not? How important were openings to us? What is an extended opening? Hopefully this will be a normal where there is a vaccine and a definitive answer to this threat has been found. Not a normal of apathy, tiredness, and an aggressive politicization of this situation. And even though we might sense that there has been a rupture between then and now, between pre-virus and post-virus, we cannot look at this event in a vacuum. This virus happened to a society with a certain structure and a certain context and the response to it exists within that same context.

We are seeing, in real-time, a reevaluation of how we perceive the value art has in our society. For the first time, it seems, a sitting Minister of Culture has a clear idea of the challenges an artist faces in their day-to-day work, and how the cultural infrastructure in Iceland is not at all prepared to deal with an emergency, of this sort or indeed any other. We are seeing a conversation start to develop around how we should value museums, galleries, art institutions, when that value cannot be counted in attendance figures and ticket sales. That is not to say that ticket sales were ever a reliable indicator of, say, the success of a museum in Iceland, but there is a clear difference between 1,000 guests (with the goal of attracting more) and none. Maybe especially so in the eyes of a government official attempting to leverage artistic production as, say, a tourist attraction. This is a necessary conversation that we need to engage with.

The first lockdown in the early spring did not last long enough for us to be forced to think deeply about what effect this would have on art in Iceland. We were able to open back up relatively quickly, and we quickly tried to get things back to normal. Now, however, we see that this could very well take a long time, and that art as we knew it will not come back overnight, but most likely gradually and in steps. And if we take that position we must take time now to develop these conversations. What does art look like without the usual relationship between artwork and exhibition guest? Can moving art into the virtual realm ever do more than to remind us how much, in our constantly distracted online existence, we now miss actually physically interacting with objects, spaces, people? If COVID-19 has forced us to look at our world and think about what we really think is important then we might also be able to ask ourselves how brave and how new we can remake our world? Or are we looking for it to be the same as it was? In any case, the money that the government is now putting into the culture sector should spur us to take on this conversation and to bring it to a wider audience.

Vanishing Crowd, courtesy of the artist.

It is not possible to fully express how Una’s exhibition has changed or will change, or will mean in the end. We might not even know really what the magic there is or was, or what or where the art was exactly. Because we are still too deep inside this event. Where the pillars of this society we have built are trembling, possibly shaking. Where nearly all of the day-jobs that artists have relied upon for the past decade have disappeared. Where meeting friends and family, or going to the studio, has become a threat and a calculation of odds and safety precautions.

We know that this virus has already changed art because it has changed the world. It is important to think about what has changed. It might not be obvious. This virus enters into us now and we will come to see our history from a different body. Hopefully we will see the stage at some point from the other side of the room – appearing again in the crowd as if by magic. But we are still running somewhere through the tunnel. The masked audience is looking through the smoke to the stage and still do not see anyone.

Starkaður Sigurðarson

Post-Digital World(s) of Icelandic Art

Post-Digital World(s) of Icelandic Art

Post-Digital World(s) of Icelandic Art

Writing about contemporary digital culture in mid-2020 has a different context than it did at the beginning of the year. In the midst of a global pandemic in which the Merry-Go-Round of the art world has been brought to a standstill brings a new consideration of the digital world as it has suddenly become the safest, available, and dynamic tool for continuing with life amongst new social distancing measures and limited travel possibilities. Like most sectors of daily life, the art world has been pushed to go digital. With the closure and alteration of how we experience some artworks in museums and galleries because of control measures, digital artists have been able to carry on as usual. Galleries and museums have offered virtual renderings and video walk-throughs of exhibitions, resurfaced 3-D tours, and more video content from the archives. One meme from the anonymous Instagram account @JerryGogosian captured the nuances of inhabiting a viewer’s perspective in the worlds of an online platform of contemporary art with a few chosen grammar decisions. (See featured image)

There is no doubt that the pandemic will influence the kind of art made during this time and in the years to come – especially in using the ever-present digital medium that has become even more a tool for carrying messages and presenting art on a digital platform. Digital artists already enmeshed in the medium are then at a certain forefront of these times ahead. Within Icelandic art history, the introduction of the digital came relatively later than other mainland art scenes. However, this has led to a particular relationship between the digital and more traditional art forms, especially traditions that are rooted in Icelandic culture, such as the landscape painting, which offers a tactile sense of the way people connect to landscapes both under the feet and in the mind.

A new publication titled Digital Dynamics in Nordic Contemporary Art focuses on the manner in which contemporary art is changing in the era of the digital. Margrét Elísabet Ólafsdóttir, author of one of the book’s chapters, “Divisions and Divides in Icelandic Contemporary Art,” offers a timeline of the digital and new media arts in Iceland – one can see how global art movements diffused in Iceland tend to take on a characteristic of being intensified and clearly traceable, just as smaller models are easier to trace. In Iceland, there are certain instances, for example, when in the 1960’s the discrepancy between Iceland and the US in terms of access to technological equipment was vastly different – the militarized US was leading research in the field, while Iceland had limited access. This discrepancy in hindsight can be seen to have allowed the Icelandic art scene to develop in unique pathways that did not so readily grasp onto the digital, but considered it from a distance for a few more decades, cultivating a sensibility towards the divisions and divides between the digital and more ‘traditional’ mediums and create an aesthetic bridge between them. In a panel discussion in conjunction with the book launch, artist Auður Lóa Guðnadóttir, for example, describes the way in which she brings the imagery from the digital into a physical space by making 3d objects of subjects and motifs of digital culture such as funny animals, cucumbers, and fruit emojis as a way to work within the barrier between those two worlds.

When in the mid-1980s, video became part of the curriculum at the Icelandic College of Arts and Crafts in the New Media department, there was one camera and no postproduction studio. Steina Vasulka’s exhibition in 1983 was shown in Iceland on limited monitors because of a lack of equipment. Compared with the rest of the contemporary art scene around the Western world, it allowed more time to reflect on actual and virtual worlds. In 1999, when Iceland Academy of the Arts replaced the College of Art and Crafts and opened specialized workshop departments, it was the first time art students had access to fully equipped video studios, post-production software, and digital cameras. As mentioned by Margrét, this resonates with questions asked by Egill Saebjornsson on equating the difference between actual and virtual worlds, with that of the different between nature and technology. At the Venice Biennale in 2017, Out of Control (2017), based on the characters of two trolls named   Ūgh & Bõögâr, offered reflection on the ways that for more than a century, Icelandic art has been described as being grounded in nature: “The fusion of virtual and actual worlds, reality and fiction, encountered in Egill Saebjornsson’s work, also makes us question the distinction, not only between art worlds but just ‘worlds’. Today, the divide between contemporary art and media art, which characterized the past decades, has collapsed.” (329)

Coinciding with the publication of the book Digital Dynamics in Nordic Contemporary Art, edited by Tanya Toft Ag and published by Intellect Books, Margrét curated the online exhibition Arts New Representations which was launched on Saturday, June 13th on the platform of the Icelandic online magazine Artzine.is. The five works shown in the exhibition cultivate a sense of where Icelandic media art has been and where it is going with the current generation and with the impact of current global events. Alongside the exhibition was a panel discussion with Icelandic artists that offered further analysis of the direction and sensibilities of contemporary Icelandic digital art.

In Margrét’s discussion of the early years of LORNA, an association for electronic arts that she founded in 2002, she observed a certain skepticism towards digital technology and media art within the mainstream contemporary art scene. In recent years she has observed a change in attitude to a certain extent – the artists on the panel make it clear that this early skepticism is no longer valid when such erudite discussion concerning digital art and individual artistic practices. The artists on the panel, Geirþrúður Finnbogadóttir Hjörvar, Freyja Eilíf, Auður Lóa Guðnadóttir, and Fritz Hendrik Berndsen aka Fritz Hendrik IV, are part of the younger generation of artists obsessed with the split between the digital and non-digital in what could be referred to as a post-digital era. The discussion offered many valuable insights into the online exhibition from artists familiar with the concerns of the digital medium, for example, the overwhelming nature of the digital in our everyday life and how it becomes a tool both for fabrication and as a medium itself.

(Screenshot) Saemundur Thor Helgason’s Solar Plexus Pressure Belt Trailer, ‘Working Dead’

Saemundur Thor Helgason’s Solar Plexus Pressure Belt Trailer, ‘Working Dead,’ introduced the prototype of an anxiety-reducing device engineered and designed by the artist in collaboration with fashion designer Agata Mickiewicz. The work is a continuation of a larger project called ‘Félag Borgara’, (eng. Fellowship of Citizens) an interest group founded by the artist in Reykjavik in October 2017 with the aim of lobbying for basic income in Iceland through apolitical means. Solar Plexus Pressure Belt™, inspired by Saemundur Thor‘s own experiences as a creative practitioner suffering from anxiety and panic attacks in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis, uses the digital medium as a platform for content as well as representation of its material embodiment. The Solar Plexus Pressure Belt™ combines elements of design and social activism in carrying out one of the earliest uses of the internet, that of using it as space where a truly democratic zone can transform certain elements of society. The design of the belt simulates a finger pressing into the solar plexus area, a motion and coping mechanism Saemundur Thor discovered would reduce feelings of stress and anxiety, offers a palliative solution to late capitalism.

Where Saemundur Thor investigates the body’s internalized reaction to feelings of stress and anxiety, Anna  Fríða Jónsdóttir’s ‘Thought Interpreter’ is the artists’ abstracted example of the mirroring of systems that every person assimilates on scales ranging from smaller bodily systems to massive societal systems and beyond. It is a representation of the way we are all connected through our biological engineering, mostly made of water. The artist asks: “Since water is the world’s best solvent, could something very personal from every living resident be residing underneath the city in the sewer system? Are we creating a sub-city of thoughts and emotions mirroring reality, a reflection of the overall emotional state of a city?” ‘Thought Interpreter’ is akin to walking in on a conversation through a medium whose language is nonverbal, subliminal. In light of the current global pandemic, the reality of an invisible, molecular disease that is carried between individuals and has changed the structure of many ways in which we carry out everyday life, it seems even more plausible to imagine the ‘Thought Interpreter’ as representing the conversation happening between our body and the world around us on a personal and global level.

(Screenshot) Anna Fríða Jónsdóttir’s ‘Thought Interpreter’ ( 2012). Jars, bathroom tiles, spoons, 9 servo motors, arduino.

In this way, the digital medium allows both Anna Fríða and Saemundur Thor the possibility to explore reality in an impossible way by creating a scenario for a possible world, implementing it as a digital reality, and entering it for effect. It is for this reason that the term ‘cyberspace’ was first coined by a Science fiction author, William Gibson, as it is literally the realm where possible futures begin to be implemented.

In the panel discussion, Geirþrúður Finnbogadóttir Hjörvar mentioned the post digital’s relationship to the post-apocalyptic as a historical manner and political scheme in which the ideas, programs and grand schemes come into play in an ideological sensibility that is becoming more and more pessimistic:

“We have abandoned this sense of progress and we are just living this dystopic unfolding of futuristic stuff but none of it seems to have any meaning so this dystopian sensibility has become so strong… the most relevant post-digital is the post-apocalyptic. It seems like we thought there would be an event but instead, it’s just a steady decline that leads to nowhere. That’s the idea of post-apocalypse, if we don’t have a vision of a future collectively, that’s what’s on offer, nothing apocalyptic, because that would be an event, but it’s just that things don’t happen.”

(Screenshot) Ágústa Ýr Guðmundsdóttir aka Ice Ice Baby Spice

Digital artist, Ágústa Ýr Guðmundsdóttir aka Ice Ice Baby Spice, readily embraces the digital realm as a studio, and as such, accepts the limitations of it as a zone of possibility for self-expression of her own anima through social media as well in her work digitizing fashion for casting directors and labels. The process of photographing, scanning, and editing brings many opportunities to investigate the aesthetics of the realm between the digital and the physical. When making videos, she uses a camera within a 3D world that she has made, and is using the same settings as a normal camera, moving it digitally instead of holding it physically.

In the panel talk, Geirþrúður, an artist from an earlier generation, also discussed how she has come to accept the digital world as her studio, however, she notes that the awe of what is possible that first overcame her in the first days of digital art affects how she looks at the materiality of the digital. Becoming recently interested in 3D modeling (which can be seen to great effect in her work featuring renderings of Real Estate advertisements), Geirþrúður said that the relief from physical law is a huge inspiration as she can decide to which degree what she creates in the digital space becomes material: “This also brings me to a sense of what is the materiality of the digital, so the more I get drawn into its immateriality, the more I also get interested in the materiality of the digital but also the materiality of real life, so it has this pretty intense dialectical relationship.”

This dialectical relationship between the two mediums is an eloquent conversation that is what makes the world(s) of digital art such a fascinating receptacle of processing how we live in the contemporary moment. Freyja Eilíf’s commentary in the panel discussion on what has intrigued her with the digital also relates to the processing of how we live in and of the digital in our everyday lives – she sees it as a hybrid reality that we are collaboratively creating with the digital realm: “I think of it as an alien, really, and something otherworldly. That’s what intrigues me about the internet. I also think about where it was before it became the internet. Was it just lying dormant?”

(Screenshot) Hákon Bragason, On a Branch, (2020)

In a similar thread of questioning the space of communication within the digital, as well as the longevity of digital spaces and their mechanism as a component of time is digital artist, Hákon Bragason´s 3D interactive work. In ‚On a Branch,‘ viewers become visitors in a virtual realm with its own illuminating sun that gives the sensation of experiencing the sun from another planet. The transportive world´s hazy pink glow features a lone tree, sketched with branches reaching towards the sun. Here the artist is able to examine the presence of people within a 3D internet space where it is not possible to have normal communication and people only are made aware of the presence of others through the number of leaves that appear on the tree. The non-verbal realm literally goes out on a branch to examine how we communicate presence as well as the mode in which history is recorded in the digital.

(Screenshot) Haraldur Karlsson´s ´Snæfellsnes Broadcast Station´

In ´Snæfellsness Broadcast Station, Haraldur Karlsson reports live from Snæfellsnes, the artist playfully presents the surrounding landscape in which he has created a simple set up of a wooden chair. A child occasionally shares the screen, waving to observers. Interspersed with the landscape scenes and the overlay of different video warping effects are weather maps of the Snæfellsnes peninsula with dramatic overlays of fire-spitting and tornadoes swirling. The work is seemingly a commentary on the role of the Snæfellsnes peninsula in local lore: it is the place where French author Jules Verne begins his 1871 Science Fiction classic,  Journey to the Center of the Earth, with entering a dormant volcano. The peninsula is also known for its heavy mythology of elven lore or ´Hidden People´. The lore attached to this geographic location in Iceland is now part of every marketing campaign introducing tourists to the area.

In the panel talk, Fritz Hendrik Berndsen discusses the way in which Icelandic art history is full of landscape paintings created before the digital marketing of Iceland to tourists began, but it´s also where it began because Icelandic painters did not appreciate the value of the landscape before Danish poets began writing about their majesty. In ´Snæfellsnes Broadcast Station,´ Haraldur portrays a landscape being consumed by the digital, however, it is not only happening on a consumer level, but as part of surveillance culture. “The Icelandic landscape has a completely different meaning after Google Earth appears because now, you’re not alone in nature,” added Geirþrúður in the panel discussion, “there’s always a satellite above you.”

In the context of Haraldur´s previous work with themes of expressing a holistic philosophy of science and art in which art reflects reality in its relation to man, the artist is the anti-hero, using the medium to be more human. There‘s always a Google Earth satellite even in the most isolated landscapes, making the world more known, and giving with it a „human angle“ permeated with the factors of being human, which also means seeing it, as Haraldur does with video editing software, through the historical prism of science and philosophy.

Erin Honeycutt


Photos: courtesy of the artists.


Acknowledgement: This text is commissioned by the project Digital Dynamics: New Ways of Art based on the book Digital Dynamics in Nordic Contemporary Art

(Intellect, 2019) and supported by the Nordic Culture Fund and Nordic Council of Ministries. www.digitaldynamics.art

What’s more monumental than buildings? a show and tell with Melanie Ubaldo

What’s more monumental than buildings? a show and tell with Melanie Ubaldo

What’s more monumental than buildings? a show and tell with Melanie Ubaldo

Until we take the time to know any place intimately, our awareness is often limited to our associations with their landmarks and stereotypes. When I visit new places, I pay extra attention as I trace the land with my feet to orient myself until foreign feels familiar. The more I walk, the more I know. I gain my bearings in life through walking, and trusting that my feet will eventually reveal to me something I did not previously know. Paths I walk again and again are imprinted in my memory with each footstep – familiar textures, ways of moving, views and rituals that are, over time, carefully imbedded into the soles of my shoes. I walk to understand, to see more (or all) sides and angles, and to instill considered consciousness.

Reykjavík-based artist Melanie Ubaldo makes work that activates my whole body. I need to walk around it, move closer, step back, smell the thick brushstrokes of paint, and visually take in all the textures and materials, often wishing that I could experience these puzzle-like paintings through the touch of my fingertips. I’m constantly aware of their scale, towering over me, unable to be ignored. Personal phrases are so boldly written across the raw, unstretched, paint-splattered, patched and sewn canvases, which catch my eye immediately.  Her work celebrates her Icelandic-Filipina identity while also confronting the challenges of intersectionality. The core of her work is rooted in her relationship with her mother, with some phrases even coming directly from their past conversations. A chaotic mix of vulnerability and (dis)comfort, Ubaldo’s work acts like a billboard or banner documenting her lived experiences.

Throughout my recent conversation with Melanie, she spoke fondly about her curiosity with architecture, and what makes something (or someone) monumental. Her paintings and their phrases dominate any given space they are placed within, ensuring that we hear her messages loud and clear. There is an undeniable reference to architecture with her paintings as they mimic posts, pillars, buildings and obelisks, along with an unwavering awareness of space, as they tend to be supported by the architecture themselves.

You look Indian so you get Indian price, 2017
Part of the exhibition Málverk – ekki miðill / Painting – Not a Medium at Hafnarborg, Curated by Jóhannes Dagsson.

While it’s easy to correlate scale with dominance and aggression, the core of her work and her person simultaneously brings forward a delicate quality. As much as these paintings draw inspiration from the grandiose of buildings and billboards, I consider them just as much a reference to shelters: tarps, coverings or perhaps even a slight nod to a child’s comfort blanket. There are clear parallels between Melanie’s paintings and Korean artist Do Ho Suh’s sculptures and installations as they both touch on notions of space, home, memory and (dis)placement. Suh’s intimate sculptures replicate and reference various places he’s lived and worked (as well as many of the objects within them) out of delicate steel frames and sheer gauze-like fabrics, almost mimicking tents as they exude a sense of portability. Their material lightness gives them a transitory quality, while being so conceptually present that they concurrently call to be contemplated. Melanie’s work, much like Do Ho Suh’s can only benefit with more time and care spent in their vicinity as the layers slowly unravel to let you in.

I also can’t help but be reminded of the strong women who led the Feminist Art movement as I reflect more on Melanie’s practice. The Guerilla Girls’ The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist (1988), for example, directly confronts the countless injustices and prejudice that women continue to experience in the arts. There also exists some striking similarities in Tracey Emin’s mark making and Melanie’s that firmly places their work in close dialogue with one other. Many phrases and sentiments in these works continue to ring true over 30 years later, and I wonder (and fear) if the words and sentiments in Ubaldo’s paintings will also remain true in decades to come. The works of all these women are vulnerably bold, courageous and unapologetically blunt, laced with an honesty that quivers between comic and devastating. The longer I spend with Melanie’s work, the more I realise how genuine it is, and I never know if I should laugh or cry.

What are you doing in Iceland with your face?, 2017
Initially exhibited in Slæmur Félagskapur in Kling & Bang in 2017 and most recently shown in the Borgarbókasafn in Tryggvagata as part of the project Inclusive Public Spaces.

Alongside her individual painting practice, Melanie works in a collective with Darren Mark and Dýrfinna Benita Basalan. Brought together through their shared memories and experiences of all being Icelandic artists with Filipino origins, their collaborative work as Lucky 3 is rooted in nostalgia and diaspora shown through their common culture(s). Their recent exhibition, Lucky Me? at Kling & Bang affectionately gathered key elements of Filipino life and culture – from karaoke, to playing basketball in the streets, to a colourful sari-sari store[1]. Speaking of this exhibition led us to speaking about her family, and the struggles she’s had with often feeling like she’s disappointing her mother by pursuing her art practice. Melanie divulged that she felt as though this recent project with Lucky 3 was perhaps the first exhibition that her mother was proud of, but that the pride likely stemmed more from seeing that Melanie (and in turn, her Filipino culture) was accepted by the community and her peers rather than pride in the work itself, or of her daughter.

One day while Melanie was sitting the show, she told me that a guest (an older white male artist who was visiting Iceland) felt the need to mention that he had already made an identical or similar work to theirs, but decades earlier. His comments were specifically targeted towards a sculpture that referenced a broken glass concrete block wall. These types of concrete walls with shards of glass scattered atop of them are common in the Philippines as a means of property security and to deter trespassing. Perhaps his comments were meant simply as gallery small-talk, but they came across to her more so as a microagression that unnecessarily asserted inherent power dynamics. Melanie also mentioned that some local guests visited the show as a means of “research” as they were planning to visit the Philippines in the near future. These instances only further instill the fact that the identity and heritage of visible minorities is still overall irreverent or exoticized in the arts, rather than respected as a means of auto-biographical storytelling, self-expression or sociocultural critique.

The Wall, 2019
Installation shot from Lucky 3 presents Lucky Me? at Kling & Bang.

Sari-Sari Store, 2019
Installation shot from Lucky 3 presents Lucky Me? at Kling & Bang.

In Roxane Gay’s essay, When Less is More, she poignantly states that “this is the famine for which we must imagine feast[2],” as she unpacks the many racial tropes in Orange is the New Black in spite of it being globally praised for its diverse cast. Gay is essentially saying that there remains so little diversity in pop culture, that the presence of minorities is praised even if they’re present as a means of feeding into cultural stereotypes. Roxane Gay’s statement is in line with of how Audre Lorde eloquently explains that it is not our differences that divides us, but that it’s rather our inability to recognize, accept and celebrate our collective differences[3] that in turn leaves us divided. This reality still exists in most (if not all) aspects of our world to this day, and the arts is far from neutral in regards to this. I couldn’t help but notice that an overwhelming majority of the shows and projects that Melanie has been curated into were about race, sometimes under the guise of “inclusivity”. I find this problematic as it then suggests that work aside from hers (or other work like hers) is “exclusive,” meaning that her voice is in turn excluded from those other dialogues. It’s deeply personal work, and while Melanie willingly confronts the conversation of race through her work, to place her practice solely under the umbrella of being about race feeds into a deeply systemic problem in and of itself. Her work is autobiographical, so it naturally draws connections to her identity and heritage, but there are so many other streams and subtleties that her practice flows in and out that are seldom acknowledged. When I contemplate Melanie’s work, I see the angst of parent-child dynamics, strong references to architecture and building, relatable and satisfyingly self-deprecating humour, commentaries on our collective (mis)use of language, a visceral relationship to her materials and tactility, and nods to various art movements – all through the complex lens of her personal lived experiences, heritage and culture. Frieze London’s Artistic Director Eva Langret, in a recent interview with Aindrea Emelife, explains that to mostly (or only) work with BIPOC[4] artists within the context of race and identity results in a lack of nuance when it comes to integrating their voices within wider artistic discourses[5]. What may often be done with genuine interest and good intentions can further be read as an uncomfortable mix of voyeurism, othering and performative solidarity. Art can foster diversity and practice proper inclusion if we let it, so to continue this pattern deeply dilutes the power of art, making it to fall stagnant and complicit to the dangerous narrative that marginalized artists can not take up the same or as much space without the additional emotional labour of tokenism.

At the time of our conversation, Melanie mentioned that she was immersed in various fiction novels as a means to escape and rest her mind. She said that she’s taken by how they’re written, and they act as her way to pause on the weight of reality. That statement hit me immediately, as it made it all the more clear how real and raw her practice is. She can’t escape reality through her work, as she’s given no space for the division of who she is and what she does the way that many other artists (perhaps unknowingly) have the privilege of doing, but she rather needs to confront her world head on. To know Melanie’s work wholeheartedly is to spend time with it, letting the words really sink in, acknowledging their scale, and walking around them in order to see and know more. As the intensity, aesthetics and boldness of her work alone can be seen as monumental, the energy and courage that fuels it undoubtedly takes precedence.

 

Juliane Foronda

 

[1] A sari-sari store is a neighbourhood convenience or variety store in the Philippines.

[2] Roxane Gay, When Less is More in Bad Feminist: Essays, 2014., p.253.

[3] Audre Lorde in Berlin, Audre Lorde – The Berlin Years 1984-1992, 2012.

[4] BIPOC stands for Black, Indigenous, and People/Person of Colour

[5] Aindrea Emelife, ‘“There Is a Lot of Hard Work to Be Done”: How the Art World Can Step up for Black Lives Matter | The Independent’, 2020.

 

Melanie Ubaldo (b. 1992, Philippines) is an Icelandic artist based in Reykjavik. In Melanie’s work, image and text are inextricably linked, where deconstructionist paintings incorporate text with graffiti like vandalism, oftentimes of her own crude experiences of others preconceptions, thus exposing the power of immediate unreflected judgment. She received her BA in Fine Arts from Listaháskóli Íslands in 2016.

 

Cover picture: Thanks Mom, 2016. This work’s phrase is from a conversation that Melanie had with her mother about going to art school. This was her BA graduation piece from LHÍ.

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