Notes on Tiger Butter

by Einar Garibaldi Eiríksson, december 2011

In her recent work, Ósk Vilhjálmsdóttir has dealt with issues of social relevance. Not only has society been her subject matter; it has been the material of which her art is made. Through methods bordering on sociology, such as the participation of selected individuals or assistance from museum-visitors themselves, she has directed her gaze at everyday issues in our daily lives.

At times, these works have pushed the boundaries of our familiar concept of art, more nearly resembling conferences, town hall meetings, seminars, expeditions or classes. Ósk’s projects thus relate to pervasive 20th-century ideas concerning the rôle of artists and their responsibility to society.

Such reflections on the artist’s social rôle go all the way back to the Futurists, Dadaists and Surrealists who, refusing to accept the traditional place of art in bourgeois society, worked to bring it closer to societal reality. Such notions continued to evolve through the Situationists and their expectation that art would release us from the oppressive world of consumerism and virtual culture.

Related ideas evolved still further in the 1960s through movements such as Conceptual Art and Fluxus, which aimed for a complete melding of life and art. More recently, similar trends have been associated with the ideas of French art critic Nicolas Bourriaud and his discourse on Relational Aesthetics. Such ideas manifest themselves, for instance, in the disappearance of the Art Object and –in Ósk’s case– in social intervention, using her work to engage the public in direct participation and action.

Ósk’s shows and installations have thus more often than not been produced in collaboration with the public. She has, for instance, worked with children and teenagers who built shelters in the form of huts. In the huts she projected interviews where the young people described their hopes and dreams for the future.

In her work, she has reflected on how we treat nature in the insatiable encroachment of urban expansion. She has pondered the stereotype cherished by Icelanders about their country –the land of pristine natural purity– while Icelandic politicians have been wooing international corporations and signing contracts for heavy industrialisation on a gigantic scale. In teaching, she has turned the schoolroom into a laboratory to study the value and aims of education, and she has turned an exhibition hall into a venue for the public, putting on workshops where audiences are invited to come and express their views, confer, and discuss the possibilities for actual change unlikely to be realised within the framework of the political establishment.

Ósk’s work harks back to those forms of contemporary art which eliminated the need to use a frame or a plinth to identify the art object itself. Encountering such works, people tend to ask: But what became of the Art? Ósk’s works, however, sidestep such distinctions. She is an activist whose acts claim their space through a creative, healing passion which nothing can hold back. When she announces a workshop, organises a highland trek, or teaches a class, she does not care about pre-existing limits to art. She is driven by an urge to transform and render visible what is taken for granted. Thus, she does not see the exhibition space as an exalted and isolated space for art, divorced from its context; she wants to activate the public space and heal what has gone awry in our society.

Ósk does not ask herself whether she is making or producing works of art. Her action consists in creating a work which moves, heals and mends in the face of the powers which destroy, appropriate and co-opt. Her intent is not to create pieces that need to be defined as works of art; she simply takes action because she feels impelled to act. The answer to the question as to what became of the art object depends on our interpretation of her actions; whether the self-evident and ordinary objects of her work can be classified as Art, and, if so, what significance they have for us.

Ósk’s exhibition at the Hafnarhúsið surprises in many ways. Clear, as ever, is her strong need to mend, improve and salve wherever things have gone wrong. Now, however, this need is manifest in a range of dream-like symbolic images, where fantastic associations are continually revealed to the viewer. On arrival, one enters a darkened hall where the first thing to meet the eye is an illuminated hulk which appears to have punched through the ceiling. Resembling nothing so much as the hull of a ship, it looks as though it has somehow materialised out of nowhere. It feels as though we are beneath the surface of the water, looking up at the ship’s hull. Thus, Ósk pulls us into the water, down into the harbour just beyond the museum.

The sense of submersion grows more intense as one proceeds into the room, where darkness envelops the audience along with a sound of a person seemingly running in circles around the leviathan. The physical presence of the sound conveys a sense of intense exertion and a near-desperate sense of being shut in upon itself. The claustrophobia is enhanced by isolating the exhibition hall from the street. The windows are shuttered and barred, while on the shutters play images in which we can make out the strenuous swim strokes of a person apparently swimming ceaselessly out to sea from Reykjavik’s Old Harbour.

Ósk is known for her hard-hitting pieces where she takes on the big issues of her time. In this show, however, she moves to more symbolic ground, touching strings more lyrical than has been her wont. This time, she did not feel it right to put on meetings or raise a commotion over any particular issue, for; after all, such activity is all around us. The show’s title, Tiger Butter, refers to the familiar tale of a boy who, wearing his newly acquired best clothes, wanders into the woods, where he encounters a tiger who wants to take his jacket away from him. The reason is simple – the tiger wants to become the most powerful tiger in the forest. By the end of the story, all the boy’s clothes have been taken away from him, while tigers engage in a struggle for control of the forest, chasing each others’ tails, reducing the clothes to rags and casting them aside, eventually melting and turning into butter – the Tiger Butter of the show’s title.

Before us are arrayed diverse and complex symbols: a ship, an ark, a tent, a house, a home, a greenhouse; shelter, sea, harbour, even the Flood itself. Indeed, even the exhibition space itself has taken on a symbolism, pulling in the very harbour, so that entering the space feels like a slow sinking into the depths of the Old Harbour.

Ósk’s show brings both grace and refreshment; it is open and indeterminate while illuminating the state or experience of the society with its ever-present speed and chaos. This is not art apart from society; it is neither ornament, entertainment nor escapism. Here, we take time to ponder; we confer on the future and on which course to set for the ship – perchance the Ship of State itself. The exhibition hall is like an oasis; a place to make decisions, to think and to act; closeness, dark, drowsiness takes hold of one’s body as it slowly sinks to the bottom in the embrace of the cold waters of the harbour.

Here, one dies by water to attain a new life. And it is here, on the harbour floor, that the Water Stone of the Wise – the Philosopher’s Stone itself – takes form. We identify with the insistence of the voice; we are familiar with this person running around in endless circles of confusion and perplexity. Here we may discover our most hidden thoughts and desires and the faint hope of transforming them into action. The only thing left is to thank Ósk for bathing us in Tiger Butter.