Memory of Art
The Reykjavik Sculpture Association was founded in 1972, largely on the initiative and in the spirit of Ragnar Kjartansson the elder and Jón Gunnar Árnason, tracing its roots back to outdoor sculpture exhibitions held in the years 1967–1972. On the occasion of the 40th anniversary, the association has initiated two exhibitions and a publication. An exhibition of sculptures by current members of the association, borrowed mostly from the collecting institutions of the country, was put up in Kling & Bang gallery this summer, and a black/white book was published, consisting of sketches or images of works sent in by members. By far the most successful part of the anniversary celebration is an exhibition now on view at the ASÍ art museum, Minning um myndlist (Memory of Art), which looks back at the annual outdoor sculptural exhibitions that marked the beginning of the Reykjavik Sculpture Association.
The legendary outdoor sculpture exhibitions
The exhibitions were radical at the time and had a great effect on both the artistic community and the general public. The ideals of the time; of peace, collaboration and critical thinking, were dominant, as well as a longing to bring art closer to the public. The works were installed outdoors, where anyone could examine them for free, on Skólavörðuholt hill, where now stands Reykjavík’s landmark church, Hallgrímskirkja, under construction at the time. The exhibitions were an unusual and appealing mix of traditional and experimental art works, creating a platform for a broad variety of artists working in the field to join forces and put up exhibitions. The exhibitions spanned a wide range of works – alongside natural figurative sculptures in stone and bronze, there were conceptual pieces made from grass, metal, bread, found objects and so on.
A central place in the art scene at the time was Ásmundarsalur, up on the hill, where, for instance, the Reykjavík School of Visual Art was run and Ragnar Kjartansson had his studio. The place was a melting pot, where artists met and discussed. The idea of the outdoors sculpture exhibitions came from there and Ásmundarsalur was a central point in the planning and execution of all the exhibitions. It is therefore very fitting for this exhibition to be in ASÍ art museum, housed in Ásmundarsalur.
Memories of art
Many works were exhibited at these shows, but the majority of them have been lost or destroyed, such as the famous pieces Flugan (The Fly) by Magnús Tómasson and Súperþvottavél (Super Washing Machine) by Róska. Others were believed to have been lost but were discovered during the immense research undertaken in preparation for this show.
On display in the current show are works that were on view in the original exhibitions, some works related to them, photographs of works lost, catalogues, exhibition plans and newspaper cut-outs, as well as an interesting new documentary by Katrín Agnes Klar and Inga Ragnarsdóttir, interviewing people involved with the original exhibitions and showing original recorded material from the time.
On display are many works that have not been shown for decades, like Fallinn víxill by Ingi Hrafn Hauksson, Plánetur by Guðmundur Másson and Triangle by Sigurður Guðmundsson, to name but a few. There are also works like Hreinn Friðfinnsson’s Attending earth, Attending sky, which is a well known piece of his, based on a work originally shown in an outdoor exhibition that is now lost. So there are many works that are really exciting to examine, providing an insight into the experiments that were taking place in Reykjavík at the time, marking the beginning of many interesting artists’ careers and serving as the inspiration for others.
The photographs of the lost works serve both to represent the works and to give a sense of the atmosphere at the time of the exhibitions, with large audiences in the bare surroundings of the half-built Hallgrímskirkja church. In the photographs are, for instance, beautiful sculptures by Kristín Eyfells and the remains of Kristján Guðmundsson’s sculpture made of bread, which was famously removed by the authorities due to alleged health risks.
The reception of the exhibited sculptures in society can be seen in paper clippings, tastefully hung in a corridor and in the stairway between backroom floors. They provide an interesting glimpse into a time gone by and show what has changed in the publicly expressed attitude towards art, and how much has fundamentally stayed the same.
Moving through space
At the time of the original exhibitions all the meetings and plotting took place inside the house, but the works were shown outdoors. By entering Ásmundarsalur for the current exhibition there is a feeling of getting an insider’s look at the exhibitions themselves, the artwork that was shown, the planning, and the criticism and discussion they generated.
The use of the space for the current exhibition is outstanding and plays a big role in its success. The first works are actually seen before entering the building, since the museum’s garden is used for display, which is a very pleasing gesture. Instead of the usual feeling of going back and forth, into one of the three exhibition halls of the museum and out of them again, the big upstairs hall has been opened, leading into the kitchen, where sliding photographs by Ragnar Kjartansson, a pioneer of the shows, are screened, and stairs lead the way back downstairs or up one level to a balcony that is rarely used for exhibitions, where there are now a few works on display. Physically spiralling through the entire building adds to the feeling of exploring and getting into the subject. After the introverted, contemplative moments spent examining paper clippings and photographs on the stairs, they lead the viewer to the balcony with a view over the museum garden. The most important effect of using the balcony is this sense of space opening up before you. When stepping out onto the balcony you get a new perspective, from the inside out, overlooking the garden where the works used to be and the calm fully built Hallgrímskirkja church, seen half-built with iron sticking out in so many photographs from the exhibtions, creating a strong temporal sense. This spatial use strongly supports how the content of the show is mediated to the viewer.
This show is highly recommended. Not only for the exceptional chance of seeing the works and the enjoyable jump in history, recalling those important exhibitions, but also for the overall quality of the exhibition. The choice of works, the research, the installation and the use of the space – everything down to the labelling is exemplary and serves the exhibition’s subject.
The outdoor sculptural exhibitions have an almost mythical reputation up to this day – a feeling of excitement, spontaneity, openness, and the joyful communal creativity of artists. This reputation is not ruined by the current exhibition. It neither gets lost in nostalgia nor does it get too removed. Instead, it is an informing and honest blend that results in an incredibly dense exhibition, really delivering the feel of the subject with a delicate mix of art works and historical hints.
The exhibition committee (Inga Ragnarsdóttir, Kristín G. Guðnadóttir, Sólveig Aðalsteinsdóttir and Ragnhildur Stefánsdóttir) and the ASÍ Art Museum can be proud. I leave with a massive feeling of nostalgia and a longing for more stuff to happen in my town.
- Ingibjörg Sigurjónsdóttir