Chinua Achebe says that the English language, when altered, can be used to bear the burden of his African experience. I extrapolate from that and try to put it into painting.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby
New York Live Arts presents
Katrín Sigurdardóttir is a New York–based Icelandic artist whose sculptures and installations explore entanglements of body, perception, and memory. I first met Sigurdardóttir in January of 1998, shortly after I arrived in Iceland on a Fulbright grant. I remember sitting on the floor of the artist’s Reykjavík flat as she opened a small wooden case and began removing shallow wood boxes, each containing a miniature landscape. Just when I thought she was finished, another landscape would emerge. The nested landscapes—17 in all—reproduced public parks in cities where she’d lived (including San Francisco, New York City, and Reykjavík). Sigurdardóttir’s work—with its conflation of home and public space—sparked a conversation, ongoing still, about sculpture and experiences of place.
Over the years, Sigurdardóttir’s work has repeatedly explored the relationship between embodied experiences of place and imaginary or conceptual constructions of space. The artist often uses hobbyist miniatures or architectural models to set up contrasts in scale. High Plane V (2007), at MoMA PS1, was a large structure with steps leading to a platform through which the viewers poked their heads into a landscape of mountainous islands. The visitors’ heads became part of the landscape and invaded the panorama of uninhabited nature. Home, as an elusive braiding of memory and fantasy, was evoked in the artist’s 2012 exhibitions at Eleven Rivington in New York City and Meessen De Clerq in Brussels with works from the series based on scale models of sections (facades, halls, doorways) of the artist’s childhood home on Langahlíð 11 in Reykjavík.
In 2010 to 2011, Sigurdardóttir’s site-specific project for the Metropolitan Museum, Boiserie , reproduced two of the museum’s 18th-century period rooms. The artist’s meticulous rendering of decorative surfaces was bleached of color and reduced in scale, conceptualizing the museumgoer’s encounter with historical objects. As Iceland’s representative at this year’s Venice Biennale, Sigurdardóttir’s project (which will travel from Venice on to Reykjavík and New York’s SculptureCenter) is an architectural intervention that furthers the artist’s interest in scale, embodied experiences of place, and the staging of views.
Eva Heisler Green Grass of Home (1997) was one of your first works to use miniatures and model building materials. Since then, the use of both has become a signature practice. What prompted you to begin working with miniatures?
Katrín Sigurdardóttir The first miniature I made was my MFA graduate thesis work. Only in retrospect do I see this work as a miniature. It was a large installation, a topography made out of thrown-out rugs that I found on the streets of New York. Cartography is not usually thought of as “miniature” proper, although it represents landscape on a manipulated scale. When I look at this work now, I wonder if it is so indexical to my later practice because I made some discoveries in not only the installation but with the found materials and constructions I happened upon, or if this work was a manifestation of a preexisting narrative, albeit different in appearance in previous works.
EH I remember seeing images of Island Matrix—your topographical model of a mountain constructed of old carpets. I never would have considered this a miniature since it is quite large—about three meters. Am I understanding you correctly: This work functions conceptually as a miniature? If a miniature is defined as bringing something large (such as a monument) down to a size that can be held in the hand, then this work brings landscape formation onto the scale of the body.
KS Yes, exactly. This work is a miniature in the sense that it depicts something large, in this case a landscape, dramatically reduced in scale. But it directly addresses the human body, and in this sense it functions very differently than traditional miniature. Since Island Matrix, I have made several of these large-scale miniatures, where the viewer is not granted the eye-of-God perspective, from outside the miniature world, but where the viewer’s body is actually immersed in the work.
EH During my first year in Iceland, I wrote down a story you told me about Island Matrix. You’d been collecting carpets and mattresses off the street—“Things homeless people make their homes with,” you said. At one time, in your studio, you fell asleep on a mattress and you woke in a fetal position. You then traced your sleeping position on the mattress and cut out the form, finding that it looked like a rocky hill. You kept tracing this shape, each time two inches wider, on bedding and carpet scraps, stacking them until you had what looked like a topographical map.
This early work marks the beginning of your preoccupation with conflating the body and landscape. The Birthmark Series is another example: You had moles on your own body photographed by a medical photographer and then fed the images into a computer program for the making of three-dimensional landscapes. These island topographies were displayed in the open drawers of a map cabinet at the Living Art Museum in Reykjavík.
KS Island Matrix and The Birthmark Series are related in that they both deal with locality, the place of the body and the body in nature, the placement of a person in landscape, and seeing the body as landscape, the locus that one’s identity springs from.
EH Green Grass of Home reproduces public parks in cities where you have lived. The work is a wooden case, about the size of a large briefcase, with nestled compartments that expand into a set of 17 miniature landscapes made with hobby-modeling materials. Public and constructed nature—from Manhattan’s Central and Washington Square Parks to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park and Reykjavík’s Miklatún—is miniaturized, packaged, and rendered as a private object. Many of your works since then have played around with dichotomies of public/private and outside/inside.
KS Green Grass of Home has everything to do with growing up next to Klambratún, which now is renamed Miklatún, a public park outside my home. The public park becomes the monument of the home. In this work the polarity of inside/outside is confused and the outside is used to represent the inside.
EH What is your first memory of public art?
KS It would be the monuments in Klambratún. My memories of them are, as often with early memories, sensory: I remember the feel of the cold bronze under my hands. But another early memory is going with my mother—after visiting the thermal swimming pools in Laugardalur—to the sculpture garden of Ásmundur Sveinsson and climbing the sculptures. I also remember trying to climb the monument for Þorsteinn Erlingsson in Klambratún as well as the statue of Jónas Hallgrímsson in Hljómaskálagarðurinn. When I think of this I’m amazed how predictive this experience is to later works, like High Plane. Another memory, brought back when a radio interview with me at age five was rebroadcast: I recount my story of what was in fact a public sculpture in Klambratún by Jóhann Eyfells. In my interpretation, this was a large rock, brought from the bottom of the sea and then put on a very big truck and posited on Klambratún.
EH You moved to the States to study at the San Francisco Institute of Art, and then later settled in New York City. When you first came, did you experience any startling contrasts between the language used to discuss architecture (or space, in general) in Iceland, and architectural or spatial terms in English. (For example, when I was living in Iceland, I could never get used to the term hús that referred to all buildings, however large. When I heard hús, I saw house—there was a different experience or expectation of scale entangled in moving from one language to the other.) Any thoughts about this?
KS Generally, there is a gap in definitions between English and Icelandic. For me this has always been most prominent in abstract language. Structures and forms and even spatial utility, I think of primarily without language. The language that describes these is secondary to the spatial manifestation itself.
In my first years in the US, I wasn’t particularly interested in space and architecture. I was much more interested in narrative and narrative analysis. But just as one cannot separate time and space, a narrative must also point to a locality. I think my first work where space was articulated I conceived of in my home in San Francisco, around 1990. The work never took on a concrete form, was never completely finished, but its premise was to fully superimpose one place on another, to bridge the unbridgeable gap between distant locations, both in time and space. Back then, the only way I could think to manifest this was through language, text imposed on architecture. The remote place existed in language, but nevertheless was not on the page. This work still stays with me, surely because of the impossibility of its premise, the convergence of places across impossible expanses of time and space.
EH You told me about a student performance that involved being inside a cage of chicken wire coated in glue. You read aloud from an Icelandic pronunciation guide while a leaf blower blew away each paper after you read it. The sheets would then stick to the wire and, by the end of the reading, you were covered in a cage of Icelandic language.
KS This was a very primitive and unresolved performance that maybe I will remake one day. It’s the only work of mine where sound plays a role. You couldn’t really hear me speak because of the leaf blower. So it was sort of doubly incomprehensible, because as the paper started to clutter up the wire, it became impossible to read my lips.
EH The first piece of yours that I wrote about was Fyrirmynd/Model (1998–2000) in its early incarnation in the fall of 1998. In this work, a miniature road traverses and climbs the gallery space. The road is based on a neurological model of the electrical impulses involved in perception and memory. The Icelandic term for model has different and more complex connotations than the English word. If I translate fyrirmynd literally, I might end up with “before-image” or “before-painting.”
KS The closest English equivalent of fyrirmynd is model. Yet the etymology and meaning of these two words are not the same. Fyrirmynd could be translated as “the image that comes before.” In painting for example, the apples on the table would be the fyrirmynd of what is painted. But fyrirmynd could also refer to a model citizen or to anything to be imitated or used as an example. But it doesn’t describe a hobby model. I liked the slippage between the two languages.
EH Fyrirmynd grew out of research into memory and perception. You were adamant in addressing memory in general and not a particular memory. Later, with a work such as Impasse II – Ísaksskóli (2003), a model of the facade of your elementary school, and the 2012 series of scale models of sections of your childhood home, you appear to be more willing to approach specific memories. What are your earliest memories of space?
KS My early memories of space were generally memories of surfaces: the coolness of cast bronze, the relief of the wallpaper in the bedroom, the buildup of paint layers on a windowsill. All this seems to have made its way directly into my work, which still deals much with the “skins” in a space, like the surfaces that divide structures and what they contain.
EH You grew up in a two-story Reykjavík rowhouse that was built by your family. There was a lot of construction and new building going on in the city during this time. Do you have memories of observing construction sites? I’m wondering if the ongoing development of Reykjavík wove itself into your imagination.
KS The construction sites from childhood that I remember are the church steeple of Hallgrímskirkja (of which we had an uninterrupted view from our west windows) and a senior citizens’ home in a lot next door. As the steeple of Hallgrímskirkja was finished, construction of the senior citizens’ home began. One of the differences between Iceland and, say, New York, is the level of public-site security and, in the 1970s, even more so. We would climb through the windows of the senior citizens’ home, claiming the half-built space as our own. Once the electricity was in place, we would go down into the control room and switch on the main breaker and light up the whole building. Nobody in the city seemed to mind if the building was lit up at midnight. It was thrilling to play lord of this large complex at age ten. Later, I had two dear friends live in these apartments, which continued my experience with this building.
EH Having lived in Reykjavík for many years, I had a different experience of public space compared to cities in the States and in Europe where there is more anonymity and often a sense of potential danger. In Iceland, the contrast between public and private is not as marked. Is an Icelander ever anonymous in Reykjavík?
KS So much of what’s distinctive about Icelandic culture and social space can be traced back to one fact: the very small population—only 300,000 people—on the island. There is definitely a lack of anonymity in Iceland. In larger metropolitan places, people create community in many different ways, not only based on blood relations or traditional and local structures; instead they create their environment based on interests, preferences, beliefs—based on an identity that is chosen, not assigned.
I remember an observation of yours way back, about public parks and their role, for example, in gay subculture, as anonymous forums or forums for activities that do not have “a place” within the socially accepted sphere. In the United States, you see public parks as the home for the homeless, not only those without means but also those for whom it is a chosen way of life outside social norms. It’s unlikely you could ever have this type of freedom and anonymity in what we call “public space” in Iceland. Another important fact is the climate, which on most days turns people indoors, to private quarters. I asked a friend of mine recently, “Where is the free space in Iceland?” We agreed it was not in the allocated public lots but “out in nature”; then we both observed that there are no people there. So the free space in Iceland is a solitary space.
EH In your untitled 2004 installation at Harbor House, you play with the relationship between architecture and landscape. A wall spirals through the museum, bending this way and that with dramatic shifts in scale. The top of the wall has a jagged profile like a coastline or mountain range. Forgetting for a moment everything else that’s going on in this piece, I want to focus on the work’s allusion to early-20th-century Icelandic architecture that integrated native materials into its modernist practices. Do you have a particular interest in Icelandic architecture, or in modernist architecture?
KS I am less interested in architectural history than architecture in history, as a backdrop to histories, private and public. I employ architecture to describe places; I copy architecture to redraw and re-experience a moment. Whereas the work of the architect is traditionally prospective, my work with architecture is almost always retrospective—I replicate or describe already existing structures. While the architect sets out to solve spatial, functional, structural, and social problems, I use architecture as the passive container of experiences. For me architecture is receptive; it’s the background, the stage—that which is performed, is oddly missing, or at least until the viewer steps into the work. In that respect my practice is much more related to that of a scenographer than of an architect.
For example my installation at the Reykjavík Art Museum in 2004, Untitled, had much to do with the museum itself, which, when I was growing up, had its primary location at Kjarvalsstaðir, in a beautiful modernist pavilion located at Klambratún. As this building was part of my daily landscape, it has the same significance as the outdoor sculptures at Ásmundarsafn, or the senior citizens’ home mentioned earlier. The Reykjavík Art Museum is “home” in some way, and my work dealt with that very idea of home and memory. The reference to Icelandic 20th-century architecture in this work has much to do with the architecture of the museum itself. Both the Ísaksskóli work and the one at the Harbor House propose a physio-spatial confrontation with a place in memory, a place that’s distorted in scale and inaccessible in the present. The Unbuilt series—sculptures and photographs of proposed houses in Reykjavík from the early 20th century—are, in a similar way, containers of history, sites, or rather non-sites, of proposed lives in Reykjavík in the 1920s.
EH How was it then for you to work with the 18th-century period rooms at the Metropolitan Museum, spaces you had no direct personal history with? Boiserie featured reproductions of two period rooms but, because they were installed in a different wing than the originals, the viewer’s experience was complicated by the work’s distortions of scale and detail in relation to the original. The reproduction of a polyhedral boudoir was executed at 85 percent of the original size and bleached of color, and its many mirrors were replaced with surveillance glass. Peering into the windows of the sealed room, a viewer was unable to see other viewers at opposing windows, and the boudoir reflected only itself. In your second installation, you duplicated the intricately carved wood paneling of a private residence’s reception room, but the paneling stood free of any architectural structure and zigzagged through the space, descending in size from 8 feet to 12 inches. Boiserie, like earlier works, addresses memory, scale, surface, entanglements of interior and exterior space, and more. I’m curious, though, about your experience of working with neoclassical furniture as a sculptural object and with decorative surfaces and mirrors.
KS In a similar fashion as at the Harbor House in Reykjavík, I was using the 18th-century architecture in the Met as an emblem of the institution itself. It’s less about an interest in the 18th century than about the preservation of a bygone time in the contemporary institution. My starting point was the museological experience—the arbitration of the displayed objects with the display structures that facilitate the experience. In the period rooms, this becomes very interesting, because the line between display and displayed is so seductively confused.
EH I want to ask you about your relationship to the floor, since it is central to your upcoming project in this year’s Venice Biennale. Your work, even in miniature, has been floorbound. You call attention to the contrast between one’s lumbering body and the tiny illusory world at one’s feet, or at one’s eyelevel in the case of the raised platform of High Plane. You are now constructing an actual floor as part of the Venice project.
KS Two important aspects of my floor-bound works have been: bringing the human body to the level of the artwork or vice versa, thus conflating the scales of the miniature object, the human body, and the architecture. The lumbering body poses a threat to the artwork. While my installation in Venice will be a full-scale floor construction, there will be a fragility to it; the tiles are each made by hand, and carry the mark of human labor. Also, I’m using a nonindustrial material, a material that is intended for sculpture, not for underfoot utility.
Boiserie came out of the institutional reality of the Metropolitan Museum itself, but in the process of making the works, as is usually the case, something new and unexpected started to reveal itself. I imagine it impossible to copy the artisan processes of any century, without seeing into the vast universe of techniques, and I cannot separate the technique from the outcome. I became fascinated with 18th-century patterns through my research at the Met, so perhaps one could say that the upcoming work for the Biennale, is a remnant of this research and my experience within the museum.
I saw a show at the Met last week of the furniture of the Roentgen brothers, who were active in 18th-century Prussia. These are simply the most wonderful constructions that I could think of in terms of function and ornament. They are so fanciful and extravagant in craftsmanship and design, intended for both leisure and utility. They strike me as completely pertinent to contemporary art. I have always been interested in the relationship between so-called fine art, ornament, and interior decor. In the contemporary environment, it often appears that the artist is posited in a tight space between commercial artist and craftsman. Issues of expression and authorship—essentially issues of power—all come up in the contemporary marketing of art. It is difficult not to look beyond the curtain drawn between artistic expression and the economy that feeds this expression. In this sense, my work employs parallel perceptions and existential trickery: As an artist I observe myself in the role of the craftsman, the worker, not as an author or a visionary, rather as a laboring provider of divertissement. That’s why I chose as a location for my work in Venice the site of a former laundry and a boat shop. The viewers will be walking on a stilted floor, observing themselves in the role of a high-born audience, entertained and amused by the seductive form, which is created for the sole purpose of providing a magnificent “pedestal” for its patron. Anyone that marvels in this work will take part in the subversion, but it’s intentionally left unclear who is the subverter and who and what is subverted.
EH In your initial proposal for Venice, you write, “I often present a two-sided world, on one hand an illusory, representational world, and on the other hand the structure that makes this illusion possible.” This two-sidedness is central to theater.
KS I am less interested in the theater and its romance in contemporary art and more interested in scenography, in its widest definition, which includes, but is not limited to, theater. I’m not creating a space that will be used but a space that was used. I’m like a scenographer who “writes,” describing a place, but my work is even more retrospective, because it is uninhabited—it’s somewhere between forensics and the monument. And then there is the crucial aspect of the splitting of perception, between the front/back, inside/outside. In traditional theater, the objective is to give in to the illusionary space. But I endeavor to present this illusionary, symbolic space as a novelty construct that actually holds a much larger circumference, both in concrete space and conceptually.
EH I’m interested in hearing about your work Stage, a miniature theater stage that hangs from the ceiling, lit with a single spotlight. How important is it that the stage is hanging above the viewer and out of reach? Does it function as a kind of lantern in the space, casting shadows? (I’m imagining the effect of 19th-century magic lanterns.)
KS This work is a remake of an older work from 2005, one of a series of luminaries that I made during that period, contemplating the art object in regard to its function and ornament. Yes, it is important that Stage is placed out of reach, only to be viewed from below, perhaps suggesting the possibility of plunder and of destruction (as if this vision, this unattainable marvel of light, can come crashing on the viewer)—something that is sublime and dangerous at the same time. Aimed at the viewer’s perception, it deflects attention from itself as an art object onto the viewer and the complexities of admiration and desire. The miniature theatrical lights, which light the stage but also project out into the surrounding space, spotlight the viewer below.
EH Early on in the process of developing your project for the 2013 Venice Biennale, you mentioned that the work, while it does not explicitly engage Icelandic subject matter (such as folklore, the sagas, or Iceland’s unique landscape), it does comment on the situation of Iceland at the Biennale.
KS The work I’m making in Venice represents an isolated territory, a territory that is marked by a clear border, beyond which is nothing. This could be read as a national boundary, a coastline, or as the architectural outline of an official national pavilion in the Biennale. This territory is not fixed, but a moving one—as the work will travel from Venice to Reykjavík to New York. Also, without giving too much away before the opening, the work will include a large bi-dimensional architectural element, which will be in stark symbolic contrast to its container. Possibly, one can meditate on this contrast as a metaphor for Iceland, for its history, and also for recent political and economic events. It’s important for me to state that none of these potential narratives were there at the beginning. The conception of this work was completely instinctual, as I engaged in the formal, material, textural, and energetic aspects of my process. Language comes afterward as an analysis of what I see and of what has been manifested.
EH To exhibit at the Venice Biennale is to participate in a kind of theater, with the city as a spectacular backdrop. How do your ongoing interests in the embodiment of perception and the staging of “views” dovetail with your project in Venice?
KS My work in Venice is, in one sense, a flat surface, in another, much more than that. It is like a centerpiece in a very complex environment. I believe that, in the end, the whole of the installation—the structure, the site, and the surface—is more interesting than the surface alone. This is both similar to, and different from, theatrical scenography, and the same is true for so many surfaces in Venice. Traditional scenography relies on a frontal view, an illusion and a story told through a controlled perspective, whereas the world outside relies on a free perspective from any angle, and meaning is derived from weaving together impressions from many locations and dimensions. The difference between a theatrical impression and a historical impression is a passive perspective versus an active, empowered one—you look at a stage differently than at an architectural site, for example.
Through history, Venice has been the city of surfaces, aflame with color and full of precious stones and other materials from the Mediterranean and beyond. But these surfaces were symbols of the wealth, power, and rank of their commissioners and patrons. In this sense you could say they were scenography, or the stage for the people who paid for them. My work is not about Venice, or Venetian history, but it uses the past to address the present.
Chinua Achebe says that the English language, when altered, can be used to bear the burden of his African experience. I extrapolate from that and try to put it into painting.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby