Time Sensitive

Crowd waiting for the explosion at Pétur Már Gunnarsson's exhibition at OPEN.  Photo: Claire Pagum.

IT’S FRIDAY NIGHT during the opening weekend of the Icelandic arts festival Sequences, and I’m at a food hall in Reykjavik along with a dozen or so members of the tight-knit creative scene on this island of roughly 360,000 people. One of the show’s cocurators, the sixty-three-year-old artist Ingólfur Arnarsson, is expressing his love for the experimental black-metal band Liturgy, as well as the intense, clavicle-rattling ambient noise of Tim Hecker. I’m surprised, a little, that Arnarsson’s musical tastes veer so aggressive; he’s a fairly subdued guy, known for making modest pencil-on-paper works that are basically impossible to photograph. And the exhibition and related programming that he’s staged, in collaboration with the artist Hildigunnur Birgisdóttir, is equally delicate. It’s full of slight gestures and wry humor, as well as the kind of wispy conceptual provocations that can drive many people (including myself, depending on the day) totally nuts. 

Sequences, now in its ninth iteration, bills itself as a “real-time art festival” dedicated to time-based media, which generally means performance, film, and related practices. The first sign that Arnarsson and Birgisdóttir are up to something sneaky here is that they cite one of Tony Conrad’s “Yellow Movies” as the spiritual center of this edition––though not actually on view, but still informing their programming. These big, monochromatic works weren’t technically movies at all, but rather paintings that, due to their cheapish materials, would gradually devolve and discolor over time. A lot of time. 

Sequences cocurators Hildigunnur Birgisdóttir (front) and Ingólfur Arnarsson. Photo: Claire Pagum.

Sequences is not afraid to flirt with boredom, or to reconsider what being boring actually means. During the opening press remarks, Birgisdóttir nodded to the festival’s upcoming screening of Agnes Martin’s only film, 1976’s Gabriel, which the curator had yet to experience herself. A friend had assured her that the seventy-eight-minute work was “incredibly boring,” and the curator seemed giddy at the prospect. Ragnar Kjartansson—Iceland’s most laureled art-world export, who teases out boredom’s madnesses and enlightenments—was everywhere during the opening weekend of Sequences, this time as a visitor. I ran into him at the art center Ásmundarsalur, which was hosting a solo exhibition by this year’s honorary artist, Kristinn Guðbrandur Harðarson. On one wall, a mural spelled out the exploits of a tiny cartoon devil who was described using a phrase that translates directly in English as “flame happy.” Beyond that, I did my best to absorb the meaning of the show’s text-heavy, screwy little watercolors and drawings, despite not even knowing how to ask for a glass of water in Icelandic. In one work, a piece of meat and bread trundled through a series of croquet wickets, with a few accompanying lines about how the foodstuffs were on their way to either heaven or hell. The country’s artists, Kjartansson told me, do tend toward the written word, and the offbeat conceptual gesture. When the Fluxus movement made it to the island, he said, everyone went wild—or, perhaps, flame happy.   

Artist Ragnar Kjartansson and family. Photo: Scott Indrisek.

Later that evening, at a venue dubbed Harbinger, we took in an installation by Ólöf Helga Helgadóttir: a hypnotic Op art pattern streaming on a wall that had a toilet plunger stuck to it. In a semi-abandoned outdoor lot occasionally used as a sculpture garden, Ólöf Bóadóttir and Óskar Þór Ámundason were staging a performance titled Pigeon Supermax. For an hour, one of them shot small clay pigeons against a wall bearing a blurry, projected image of what I think were refugees, all crammed into a small boat and wearing orange life vests. After each loud explosion, the artist raised his hand and said, “Sorry!” It wasn’t clear who he was addressing; perhaps the people in the house adjacent to the lot, who were staring out the window, probably trying to figure out what the hell all the noise was about. 

Artist Ólöf Helga Helgadóttir at her opening at Harbinger.  Photo: Claire Pagum.

On Saturday, the centerpiece show opened at the Marshall House, a massive building that houses Kling & Bang, the Living Art Museum, Olafur Eliasson’s studio, and a posh restaurant called Primavera, whose bar boasts a neon work by Kjartansson (the words SCANDINAVIAN PAIN, spelled out in throbbing pink). Split into two parts, the exhibition featured a mostly Icelandic roster, dotted with some international names, such as the late American outsider artist James Castle, represented here by a series of small soot-on-paper drawings of buildings and landscapes. 

Artists Ólöf Bóadóttir and Óskar Þór Ámundason's performance of “Pigeon Supermax”. Photo: Scott Indrisek.

Canada is in the house, too, thanks to works by artist-couple Jason de Haan and Miruna Dragan. De Haan’s piece is a tiny “cannon ball” composed of every currency in the world, circa 2011; Dragan’s is a series of dangling aluminum sculptures that allude to molybdomancy, the art of divination using molten metal. British artist Ceal Floyer’s Garbage Bag, 1996, is on view and, as its title suggests, it’s a black plastic garbage bag filled with air, hanging out in the corner. People kept knocking it over and moving on, oblivious. A work from the same year, Hildur Bjarnadóttir’s Wool Project, is similarly chore-inspired: an assortment of adult-size clothing that was run through the dryer until it shrunk to a miniature scale. 

One way of looking at this Sequences and its relation to “time-based art” might simply revolve around the idea of what it means to take one’s time. The emphasis on the low-key and unmonumental here is almost dogmatic. On Saturday night, at the opening of a show at a space called OPEN, the artist Pétur Már Gunnarsson summed up the mood with a sculpture composed of a modified gas-powered machine used by farmers to scare off birds. Every thirty minutes or so it emitted a loud, deafening thump. Sound, fury, anticlimax. Nothing exploded or caught fire or begged to be Instagrammed, and that’s probably the point. This isn’t art that seems too concerned with how you feel about it. And no matter how you feel about Sequences—whether it thrills you or bores you, or somehow bores you into thrills—there’s something gutsy in the way it rejects our age of frenzied spectacle.