Interview: Ragna Róbertsdóttir

By Ana Bruno

Ragna Róbertsdóttir is an established Icelandic artist who has been active since the 80’s, exhibiting her work both in Iceland and abroad. She lives and works between Iceland and Berlin, but her artistic practice maintains a strong relationship with her motherland, a link which is visible in the materials she chooses for her work: lava, sea salt, seashells, stones, elements taken from the Icelandic landscape.

Ragna, through your work you study natural elements just like a scientist would do in a lab: you explore their chemical and physical characteristics, respecting their natural characteristics. How is your relationship with those materials? How do you choose them and how do you develop your ideas for new artworks?

In my early works I used “cut outs” from nature, installed as floor pieces e.g. blocks of basalt, rolls of soil and piles of hemp. I also used rubber, but in a limited way, together with the natural material. In the last decade and currently still, I have been focusing on walls (and sometimes ceilings) working with black lava, red pumice and shining obsidian. Also, in this case I sometimes use artificial material such as crushed glass or multicoloured plexiglass. In recent years I have been working with minerals as building blocks of my work. Pulverized, crystallized, vitrified and solidified either in nature or by hand. I have for example systematically applied mud from geothermal fields straight onto walls. The range of colours found in the mineral deposits were hot water and steam rise to the surface fascinates me. My latest works are the results of experiments with materials form the ocean, sea shell, algae and salt.

What is your usual process of creation – does it differ depending on the material?

For me, my method is an interesting mix of intention and chance. Working on a precisely chosen part of the interior of the exhibition space, such as a square on the wall or in a corner, or within a predetermined framework of a glass container or a frame, I allow coincidence to lead the process. I throw handfuls of material on the prepared wall, sometimes leaving the work as it is after that or using cosmetic tweezers, slowly adding and taking away isolated particles to complete the work. I have also let brine evaporate so as to create minuscule landscapes of crystallised sodium chloride.

In this process I have very little control over the results.I also use algal limestone from the bottom of the ocean in Arnarfjörður where I live in the summertime. This natural product is actually being mined for industrial purposes in a nearby village, but I like to work with the coral in its natural form. I furthermore use a number of different seashells that I have been collecting-including the compact ‘Elbow Shells ́ found on the sandy shores of the fjord.

You live and work between Arnarfjörður and Berlin, which are two very different places. The influence of Iceland is very much present in your work, is Berlin affecting your creative process as well?

Berlin is definitely a factor in my works. I look at the city as a kind of retreat, where I can get away from the stress of everyday life. Even though it is a big city and a metropolis, it is relaxed at the same time. I have a chance to clear my mind and think of new works. I am fascinated by space and architecture, and in this Berlin is always a source of inspiration. I have also been actively working there, usually with source material brought from Iceland. Once in 1999 I ran out of material, and I discovered in Berlin synthetic raw material, that I have used in some of my wall works. Somehow, I felt at ease with working with synthetics sourced in the big city, as I never felt a connection with the natural materials available in Berlin and elsewhere outside of Iceland. To this day I only source natural materials in Iceland, like the language and the connection that I know and can express myself with.

Your works always interact with the space in which they are installed. How do you develop this dialogue between your work and the surrounding space? Why is this dialogue important to you, and how do you achieve it?

Architecture and space are important not only as part of my work each time I exhibit, but I am also inspired by the history of architecture and design. For example, my wall works are related to the historical tradition of coating the exterior of concrete houses with grinded crystal, lava or shells. A big part of 30 ́s and 40 ́s Reykjavik is full of these houses, not to mention the shining, black National Theatre, covered with glistening obsidian.

Talking about architectures, last March your solo show Between mountain and tide opened at the Living Art Museum, in the Marshall House, which is a building with a fascinating history. How did your work relate with that specific space? Also, the architect Ásmundur Hrafn Sturluson has taken care of the exhibition design, which is an interesting choice since he had also worked at the renovation of the Marshall House. How was this collaboration?

I always work into a specific space and in this case, I was very fortunate with a very exciting venue. The difference this time, as this was a retrospective of my works, I was not so much creating new works, but rather, creating a show that would encompass my career. Working with Ásmundur Hrafn Sturluson is always a pleasure, as we have worked frequently together in the past, and we are likeminded and share an aesthetic vision. The idea we worked with was to activate the whole space and thereby the viewer. Works were installed high up and into junctions within the space, so the viewer was encouraged gaze higher in the search for works.

A beautiful extensive monograph featuring your works made between the 1984 and the 2017 has been presented in occasion of the show. Would you like to tell us something about the process of making the book?

A book of this nature had been brewing in me for a long time. I began working on it with designer Arnar Freyr Guðmundsson, and we worked together on this project about a year and a half. It was so interesting for me to go through my career with a second pair of eyes, with the intent of making a book. I wouldn’t say that once the book was done, so was a chapter of my career, but rather that the catalogue gave my career a new context, but also continuity.

Ragna Róbertsdóttir Works 1984 – 2017 , published by DISTANZ, is a useful tool to get a broad overview of the artist’s work. Ragna Róbertsdóttir’s artistic practice is direct and delicate, her work fills the space harmoniously without being intrusive. Through her works she channels the Icelandic nature’s strength into a new shape where these forces and energies are kept under the artist’s control. The atmosphere created by her works is born in this duality: it floats in the space where roughness and cleanliness live together. Ragna Róbertsdóttir’s works are microcosms which dwell between the artist’s rules and the accidental natural development.