Reykjavik: Sequences 09
Established in Reykjavik in 2006, Sequences is an independent annual arts festival that was founded by four of the city’s many artist-run galleries: The Living Art Museum (which has been active for more than 30 years); Kling & Bang (established by a group of ten artists in 2003); Dwarf Gallery (a tiny space open several months a year); and the now-defunct Bananananas, along with the support of The Center for Icelandic Art (CIA.IS). With a focus on performance, though also incorporating a programme of seminars, lectures and screenings, Sequences remains the only festival in Iceland dedicated to contemporary art – an important position given the harsh recession that followed last October’s economic collapse.
When I visited Reykjavik last month, the headline on the cover of the Grapevine, the city’s listings guide, read: ‘ROCK BOTTOM PRICES! NO CREDIT? NO PROBLEM!’ – a pointed reference to the selling-off of energy resources to international corporations at kreppa rates. Many artists and musicians I met who had been abroad in October last year talked about the realization that their cards had stopped working or else that their money was worth half practically overnight. A year after the crash it’s perhaps still too soon to say exactly what has changed. Some said that the (officially bankrupt) oligarchs still control the industry, while one of the two daily papers is owned by the architect of the collapse, former PM (and central bank manager) Davið Oddsson. With this backdrop, Sequences’ ten-day programme looked something like a small-scale miracle.
The festival directors change every year: this year it was organized by the young duo Kristin Dagmar Johannesdóttir and Klara Dorhallsdóttir. On the opening night was a premiere of Tadskegglingar (apparently difficult to translate, it means something along the lines of ‘men who have horse manure in their beards’) at the Reykjavik Art Museum, a performance by the festival’s honorary artist Magnús Pálsson. Long and baffling, with some elements based (as far as I could work out) on elements of the sagas, Pálsson’s surreal performance – which incorporated around 30 performers from The Icelandic Sound-Poetry Choir – was oddly mesmerizing. Now 80, Pálsson founded the experimental theatre group Grima in 1962 and was also part of the SUM group – along with Dieter Roth, who lived in the city between 1957–64 – and represented Iceland in the 1980 Venice Biennale. SUM started as an exhibition in 1965 – it’s other founder was Hreinn Fridfinnsson, one of the best-known Icelandic Conceptual artists from this period (in the UK at least) thanks to a Serpentine survey in 2007.
Aside from big international successes such as Sigur Rós and Björk, my first contact with the unusually interdisciplinary Icelandic arts scene came about eight years ago, encountering the band Slowblow through the film they directed and scored, Noi Albinoi 2003, which led me to Bedroom Community / Kitchen Motors affiliates such as Jóhann Jóhannsson and Nico Muhly. This fertile relationship between art and music is being continued still by Egill Sæbjörnsson (whose quirky, interesting show – titled ‘Spirit of Place and Narrative’ – is at the Reykjavik Art Museum) and Ragnar Kjartansson (who represented Iceland at Venice this year), though goes back to Roth’s period. In 1965 he organized a concert inviting Nam June Paik and Charlotte Moorman. (Indeed, the Kitchen in New York was founded by an Icelandic couple in 1971.)
For a first-time visitor, one of Sequences’ virtues was that it sprawled across the tiny city centre, using public spaces as well as galleries. Later in the evening I stumbled across a crowd of people gathered in an outdoor car-park, with two vast projections – of a marching knight and a woman – being beamed onto the enclosing walls, while a metal band jammed in a small wooden cabin accompanied by men sitting on the floor breaking rocks with hammers. I thought that this was a standard Friday night fare, but it was actually artist Sigurður Guðjónsson’s contribution to the festival.
The footage was being projected from across the road, from a large studio space by the harbour called the House of Ideas. The complex includes designers, artists and students and has been running for around a year (a positive outcome of the crisis has been that such spaces are being turned over into similar projects). At the party were performances by Finnish artist Maurice Blok and a film, This dumb region of the heart, by Páll Haukur Björnsson (who was, I think, the model from Ragnar Kjartansson’s Venice pavilion). The latter was only shown on two portable DVD players at a time, playing in the back of a car while an uncommunicative driver sped around the harbour area.
That evening also saw the premiere of a new work by Spartacus Chetwynd and her Mime Troupe (a revolving cast of friends), who put on an inspired puppet show called Feminism, Little Tales of Misogyny. Dense with references, and influenced by the four-part structure of D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), the piece traced the history of modern feminism and women’s involvement with the early civil rights movement, from Mary Wollstonecraft to the Suffragettes, Ida Bell Wells-Barnett and Patricia Highsmith.
Other highlights were German duo Prinz Gholam’s calm, solemn performance Air, which comprised a 20-minute series of held poses from dance, statuary and pietas.
Odder was SCOURGE, pictured above, by Melkorka Huldudóttir at Dwarf Gallery (so-called because it’s a basement with a five-foot ceiling). At Lost Horse was an exhibition titled ‘(made up and let down)’, which included ‘I-Projector’ by Line Ellegard and Imagined Death by Anita Wenstrom. Lost Horse is a tiny wooden house near the old Sirkus, the artist hang-out that was transported to Frieze Art Fair last year as part of Frieze Projects. Kling and Bang, who ran the bar, have one of the better-known galleries, and currently have a show – titled ‘Black Swans’ – by The Icelandic Love Corporation.