A text by Hlynur Helgason
A consideration on a few of the works of Ósk Vilhjálmsdóttur in terms of (art) space
The works of Ósk Vilhjálsmóttir are varied and connected to their time of creation. Because of that it is not productive to talk about style or form in discussing them. It is rather a question of process and space. In order to examine the process of her work it is necessary to examine her methods and the way the works come into being in relation to the social and natural space.
Ósk chooses to work with ant to work into. It is in this context that it becomes interesting to examine the ideas of the french sociologist Henri Lefevbre about social space and its production.
It is fundamental in Lefevre’s theories that it does not suffice to research the manner things are produced, either for consumption or for use. He maintains that in order to understand the way power and struggle function one has to accept that space itself is also produced, but not merely an empty receptacle. He is therefore interested in an examination of how the frame of meaning itself comes to be, the “space of representation”, the vehicle of power and politics. Additionally, he thinks it important to get to know how the “representation of space” works, how it appears in culture, art, and the environment.
The question I want to propose in this context is therefore: How does the art of Ósk Vilhjálmsdóttir exhibit the contemporary representation of space, and how does that affect the general framework, the space of representation?
The Production of Space
Just as other goods produced for consumption produced space, including social space, is characterized by increased standardization, efficiency and effectiveness. Space is produced in order to facilitate an increase in production and consumption. The production of space works as to enforce the foundation of the economic systems and modern capitalism. The opposition to production is the ouvre, or body of work. The ouvre is a thing that can be enjoyed instead of being consumed. It is not based upon an demand of return. The concept of the oeuvre is analogical to creativity as a concept. The oeuvre is in no way standardized but rather unique and particular, non-categorized and does not provide any return. That is the case with nature. Natural space outside of production is an oeuvre that is a basis for non-standardized and non-habitual enjoyment, outside of return and profit. Artwork as well can fall under this category, as long as they are oeuvres, works in that sense that are not produced. The different approaches of oeuvres and production is also related to the system behind power, especially in connection with control of conslumer society under capitalism. The system of production, where revenue and profit are adamant, makes it necessary to control space and its constituents. The production of space therefore is to a great deal a question of domination. The one who controls space and the objects within it is able to subsume space under production and its premises and thus is able to systematically increase his revenue and profit. Oeuvres are in their context not under the control of the financial system or the system of production—you don’t need to dominate an oeuvre, but rather the enjoyment of oeuvres is based on their appropriation, in the way they are incorporated without becoming a part of the system of productiona, without needing to be dominated. When nature, or art, is enjoyed as an oeuvre there is no more any need to dominate space—the space of the oeuvre is open and free when its context is based on appropriation and not production.
It is not just space that becomes produced according to Lefevbre—that also applies to time, although in a negative way. Time can only be spent (as it is in Momo by Michael Ende). That is precicely what happens in the process of production, time is spent and no longer exists. Time is indeed the greatest threat to the forces of production and and the processes of production because it cannot be dominated. Time is for ever ephemeral, and, as Lefevre says, it is only ever present in its remnants, in what is left behind. Production is based on constant renewal, and in making time disappear in a ever present modernity where standardization, and profit, reign over every demand. The production of space and in the constant emphasis on space instead of the makes time fall into shadow, to fade and whither away. Therefore no time is left, no time to enjoy the oeuvres because that does not suit the system of production and returns.
Ready-Made Family Pictures
Let’s watch select examples from Ósk’s oeuvre, to see how her works represent space to us, and how that informs us in respect to our living space. Is our entire space dependant upon the forces of production and streamlined practicality? Can the work of Ósk indicate ways of valuing space, to create space that is not in constant production and does not depend upon the premises of the forces of production?
At one point Ósk used family snapshots she managed to acquire in the Berlin fleemarkets as material for her work. These were slides that families had made over time, which had later, probably after the people involved had passed away, been sold to the fleemarkets because none of the other family members were interested in them. These were therfore obsolete family pictures, images that at some time been the joy, and central point, in the registration of family history, but that had now lost that purpose when the survivors no longer were interested in that articular history.
Ósk utilized this found imagery in many ways in her exibitions over a period. In an exhibition in I8 Gallery in Reykjavík she exhibited the images in a similar manner they had been presented originally, projected by a slide projector on a screen. The screen in this case was however not set up in the living room, as it had probably been originally. The images were projected outwards from the closed gallery space onto the window opeining out onto the street. The traditional exhibition space was closed to the audience, which was however able to view the show on the “projection”-window of the gallery—thus the family pictures of unrelated Berliners were projected outwards onto a narrow street in the cnter of Reykjavík.
Another presentation of this imagery was rather more candid. Ósk had a selection of images printed alongside with poetic texts by Hjálmar Sveinsson and exhibited those on the walls of Mokkakaffi, a traditional artistic coffeehouse in Reykjavík. In this context the images were elevated as works of art, and here the viewer was able to look at them in the context of each other, compare them and ponder upon how the text cintextualized the images (or not). This version of the images also became a prper publication—the works were published as a collection in a box, a multiple that people were able to buy for themselves and enjoy in the privacy of their home (or to archive in the case of museums of collectors).
Another presentation of the found images were works where a large number of slides were assembled together in in an enormous mosaic that tatally covered the windows of the exhibition space. One of these works was exhibited in the main hall of the Reykjavík City Councol building, where more than 9000 slides covered the entire area of the large windowpane. Understandibly slide transparencies are not very resistant to fading in bright sunlight. Therefore the images faded away over the time of the exhibition until all that remained were faint marks, traces of things that were.
When the different types of these works are considered in the context of ideas of space and its production, it becomes obvious that the connection between the images and the spaces they inhabit varies a lot. In the first piece, the one that follows the tradition of slide-projection, we are presented with pictures that to a large extent have lost their original meaning, a meaning that was connected with emotions related to the people they depict. Instead of being representations of feelings and memories of ones loved ones, the people become obvious and present in the pictures, the slides, in Ósk’s presentation have become representations of the universal. In stead of presenting to us specific people in a specific time in their life, these images present us with universal people in non-personal locations. In this case there are no authors to the images, no one that is able to authorize their meaning. These images instead present us with anthropological facts: this is how people photographed their family.
Each image that appears in the window in I8 Gallery does not appear but a moment. Because of that you cannot examine it in detail. Instead of that you see the universal, the habitual. It is there that the spatiality of these pictures presents itself: Unwittingly they become representations of produced space. With their specificity gone, as well as the personal context—the unique and individual—there is nothing left except production itself, the production of space that surrounded the lives of these people and the objects they chose to surround themselves with. Most shocking is the fact that the people themselves, once individual persons, are no less a part of this represented space, this social space, than are the surroundings, and the objects, and the bric-a-brac. The look, the facial gestures and the body posture becomes just as universal in this work as the environment and its objects. It is the social space that becomes an enclosure that rules the people no less than their environment. Through the workings of history and forgetfullness the photography itself has turned into just another aspect of the production that distuinguishes other aspects of the space.
The printed version uses the found photographs in a totally different manner. It is obvious here that the foundation of the images is no longer the collection, the unedited multiplicity. Rather it is based on the choice of specific images. The criteria for choosing excacly these images are however in no way evident. It must suffice that here we have to trust the knowledge of the artist and authority. Instead of the universality of the previous piece, which emphasized the production of space, we perceive the authority of the author in this one. Instead of the universal we here have the unique: Here the work emphazises the oeuvre, the unique, special. and personal. Here we can say that the elevation of Ósk in her work draws atention to new personal aspects of the images, ones they had previously lost.
The third work that Ósk made with these found family snap-shots draws these representations back into the universal. In Gallery I8 you were able to view individual large images for a short moment. In City Hall the images are exhibited in their real size. The people they represent are no longer recognizable and nothing remains but the reference to the bourgois space they inhabit. The wey this third work elevates them is not related to a select choice of images, it is obvious that no real chi-oice has been made her but that rather it is the multitude of images that creates the effect of the piece. Here artistic elevation depends on the system that underlies the exhibition—when the pictures have become a part of the colorful play of light that illuminates the main space of City Hall the power of the multitude, together with the beauty of the colors geving the piece as a whole an artistic feel and emotion. Individual images do not count any more—they are nothing but curious samples in the experiencing of the viewer when he approaches the work in order to ascertain what kind of images there are. The colorful field therefore attains meaning in terms of social space, as singular pictures become special when the viewer goes up close in order to find out what is the couse of the flickering lights. The multitude of pictures emphasizes their universality. It is no longer possible for the viewer to differentiate between them, he only sees the common characteristic—an eternal repetition of bourgeois images of family and friends, where the style of the author is long gone and where these pictures are only symbols of their production, of the production and iteration of the habits of bourgeois society.
In the first years of the new millennium Ósk did many works dealing with types of shelter. Huts or tents were constructed as temporary locations for work or staying, in the open or within traditional exhibition spaces. They therefore became spaces within spaces. These spaces, these abodes, fulfilled different needs depending upon the situation. Sometimes they became places where somthing happened, interaction between Ósk and others, discourse or the creation of art. Sometimes they were just areas for exhibiting where the audience was enclosed within the space and confined to watching, regarding, noticing—or the abodes projected their contents onto their external area, in a similar manner as the slides had been projected onto the wall in Gallery I8.
A fundamental theme of these works was the idea of settlement, both in a mental and physical sense. It is under that premise that Ósk did her research and posed questions about how society expands itself. Among these works was a peice that was simply titled Settlement. In that work Ósk was assisted by a group of children. They built the hut that became the exhibition space. They explained their ideas and dreams about the creation of their world and their home in video works that were shown within the huts. On the outside of the huts Ósk presented landscape photographs depicting the nes suburbs surrounding Reykjavík. These were neighborhoods that had shocked her at the outset but they, in a certain manner, managed to charm her while the work was in process. In this work Ósk tackles the margins of social space and natural space, how mankind literally spreads out and dominates his surroundings. The children are those that will inherit the newly produced space. Nature, or rather the oeuvre of nature, can be the raw material for production, or the ground for space itself. The creative oeuvre therefore always is the foundation for production.
Art and Society
In works like the settlement-pieces Ósk, as we have seen, examines social space with the aid of children that serve as some sort of representatives. In other pieces whe elaborates in more varied ways upon this idea of the representative. A common element in these relational works is primarily the fact that Ósk, as the artist, does not enforce her authority. She allowed the work of the author to formulate itself according to the representatives that participated in the work. “The oeuvre” therefore became a sort of place or location for a research about social space and social time that was spent in selfless interaction based on what Lefevbre describes as appropriation. This became a work that Ósk organized and initiated, but in a way that more often than not resulted in a surprizing and non-controlable outcome. Therefore these abodes of social research in reality turned into a certain kind of presentation—artistic elevation—of processes that Ósk initiated.
An example of such a process is the exhibition, or spectacle, entitled Something Else in Gallery Hlemmur in Reykjavík in 2003. There Ósk used the exhibiton space to engage in direct dialogue about art instead of making a work of art for the space. Another example is the way Ósk acted as a professor in a course in The Art University of Iceland. The course was to be about Art and Society. Ósk was the professor but in practice she refused to assume that role, in a similar way as she had refused the authority of the artist in Gallery Hlemmur. The course became a cooperative endeavour of her and her students where they turned their focus upon the social space of the institution itself where they were studying. The emphasis therefore became different from usual practice where the authority of the professor and the institution are beyond doubt. Instead of discussing ideologies and ard in a traditional manner, based on the universal aspects of society and ideas, and the individual examination of the student himself, the oeuvre practiced those ideas in a research into the institution itself and its premises. Society in the title of the course turned into the social space of the students themselves. The Art University of Iceland as an institution, and the social space that it is constantly producing, became the object of research instead of focusing outward sheltering the productive practice of the institution from itself. Here Ósk dug beneath the surface and undermined the authority of the Art University as a producer by turning the research and its premises. This proved an irritation for the habitual and traditional processes the institution and its productive habits was based upon—those that were supposed to bow to the authority of the academy had suddenly become specialists in its affairs, and empowered in a way that is usually not the lot of workers or students that most often are docile participants in the processes of production.
Appropriation or Domination
As we have already mentioned, it is fundamental in discussing the oeuvre of Ósk to go beyond the aspects of her life and work that are comfortably contained within a traditional or formal understanding of the concept of art. We have already seen, as in her work at The Art University, that it is often much more useful to use Lefevbre’s concept of oeuvre when discussing her work. In that sense her works are definde according to their effect on social or political space. Ósk often works in terms of artistic context in an organized and open manner. She has also often focused on situations that are beyond actual art spaces. This applies especially well to the activities of Ósk in the domain of the Kárahnjúkadam, around the river Jökla and in the surrounding areas in the years before the area was spatially produced in a monumental manner.
These interventions, tours into the natural spaces that were destined to be industrialized at the time, would seldom be called works of art, even though the organization of the trips and the mode of travel often carried traces of performances and performativity. Ósk organized tours into a little known and uncolonized areas, in terms of the tourist industry, into areas that had not yet been produced as utilizable areas for travel, that rather special mix of natural space and produced social space that the travel industry makes for itself. These areas were virgin territories outside of production when Ósk started organizing tours there. These tours were initially a response to the most gradioise plan for production in terms of natural space ever envisioned in Iceland up to that time. In a way the extensive plans for hydroelectric power plants and dams were on a magnitude similar to the industrial revolution. The intention was to take an extensive reach of wilderness, until then only the habitat of reindeer, gees and sheep, and turn it into a sublime feat of production and revenue. The area had up till then been to the most extent the oeuvre of nature, one which had very little cultural representation. These tours of Ósk into that unspoilt area therefore became tours of settlement where space was used in the behalf of people and their experiences.
Those tours, as practice, did not involve a production of space, except on a very small scale. The area kept its natural sense through the process, an excellent example of Lefevbre’s appropriation, where people adapt ot natural space in a manner that does not include the production that goes hand in hand with property, enjoying what natural space, in the context of social space, has to offer without the domination of property. This appropriation in terms of the groups Ósk guided in the eastern wilderness was in direct opposition to the plans she was protesting against. Those, in turn, were the perfect example of domination, on Lefevbre’s terms, when the one utilizing a space reforms it in a dramatic way, claiming it and all its aspects as property through the processes of production. The tactics of Ósk and her collaborators in her tours, however, practiced a varied form of appropriation. Even though the oeuvre was not an actual work of art, it never-the-less had elements that would be termed artistic in the way they diverged from the habitual practice of mountain tourism. Ósk’s organized actions in the torus, social actions, therefore often had more to do with artistic performance that tourism, as when women in the tours were encouraged to wear colorful and frivolous dresses instead or the traditional goretex attire of mountain tourism. The decoartive dresses led to a joyful, carnivalesque atmosphere that attributed a great deal to the appropriation of Ósk’s settlement of the area.
Unfortunately this work of Ósk and the women that collaborated with her proved no match for the machinery and power of capitalist production. Therefore this newly settled and appropriated area became the arena for the most colossal production of space in Icelandic history, a production of space that still continues unbound in the name of un-flinching domination.