A different kind of public space

by Æsa Sigurjónsdóttir

Ósk Vilhjálmsdóttir occupies a special place in the Icelandic art world. Locating her art subjectively within the public space, she has addressed issues involving the artist’s political function and art’s power to influence the global situation faced by both artists and viewers over the past decade.

Ósk puts visual art in unexpected contexts, seeking for art a new – often delocalized – forum, thus joining the ranks of artists who have worked to expand the concept of art. In a nutshell, her art is grounded in participation and dialogue referring to questions of politics and ethics. An activist herself, her stance toward art and societal issues is a critical one. The nature of her subject matter is thus always societal, her work addressing nature conservation, the economic collapse, immigration and the new Icelandic identity. In her effort to engage the viewer, Ósk frequently poses questions. She encourages the viewer to participate, for her work rests on the fundamental idea that art is sparked through the situation, collaboration and togetherness of individuals.

Ósk here draws on ideas formed during the 1960s, when artists such as Allan Kaprow (1927-2006), Robert Filliou (1926-1987) and Joseph Beuys (1921-1986) pondered the artist’s moral responsibility in society. Foreseeing the need to redefine the artist’s place and find for art a meaning and a purpose in the context of the new reality taking shape during the Cold War – not least through the influence of the media and art’s changing cultural position – these artists all took part in expanding the art space, opening up new avenues for creating art. Though their art overlapped but slightly, they held in common the desire to erase the boundaries between art and reality, making art into a social force outside the institutions of art.
The conviction of art’s political power now back on the agenda, the ideas of Beuys and American performance artist Allan Kaprow have been rebooted. This is why Kaprow’s words have such a familiar ring: “Power in art is not like that in a nation or in big business. A picture never changed the price of eggs. But a picture can change our dreams; and pictures may in time clarify our values. The power of artists is precisely the influence they wield over the fantasies of their public. The measure of this power lies not only in the magnitude of this influence but in its quality as well…As it is involved in quality, art is a moral act.”
Fluxus artists Joseph Beuys and Robert Filliou also believed in art’s moral power. Beuys held words and discourse to be sculpture, defining art in terms of political action. Robert Filliou viewed art as the perfect form of creative communication, seeking to make art into a part of society as natural as trade and business, while Kaprow advanced ideas to the effect that art should be based on the shared experience of artist and participants.

As the 20th century drew to a close, artists were in search of a new extra-institutional forum for grappling with these changed artistic norms. Their work called for a larger context, for the nature of the subject matter was political, often touching on international or environmental issues. This “new genre public art” has been characterized both as an open expressive space and an untraditional place of sorts, off the beaten track, where artists grapple with current issues through unconventional media and methods. This new public space can be a situation where opinions are formed through an open, unconstrained process. In everyday terms, it may be likened to a forum for discussion and a free exchange of ideas. While network media and the World Wide Web have certainly developed into such a public forum, visual artists think of this kind of forum in terms of ideas of space and people’s real-world connection with their environment and other people.
The debate over nature conservation and the value of the wilderness exemplify the opening up of this new public space during the controversy over a hydroelectric power project in the Icelandic highlands around year 2000. The controversy surrounding the project and its highland reservoir forged a new awareness in Icelandic discourse and thought about the wilderness. Up until then, Icelandic artists had shown scant politically oriented interest in the wilderness. Ósk did more than most artists to expand this unexpected art space in novel ways. Her biggest effort, highland project Kárahnjúkar (2002-2006), exemplifies such a project involving the public. Grounded in participation and dialogue, it directly engaged with the national discourse of the time, where debate was raging over questions of the future direction of the economy, energy and conservation.

The same note was struck in Ósk’s Eitthvað annað (Something Else) (2003) at Gallerí Hlemmur, Reykjavík, an idea lab reacting to the arguments of politicians maintaining that in a globalized world, following the policies of the authorities was the only alternative. Social criticism of this type had not been seen in Icelandic art in a long while. In fact, one must go back to the 1970s to find comparable political touchpoints, back when Róska burst on the scene with her radical installations and documentation of Italian revolutionary slogans.

Ósk’s hydroelectric-related pieces first and foremost bring to mind the real and inestimable value of Iceland’s unique highland landscape. A number of foreign as well as Icelandic artists joined the discussion, including American artist Roni Horn, who pointed out Iceland’s difference and the dangers posed by a transformed environment for the country’s image. Iceland, Horn says, is one of the greatest sources of nowhere in the world. According to Horn, the experience of nowhere is the rarest, most vulnerable and most wonderful experience anyone can have. The subjective nowhere is a precious and endangered resource.
In her Kárahnjúkar work, Ósk steered clear of art’s symbolic exhibition value, instead adopting business methods and founding travel agency Augnablik with friend Ásta Arnardóttir. Stepping out of the art establishment into the world of travel services, she in effect performed an appropriation, a well-known modern art technique. She published a promotional booklet, marketing the trips as walking and sightseeing tours for the general public. In the booklet, the strong connection between the national identity and the land’s image is evident. In addition to informing the public of the changes in store for the land, its vegetation and wildlife, were the hydroelectric project to go forward, Ósk emphasized the individual wilderness experience and participation. In fact, while contributing to an aesthetic upbringing, the trips also shaped an important facet of the national identity.

Incorporating nature this way in participatory art was a new departure in Icelandic art. The project, presented as enlightened eco-tourism taking the form of conventional highland walking tours, could thus be categorized both as participatory and as environmental art. This obliteration of the distinction between travel services and art was a novelty; indeed, not all the participants may have realized their membership in a project, a form of art-making seeking to erase the boundary between art and reality. The methods employed by Ósk in this context have close ties to Beuys’ ideas of the artist as educator and activist, and to his theories on the social and political function of art. For that matter, the treks could be characterized as social sculpture, since the artist’s intent was to create a space for discussion and dialogue to take place.

Although many of Ósk’s projects rely on participation and communication, yet her work primarily focuses on the utopia of the open forum, rather than on what have been termed relational aesthetics. She wants to create ideal conditions for dialogue and discussion, making a place for art and politics to meet.

In most cases, it follows that these works are more projects than objects, relying on movement and process rather than on viewing. Philosophically, they clearly fall within the above-mentioned ideas of the fluxus artists, who believed in art’s social and political power. Since Ósk’s art always relates to contemporary issues, her pieces serve the democratic function of opening a discourse on what matters to everyone. The works are active in the public space – this space, which is not just objective and local, but which also stimulates communication and dialogue. Since these works also rely on the participants’ common experience, their reach stretches beyond local surroundings and institutions, seeking their channel elsewhere –in the wilderness, for instance, thus reflecting all the most hotly contested issues of the first decade of this century.

In this context, Kaprow, Filliou and Beuys’ new definitions of the art space fundamentally influenced late 20th century art, laying the groundwork for an important evolution of collaborative projects and for action by later generations of artists. Indeed, the Kárahnjúkar project and Power in your hands exemplify art’s expanding reality along with efforts to examine the connections between politics, business and trade from a new standpoint, presenting conclusions through business methods, not unlike what artists such as Hans Haacke (1936–) did during the 1970s. Ósk in fact emphasizes the dissemination of information, for instance through the use of the Kárahnjúkar project travel booklet. Ósk’s works have also addressed the importance of dissemination for the individual’s aesthetic experience, now that technology has become a general intermediary for the experience of most human feeling.

Ósk’s direct social criticism peaked in Scheissland (Shitland, 2005), a performance at that year’s Icelandic culture and arts festival in Cologne, Germany, where she painted in red graffiti:

“In Shitland, everything is going to shit. The Shitgermans love Shitland. They think the Shitlanders live at peace with Nature. The Shitgermans see a shitelf or a shittroll in every last Shitlander. In the highlands of Shitland a giant shitreservoir will appear so that an American shitcorporation can buy cheap shitenergy to run a giant shitaluminum smelter. This giant shitproject will ruin the highlands of Shitland. The Shitlanders think they’ll make a bunch of shitmoney. Now Shitgerman art curators have put on an exhibition of shitart from Shitland.”

As pointed out by philosopher Sigríður Þorgeirsdóttir, this work quietly fell by the German wayside. Indeed, mammoth Icelandic hydroelectric projects received scant attention in the land of environmentalists.
Turning away from activist methods, Ósk’s most recent works are quieter. Her piece, Tígrísdýrasmjör (Tiger Butter, 2011) even turns inward, though also intended to create a place fostering togetherness. Here, contributing to an effort by the Reykjavík Art Museum to make the museum into a discussion forum, initiating discourse within the museum walls, Ósk worked with the contrast between the sanctity of museum space and the ordinariness of the street.

As often before, Ósk created a context rather than specific content. Here, the work was installed in the aesthetically protected space of an art institute, not out in the open. The location enabled Ósk to permit herself a finely honed approach and a certain polish deliberately broken with in some of her other work, for instance when scrawling graffiti in red revolutionary red letters on exhibit hall walls. Conscious of the protection afforded her piece by the museum, Ósk broke with the institutional context by projecting pictures into the street through the museum windows. The work thus existed both outside and inside. Within, she built a structure consisting of a tent of sorts suspended upside-down from the museum ceiling. Light warmly glowed through the yellow walls, calling to mind the yellow tent illumination used by Ósk in earlier work, for instance at the ASÍ Art Museum in 2005. The light was homelike and enveloping. Crawling into the tent was not possible, yet its presence created that sheltered feeling we need to talk with each other, quietly drawing close. In a certain way, such shelter is the converse of the open public space, yet, at the same time, it creates the trust  needed so that a conversation can take place. Perhaps Tiger Butter can be characterized as a conversational piece in the sense that it is meant to create the surroundings, to be a place where some sort of contemplation or conversation can come alive.

Ósk keeps asking new questions about the artist’s purpose and art’s power in society. Most of her work aims to desanctify the museum space, and by visually connecting outer and inner spaces, narrative and experience, she wants to awaken the viewer to the difference between taking in art on the street or inside a museum. In this sense, her work might be termed Dialogue Art – art grounded in the structure of conversation, rather than in visual structure. In this sense, she belongs to a group of Icelandic artists whose pieces often involve collaboration with ordinary citizens, their immediate surroundings, or even with family. Þorvaldur Þorsteinsson, Ólafur S. Gíslason and Hlynur Hallsson also work at this social boundary between outer and inner space, the public and the personal, where participation and narrative are what matters most.

Ósk’s art is about creating other spaces, a new forum. Ósk erects tents, builds wooden huts, creates places where people can spend time together. She uses simple, accessible materials, and her communication methods often refer to children’s games and their direct connection to reality – wall slogans, printed booklets, photographs and videos. In every case, her effort is to present images simply and unaffectedly. The artist creates a situation, relating to the viewer by means of a certain reality, exploding the idea that a work of art has to be a symbolic object located in public space.

Ósk’s stance is decisive, even categorical. Taking the artist’s place as a social critic very seriously, she gives priority to art’s moral and educational role. At issue are not artworks, but the conversation’s subject matter. Ósk walks the distance. She stays away from objectifying art or making a product.