Plumbing the Depths

Left: Performance by Styrmir Örn Guðmundsson. Right: Sequences' Edda Sigurjonsdottir and Alfredo Cramerotti. (All photos: Dawn Chan)

“ALL ARCHITECTS should be forced to live, for at least a week, in every building they design,” says an architect friend of mine. What if it were the same for curators? What if, every time a curator picked a theme for a biennial, he or she was forced to cohabit with some twisted version of that theme? It happened last week with Alfredo Cramerotti, who curated Sequences, Reykjavik’s biennial real-time art festival. Cramerotti had picked “plumbing” as the focus of this year’s edition. And just like that, as if curatorial conceits carry their own karma, on a recent Saturday morning his kitchen sink overflowed and flooded the entire room, upending his already full day of logistics.

Flooding sinks aside, plumbing made for an apt motif. As Cramerotti explained, it relates to everything from the geothermic energy that heats Iceland’s houses to the transatlantic, fiber-optic superhighway that uses the nation as a hub. But along with plumbing, the dual notions of presence and absence became (somewhat less formally) touchstones as well, in both art and in accompanying discussions. Partly this had something to do with the fact that Carolee Schneemann, the honorary artist, couldn’t make it due to health reasons. Ed Atkins also couldn’t be in Reykjavik, but he contributed a video featuring his creepy, emotive avatar.

Sequences got its start on Friday, in downtown Reykjavik; while rain kept things chilly outside, the crowd—in furs, knit caps, a lime-green Mongolian cape—stayed warm with wine and cheese. Everyone had gathered for the unveiling of Schneemann’s More Wrong Things at Kling and Bang. (Outside was another performance: Hanna Kristín Birgisdóttir, who enlisted workmen to drill a hole into the graveled ground.)

Left: Kling and Bang. Right: Artist Finnbogi Pétursson.

Kling and Bang—which some may recognize from its Frieze booths—is an artist-run space which operates so democratically that, when it was formed, even its name was subject to a vote. The meaning of the final result? “It doesn’t run that deep, I’m afraid,” laughed member Ingibjörg Sigurjónsdóttir. “It’s sort of the same it would be in English—subtle noises and big explosions.” (Sigurjónsdóttir was also the sister of Edda Sigurjónsdóttir, curatorial consultant and project manager of the biennial. She’s “the secret ingredient in a lot of stuff that happens in the Reykjavik scene,” according to her partner, artist Ragnar Kjartansson, who’s at work preparing a fall show at the Palais de Tokyo.)

But if Kling and Bang’s name “doesn’t run that deep,” its significance in Reykjavik sure does. The city’s handful of artist-run spaces apparently function as the beating heart of the Icelandic art world: Without a ravenous commercial art market on the island—there are only a few major contemporary art collectors—Icelandic artists and curators have had to step up their game. Said one artist, “Not many people here are making art as their main job.” Not to be overlooked, though, is the Icelandic Art Center, a government-funded institution that’s presenting Christoph Büchel at the nation’s Venice pavilion next week.

The scrappy, resourceful spirit of the island’s artist-driven projects was reflected in Sequences’ scrappy, repurposed venues. A bus dropped the likes of Collection Maramotti’s Marina Dacci and London-based artist Jordan Baseman at a sleepy shopping mall. There, in its atrium, the Kunstlager collective featured everything from a drone-flying performance to a cotton-candy machine. Not too far away, in a loft space under construction, Icelandic sound artist Finnbogi Pétursson presented a series of tubes playing, in and out of phase, mesmerizing 50Hz tones. “No drugs, no alcohol,” he laughed. “This is sober art.”

Left: Artist Ragnar Kjartansson and Kling and Bang member Ingibjörg Sigurjónsdóttir. Right: Collezione Maramotti's Marina Dacci and Beatrice Pediconi.

Back downtown, a room at Hotel Holt, a very retro, wood-paneled establishment that was once the fanciest in Reykjavík, became the site of a performance by Styrmir Örn Guðmundsson, who incanted and rapped (almost) and then led his audience to a hotel room. As his partner sat in lotus position covered in blue body paint, he led everyone through a meditation sequence, intoning, “Don’t worry: I promise you. You will all die successfully.”

Even a boarded-up public women’s bathroom became a site for Ragnar Helgi Ólafsson’s art, after Ólafsson and his team cleaned the facility out. “We must have burned two boxes of incense while cleaning,” he laughed. The underground space had been shuttered for security, since it was mere meters away from the Mayor’s house.

Ólafsson’s piece projected a live feed of the room’s image through the ground to a tiled wall in the men’s bathroom (still boarded up), then a second live feed captured the result and sent it back. It was a poetic display of presence and absence: knowing your images were elsewhere, seeing them projected back to you. It was also a reminder of the balance governments maintain between security and access—a timely reflection, given recent suggestions that Edward Snowden might get Icelandic citizenship if certain political tides continue to turn.

With all the spas and public pools around town, people kept vanishing and then reappearing—an hour here, an hour there—coming back with radiant skin. Still, everyone managed to see art and more art, from Margrét Blöndal’s form-sculptures to the New York–based Beatrice Pediconi’s immersive projections of water currents. At openings, everyone seemed to know each other. Dogs came. Sandwich crèmes were put out at one venue, and the kids roamed freely.

Left: Curator Birta Guðjónsdóttir. Right: Artist Styrmir Örn Guðmundsson.

Which made me realize that there were no “mature content” signs alerting parents to the sexually explicit footage in Schneemann’s piece. Cramerotti said he’d asked, and explained the reply he’d received: “We accept it, we don’t use any warning; we know it can be tricky, it can be sort of uncomfortable for a moment.” He also brought up the concern that shards of glass were scattered across the floor in Margrét Helga Sesseljudóttir’s piece—but again, no warning signs or roped-off areas had been required.

Cramerotti hypothesized that this laissez-faire approach to art was connected to something else he’d seen in Iceland: “playgrounds for kids made out of industrial leftovers”—right by the harbor, between a busy road and the ocean. No fences.

“Here it’s totally accepted because of the land they’re in. Naturally it can be dangerous. You can hurt yourself, and you have to learn that when you’re a kid.”