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Icelandic connections: Giles Waterfield is impressed by an eclectic display that pays tribute to Iceland's history.

Points of View

Opened 18 April 2015

Culture House, Reykjavik

In April this year the Culture House (Safnahusid) in Reykjavik--built between 1906 and 1908--reopened with the permanent exhibition 'Points of View'. Curated by Markus Thor Andresson, the installation occupies the whole building and explores the history of Iceland through a display of its material culture. The exhibition represents a collaboration between six institutions: the National Museum of Iceland, the National Gallery of Iceland and the Icelandic Museum of Natural History, along with the National Archives of Iceland, the National and University Library of Iceland, and the Arni Magnusson Institute for Icelandic Studies. Andresson spent a year exploring their distinct collections and archives, looking for famous works and incidental bits and pieces, before creating an installation that is both museum display and work of art. The resulting assembly of historic and contemporary paintings, drawings and photographs, books and manuscripts, domestic appliances and personal memorabilia, stuffed animals and pressed flowers, tombstones and textiles, is one of the most memorable recent curatorial interventions.

The display is arranged in broadly thematic terms: religious practices, dreams and folktales, the home and domestic crafts, daily routines, travel, the landscape, death. Displays in history museums often face a dilemma over major works of art: whether to show them as documents within a greater narrative or as discrete masterpieces, detached from other exhibits, which risk being seen as illustrations. Here the narrative is not historical (as it is, with great effect, in the National Museum a kilometre or so away), but a celebration of memory. Both contemplative and celebratory, the show examines Iceland's rural past (and present), the pride in local culture, the natural bleakness and human determination, the respect for fellow citizen, and dislike of hierarchy. The variety is extreme, eclectic and sometimes humorous--from the stuffed Great Auk (the last one known in Iceland, killed in 1821, and bought at Sotheby's collectively by the Icelandic nation in 1971) to the dark chamber holding 14 manuscripts of Jonsbok, the text that contained the statutes of Iceland, from 1363 to the 20th century. Many individuals feature: 18th-century tourists recording natural marvels; Sigriour Zoega's famous image from 1915 of three women standing on a summer's night by a glassy lake; Olof Nordal's disturbing recent photograph of a father and daughter who are not at all what they seem--one is a waxwork. Curators often lament that visitors to galleries read the labels but do not look at the exhibits: here, the placing of these diverse objects encourages the visitor to make their own connections between the works and to contemplate past and present. A watercolour of 1785 showing a farmhouse and its inhabitants sits close to Sigurdur Gudmundsson's Mountain, a photograph of a 'living sculpture' that recreates a traditional turf farm. Both offer some meditation on the relationship between art and nature.

One of the most moving elements in the exhibition is the inclusion of archival material. Archival displays tend to be characterised by low lighting and large obtrusive cases. Very much in contrast, in the Culture House objects from the National Archives function as works of art. Sheets from the first census taken in Iceland in 1703--the oldest extant census in the world--vividly evoke the labour of many hands in recording the identities of people living in isolated communities. Equally potent are the registers from a rural parish, spanning over 250 years: these books are transformed into mute symbols of continuing faith and resilience--as strong as the tiny churches, often far from any community, that sprinkle the Icelandic landscape.

The building plays a major part in this exhibition, with its strong architectural character and its memories of more than a century of collecting, research and learning. The centrepiece is the double-height library, still with its original readers' tables, chairs and shelves. Here, though, the exhibits are restrained: the room that once assembled scholarship and collections and historical study has a powerful enough voice. The top floor is dedicated to landscapes, and a label suggests that the viewer might like to look out of the attic windows: when the building was new it was the tallest structure in Reykjavik and the views give a new vision of the city and its surroundings.

This installation is a masterpiece: bold, sensitive, original, highly personal yet self-effacing. It is hard to imagine how it could have been executed with more brilliance or imagination.

Giles Waterfield is the author of The People's Galleries: Art Museums and Exhibitions in Britain, 1800-1914 (Yale).
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Title Annotation:Points of View
Author:Waterfield, Giles
Geographic Code:4EXIC
Date:Oct 1, 2015
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