Iceland may not be a country most associate with biennials and big art commissions, but it does have at least one cutting-edge art festival, Sequences, which returned to Reykjavik last month with works by 45 international artists.
Founded in 2003 by Kling & Bang, the Icelandic Art Centre, and the Living Art Museum, Sequences has gained popularity and grown in ambition, and was helmed by Marika Agu, Maria Arusoo, Kaarin Kivirähk, and Sten Ojavee, who help run the Estonian Centre for Contemporary Art in Tallinn. It may seem strange to bring in four Estonians to curate an Icelandic art festival, but part of Sequence’s point is to highlight connections between Baltic nations and Iceland. This festival does so convincingly.
Their exhibition, titled “Can’t see,” explores the ever-growing threat of ecological destruction. Divided into four chapters—”Soil,” “Subterrain,” “Water,” and “Metaphysical Realm”—their show was spread across the Nordic House, the Living Art Museum, the National Gallery, and Kling & Bang.
For the show, site-specific installations are placed in dialogue with preexisting works and institutional loans, including a painting by Jóhannes Sveinsson Kjarval (1885–1972), Iceland’s national hero. “It was important that we allow ourselves to travel back in time,” Arusoo said. “We wanted to look into the local history, to avoid pinning artists, whose works may echo through time, to a specific period.”
Below are five must-see artworks at Sequences, which runs through November 26.
Bjarki Bragason (b. 1974) opens the “Soil” chapter on the second floor of the Kling & Bang gallery. The Icelandic artist, who lives and works in Reykjavik, has confronted a 3,000-year-old log that he retrieved two years ago from the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier, with pictures of a Sorbus tree that he planted as a child in his grandparents’ garden. When they passed away in 2009, their home was sold, but Bragason kept going back there to document the flora and study how the land was changing.
The new owner promised the artist that he would return to him the remains of the garden and house, which is about to be torn down and replaced by new apartments, so that he could partly reconstruct it, layer by layer, in a neighboring public park. Bragason’s vast sculpture will consist of reclaimed rubble, topped with soil, uprooted plants, and ice age boulders and rocks… the icing on the cake.
“In some years, new plants will find their way to the surface,” Bragson said. “This piece is not a monument to my grandparents, but a humbling mirror that I turn up against larger environmental paradigms.” His private garden is just one part of a larger whole that spans many geological eras.
The second chapter of Sequences follows on Kling & Bang’s first floor. Despite being set at street level, this part of the show is being presented as an underground—a warm, luminous underworld rich with life.
Monika Czyzyk (b. 1989) has painted the windows on one side of the main gallery with clay. Unlike stained-glass panels, her piece, titled Drawing While Driving (Carvings In A Whale’s Tooth), , is a whirlwind of earthy tones that prevents natural light from invading the space. The sunbeams that manage to filter through may reveal clearer shapes, such a pumpkin-like, orange character with eight legs and a smiley face against what seems to be a mountainous background. Her compositions are personal, as she has mixed pigments picked up in Poland, where she was born; Denmark, where she lives; and Iceland, where she was invited to work.
Contacted in September, she flew into Reykjavik in early October to scavenge clay in the west of the city, clean it, grind it, bind it with a natural agent, and apply it on the windows. The whole process took 15 days. Like her videos, her stained-glass-windowy paintings are neither abstract nor figurative. “I simply painted creatures that nature has conjured up before my eyes, crookbacked rocks, hairy trees,” she said.
She looks like a mermaid, but she is not one, because, in addition to breasts, she has a fish head and a fish tail. The artist behind her, Edith Karlson (b. 1983), does not want to put a label on her sculpture.
The 660-pound creature is made of concrete, a liquid material that grows increasinlgy solid over time, like the powerful women cast in it. She has two sisters, including one that has not yet been completed. The trilogy will feature at the Venice Biennale, where Karlson is representing Estonia; each sculpture will pay homage to one of the artist’s close friends. The one presented in Reykjavik is based on Maria Arusoo, one of the curators of this festival.
Karlson lives on Hiiuma island in Estonia. Given that the sea is all around her, it only makes sense that she would be part of the chapter devoted to underwater life at the Nordic House. After a storm, the environmentally responsible artist usually goes out and pick up all the trash that she can find on the seashore.
“It makes me sad to see how polluted the water is,” she said before admitting to getting an “adrenaline rush” from finding treasures on the beach. “For instance, I never thought I would find messages in a bottle, but I have found three already.” She said she has been corresponding with these messages’ senders, who hail from Germany, Sweden, and Lithuania.
Precious Okoyomon & Dozie Kanu
In Seltjarnarnes, a city adjacent to Reykjavik, a thread lined with 600 bells leads one from the seashore to the top of a majestic lighthouse that can only be accessed at certain tide times. Outside, the wind causes those bells to ring, and the noise only continues inside, as visitors climb stairs strung with the thread.
This thread is the result of a collaboration between Nigerian-American poet and chef Precious Okyomon (b. 1993), who showed at last year’s Venice Biennale, and Portugal-based Dozie Kanu (b. 1993), who’s known for appropriating and refashioning found objects. The two have already shown alongside each other at Zurich’s LUMA Westbau, and have come together once more to create what feels like a noisy ascension to heaven.
On each floor is a purple neon light displayed either horizontally or vertically on the wall. “This particular color is associated with a codeine cocktail that people in the area I grew up, in Houston, would drink as a coping mechanism. For me, it’s an invitation to slow down”, said Kanu, whose first idea for the piece was to create an assemblage gate with censor doors set to open automatically upon the visitor’s arrival. Humbled by nature, both artists eventually decided to create a more lo-fi installation. Yet they have still had to face the elements: a looped recording of a storm plays on the top floor.
At the National Gallery’s House of Collections, at the end of a hallway, beyond a handful of steps, stands a quirky installation by Daria Melnikova (b. 1994) titled Mr. Jazzy Sunday. It consists of pieces of furniture, two globular eyes that give away its anthropomorphic nature, and an anamorphic checkered shadow projected onto the wall that coincidentally matches the National Gallery’s marble floor. “I like making the space part of the work, the way people eat, talk, walk, and behave,” said the Riga-based artist, whose practice explores daily routine, habits, and clichés.
The surreal assemblage conveys the idea of a day off, devoid of obligations, to-do lists, and boxes to be checked. What would it be like to act spontaneously without worrying about the consequences, without thinking about tomorrow? Mr. Jazzy Sunday leaves you with a sense of freedom.