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Birgir Andrésson: As Far as the Eye Can See
29 January–8 May
As Far as the Eye Can See is a varied and extensive overview exhibition of the works of visual artist Birgir Andrésson (1955-2007) that takes over Kjarvalsstaðir.
Birgir Andrésson was a leading force in Icelandic art for more than thirty years, and died long before his time. Birgir searched the well of Icelandic culture, stories, traditions and the nation’s handwork for inspiration. He drew elements from these sources and presented them in a uniquely informed way in works that secured his place in Icelandic art history and drew admiration from the international art scene. This exhibition gives insight into the artist’s influential career and connects his works not only to the local art scene, but to contemporary art internationally. More than a hundred works are displayed, including those from the collection at Reykjavík Art Museum, The National Gallery of Iceland, The Living Art Museum and The Metropolitan Museum in New York, and from private collections. The exhibition is curated by Art Historian Dr. Robert Hobbs. Parallel to the exhibition, In Icelandic Colour, a newly-published book in English that explores Birgir Andrésson’s life’s work and includes an essay by Hobbs will be released.
Birgir Andrésson studied art at the School of Arts and Crafts from 1973 to 1977 and then went on to study art at the Jan van Eyck Academy in Maastricht in the Netherlands from 1978 to 1979. Birgir was selected as the Icelandic representative in the Venice Biennale in 1995. His works have been exhibited in prestigious exhibitions both in Iceland and abroad, and are in public and private museums around the world. One of his works was recently added to the Metropolitan Museum’s collection in New York.
From curator Robert Hobbs:
In 2005, conceptual artist Birgir Andrésson (1955-2007) wrote “I see myself as conceived in ‘blindness.’” While he appears to be referencing his blind parents and childhood in the Reykjavík Blind People’s Home, the single quotation marks around the word ‘blindness’ and his later observation, “it is pure luck … just to be a part of this rigmarole,” point to the distinct artistic perspective this exceptional upbringing provided.
In 1989, Birgir adopted the concept nearness for his work. The word refers to the mid-twentieth-century theory proposed by German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), and Birgir may have first encountered it in the late 1970s as a student in the Netherlands, then a hotbed of conceptual art. For Heidegger, nearness is a paradox; it affirms one’s inability to comprehend life’s ultimate mysteries, based on the idea that the closer one gets to such truths, the more one becomes aware of their distance. However, Birgir’s nearness is political rather than philosophical: it sets up ongoing tensions between international cutting-edge artistic forms and traditional Icelandic subjects. Although the title of his mural As Far as the Eye Can See suggests limitless views, thus undermining nearness’s distinct perspective, Birgir’s art views perception in terms of vision and ideology: both approaches are potentially expansive, but sometimes they can be limiting, and this difference is key to his work.
Birgir’s conceptual art relies on the strategies of language, photography, archival research, and reframing to celebrate, critique, and question Icelandic cultural traditions with dry humor. Particularly noteworthy is his great respect for his viewers, evident in his art’s shifts between the expected and the unanticipated as well as the near and the far, so that Icelanders and others are invited to reflect on themselves and their traditions in a global world. Works in this exhibition include Icelandic postage stamps from 1930 designed by a German working in Austria; blown-up photographs of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century vagabonds as well as detailed text portraits of Icelandic individuals, who differ from saga heroes. This retrospective also includes floor plans of indigenous turf houses transformed into hieroglyphs for a new type of concrete poetry; woollen national flags knitted in the natural hues of the island’s sheep; and paints touted as “Icelandic” even as they employ internationally adopted American Pantone and Swedish NCS color-matching systems. In addition, Birgir’s series comprise foreign plants grown in Ora food cans; local houses and buildings named for cities, countries, and regions around the world; and a medley of Icelandic greys composed by an outsider, the respected Victorian English artist, poet, and designer William Morris. Altogether, one can appreciate Birgir Andrésson’s impressive range, which is predicated on national/global oppositions, as a response to Halldór Laxness’s 1934-35 novel Independent People. Similar to this extraordinary epic, Birgir’s art looks afresh and with assured irony at aspects of Icelandic culture and finds them truly remarkable.
Many of Birgir’s peers have recalled his “gentle humor” and “warm irony.” His former student, the internationally acclaimed artist Ragnar Kjartansson has spoken of Birgir’s “deep, deep love of humanity coupled with a sense of people.” His close friend, the legendary American conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner, has recalled always looking forward to seeing Birgir and remembers him as not just a maker of objects but an artist well versed in theory, who was constantly questioning others as well as himself. During his lifetime, he was featured in numerous solo and group shows in Iceland and Europe. Four years after his 1991 solo show at the Reykjavík Art Museum, Birgir was selected to represent Iceland at the Venice Biennale. In 2000, the National Gallery of Iceland featured his pieces in a solo exhibition; and then in 2006, this same institution organized a retrospective of his work. In 2011, the literary critic and editor Þröstur Helgason wrote a monograph on Birgir’s work in which he chronicles many of his intriguing and insightful stories. More recently, in 2017, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired Birgir’s 2004 mural Eins langt og augað eygir (As Far as the Eye Can See) when bolstering its collection of recent international art, and this work’s title serves as the subtitle for the present retrospective of his work.
Robert Hobbs, PhD