Photographs have for a long time been an important part of Hrafnkell Hrafnkell Sigurðsson's approach to art practice in its relation to reality. His approach is inherently conceptual and his work is informed by an affinity to ideas of relational aesthetics. This is also rooted in a wide ranging discourse with art historical subjects, baroque and romantic painting, modernist aesthetics, as well as contemporary performance, installation, video, and photography. It is in this context that his photographic work is to be understood. It is an artistic means of expression that in numerous instances finds a suitable outlet through the medium of photography, but is not in any way confined to it. Photography traverses his career, from the early works, where he used found postcard images from Iceland as an outlet for an ironic commentary on consumer society, to the later works where stock images of landscapes serve as a medium to deconstruct ideas of sublime aesthetics in the landscape tradition. Be they found objects or photographs shot by Hrafnkell Sigurðsson himself, the photographs serve as a way to present the uniquely personal and original vision of art, as well as society in general, which characterizes his work.
An interesting interchange between found “landscape” and photography is evident in the Mountains series, from 1998. This is one of the occasions where Hrafnkell Sigurðsson focuses his attention on objects that are common in the winter-scape in Iceland, but people generally consider a nuisance not meriting any aesthetic consideration. These are things that prevail the cityscape in Iceland during winter that are unwanted reminders of the discomfort of winter and heavy conditions people would rather be rid off.
The aforesaid “mountains” are mounds of snow that are left over by the clearing of snow from roads and parking lots to make way for traffic. These reminders of bad weather are Hrafnkell Sigurðsson's chosen subject-matter for the photographs. He presents these mounds centrally within the photographs, in a similar way as landscape painters and photographers traditionally and contemporarily paint the iconic mountains of Iceland. By photographing them in this style, and by naming the series Mountains, Hrafnkell Sigurðsson elevates these dirty mounds of snow and sets them apart from their commonplace environment. In the process the works also come to function as a critique of the idea of landscape as such. In traditional landscapes, especially in the Icelandic context, it is most often the effects of catastrophic geological activity that have formed the structures that people agree upon as being beautiful. This has led to a proliferation of images depicting rough fields of lava and overpowering volcanoes. This is the natural scenery that artists have popularized, in the process establishing what is generally considered beautiful or sublime. Through these works artists like Jóhannes Kjarval have defined the image of Icelandic landscape. This has also become an important ingredient of nationalistic pride, of the “national spirit” of the Icelandic people. By handling the waste mounds of snow are in a similar manner as artists renditions of mountains such as Hekla, Herðubreið or Vatnajökull, Hrafnkell Sigurðsson criticizes the value of landscape as such. He demonstrates that a similar “aesthetic” or beauty can just as well have its point of origin in ephemeral landscape formations, such as the mounds of snow by the roadside. These are an aspect of the Icelandic cityscape in winter, that nobody really sees at all and that disappear with the first thaws of spring. While they exist, however, they are subject to the same kinds of natural erosion as the more “sublime” mountains. It is merely the timeframe that is different. Instead of being eroded and disappearing in millions of years, the snow-mountains succumb to the natural processes in mere days or, at best, weeks.
The Autocast-series is another piece where Hrafnkell Sigurðsson takes the abject of the winter-scape and elevates them, making them into aesthetic objects. The objects he presents us with are haphazard clumps of snow, the remnants of snow and ice that gather under the bodies of cars in heavy snow, creating hard clumps of ice that then break off. They are in that sense “automatically cast” by the body of the car, bearing marks of tires and other objects that cover the underside of vehicles. In winter these tend to clutter the sides of the roads, covered in oil, tar, and grime, beinga nuisance to those passing by. Hrafnkell Sigurðsson, in drawing attention to these haphazard and ephemeral casts, is extending a practice common to modern and postmodern art. They function in a similar way as the series of photographs surrealist artist Salvador Dali had made for the magazine Minotaure in 1936. Those were images of torn and crumpled pieces of paper, or seemingly formless clots of chewing gum, that Dali had photographed and enlarged in order to to reveal beautiful and charming structures. The Autocast-series also share affinities to the works of Gabriel Orozco, who in his photographic works focuses on the beauty of haphazard objects in a chaotic environment. Hrafnkell Sigurðsson, is in Autocast working within a similar frame of reference, by drawing attention to the importance of minute details that for others do not merit attention. The title of the works, Autocast, also is a clever reworking of the term “outcast”. As such it shifts the attention to the down and out in society, to those unfortunates that cannot help but being cast outside of society as such; people that no one cares about or wants to know about. Thus the title of the work involves a tacit political twist.
Hrafnkell Sigurðsson's tent-landscapes are among the works that have gained him most acclaim. Each of these is composed in the same way—a single tent positioned in the centre of the frame in a largely featureless snowy landscape. These are made photographs in a systematic manner. One could say that they defy composition by way of their strict adherence to regularity. The framing is similar to the works of earlier conceptual artists, such as those of Berndt and Hilla Becher in the seventies. The tents are all similar, although with differences in style and color. All of them are dome tents, as those used while hiking. On some of them the outer covering has been removed so as to reveal the transparent inner skin. In the last image of the series the tent has been placed upside down, like it was floating in the snow.
These images relate in a somewhat strange manner to landscape tradition. The tent is an intrusion in the natural landscape, just asas the snow-mountains intrude in the urban landscape. They, and their fabricated cloth, is the central element of the image, with the surrounding elements of “natural” environment, the landscape withits depth of field, becoming a frame—a Derridian “parergon”. The curved shape of the tents contrasts with the snowy steppe; a totally alien structure in the landscape. It disrupts the perceived depth of field, blocking what could otherwise have been a sublime and far-reaching landscape. The general effect is that of flatness, with the tent functioning as a strange compositional device within the frame.
Alien to the landscape, it is easy to imagine that these tents have been erected by some solitary traveller. The images evoke a kind of nomadic body in their presentation, suggesting, as Hrafnkell Sigurðsson mentioned in a recent interview, a body of a heroic traveller sleeping within the tent itself. The presence of the singular tent in the wilderness provokes such an interpretation—within the abstract form and ritualized composition we also have an invocation of a bodily presence, some physical being hidden within the structure.
A series of photographs Hrafnkell Sigurðsson in 2003 and 2004 are among the few examples of his oeuvre that do not include references to Iceland. The works are made in London, where he lived for more than a decade. These depict “found monuments” that few tend to notice—the trash-bags that are left by companies on the pavement at night, to be cleared by garbage collectors before dawn. Each photograph is made in a methodical fashion depicting a single pile of trash-bags, centrally framed within the border of their urban environment. The piles are all the same, generally, although the number of bags varies as well as their color. One imagines that the content is abject and revolting in nature, but once packaged in this manner it becomes a symbol of social organization; a way to control their chaotic content. They are all clean and pristine on the outside, hiding their contents thoroughly.
These images take on a number of Hrafnkell Sigurðsson's earlier concepts, combining them in a novel way. Here we have an example of the abject and unnoticed in the urban environment, as with the snow-mountains. At the same time, as in Vivid Tents, we have a focus on synthetic material occluding our view of what is inside. Here the city that becomes a featureless backdrop for the bags of garbage, what the image focuses upon. Thus, in a conceptual inversion, what is ordinarily seen as abject and unimportant takes precedence over the otherwise glorious display of the metropolis. Here the outcasts take center stage, the superfluous and wasteful is drawn into the foreground of consumer society instead of being tucked neatly away in the night.
A number of other of Hrafnkell Sigurðsson's works involve an examination of the contemporary “garbage-scape”, sublimating the refuse and the way it is often preserved in colorful scenery. One of these is Uplift, a work where he focuses his attention on bales of trash. The bales are made up of household garbage. They are made up of a colorful array of supermarket shopping bags enclosing the waste within. These have been compressed together into the large rectangular constructions that Hrafnkell Sigurðsson chooses to “elevate” as “art”. He has had them photographed elevated above the ground against a featureless dark background, with all eventual cabling retouched away so that the bales seem to be miraculously suspended in the air. These are objects that are colorful and beautiful in their presentation, although they are also repulsive due to our knowledge of their abject content. They attain, in Hrafnkell Sigurðsson's handling, a spectacular “ghostlike” presence in front the viewer, in a way portraying a the hidden “specter” of consumer culture in all its might.
In a series entitled Conversion we once more see how Hrafnkell Sigurðsson reworks former ideas, conjoining them in new work. These pieces are constructed like medieval triptychs, with the front panes being made of images of stacked garbage bags on two sides that almost, but not quite, mirror each other. The viewer is invited to open the panels of the piece to discover the hidden content: An idyllic snow-covered plain receding into an ambiguous brightness. Instead of the joyous, multicolored image of garbage on the front, with its very limited field of vision, the viewer sees a landscape receding into to distance, the colorful snow below and an almost limitless sky above, dark blue at the top, slowly changing color down to a rosy red glow at the bottom, at the horizon. While the panels on the outside are base and abject in their content, the interior of the work is sublime and elevated—a spiritual landscape, almost romantic in vision.
The key to the work lies, as so often is the case with Hrafnkell Sigurðsson's work, in the dual meaning of the title. It has a definite literal meaning, describing how the viewer, through interaction with the work, physically converts it from a mundane setting to a spiritual one. Through its obvious relation to medieval altarpieces it also carries a different meaning when the viewer is, ironically, invited to “convert” from the bourgeois sort of consumerism of the front displays, to the more “pure” type of spirituality of the landscape inside.
In Crew, made in 2006, we have yet another take on the superficiality of a synthetic surface. At first glance the images seem to be some kind of rough oil paintings, brightly monochrome with plashes of black and grey here and there. These are large-scale glossy images that have an alluring quality, that draws the viewer in. Upon closer scrutiny it becomes evident that these are not paintings at all, but photographs of the surface of fishermen's working clothes, the oilskin jackets they wear at sea, made of heavy rubbery material that can endure a lot of stress. These are painterly surfaces that overwhelm the vision of the viewer. Under closer scrutiny the dramatic details turn out to be layers of grime and dirt that cover the surface. The works have the dimensions and look of dramatic paintings—presenting the expression of a suffering artist—but in reality are merely the surface of working men's clothes, non-dramatic and commonplace. These are found artworks, made through the haphazard and meticulous practice of someone other than the artist himself. Hrafnkell Sigurðsson's part in the work has been limited to choosing the surfaces and having them photographed professionally, just like one would document the surface of painting. He demonstrates that the everyday surface reality of the fisherman can be, in its objective manifestation, as dramatic as any painting.
The works are also a kind of second “skin” that in some manner depicts the men that have worn the garments. A skin that bears the marks of time and wear while protecting the body beneath the tainted surface. On those terms the work also evokes the bodily implications of the earlier Vivid Tents, the implications of a presence beyond the mere surface.
Maritime reality is again the focus of Hrafnkell Sigurðsson six years later, in a work entitled Sides. What here confronts the spectator is a series of dual images, side by side that at first glance seem to be dramatic sublime expressionist paintings. All of them are split into two surfaces by a horizontal dividing line located in the lower half of the frame. Some—the later ones in the series—are simply two fields of color with slight variations. Others include a lot of what seems to be more expressive brushwork. In a way it seems that the artist is trying to replicate the manner of expressionist painters, like Mark Rothko. When the spectator looks more closely, a different vision emerges; Instead of expressionist paintings he or she realizes that the works are actually photographs of painted surfaces. The indices of this are various embossed lines and shapes that show the metallic nature of the surface, that finally indicate that these are in fact photographs of the sides of a ship that is in the process of being repainted. The more complex ones are the earlier stages of the process and the later simpler ones the final stage of a fully repaired and painted side of a ship.
In this work Hrafnkell Sigurðsson is working in a clear and distinctive manner with the idea of found painting. The twist here is that the work, in comparison with Crew for instance, is that now what looks like painting is actually painting. It looks, at first sight, as dramatic as any other painting that purports to be a serious work of art. Its primary purpose here was, however, practical. The painting exhibited is a photographic document of the reparations made to the ship, that also was intended to make the ship more beautiful. An aspect of this is the prominent horizontal division of the field; a different color for what is above and below the seaboard which is a traditional way of ship-painting. It is this aspect that Hrafnkell Sigurðsson has chosen for its expressive capabilities: The horizontal divide, echoing the stability of the ocean horizon, is also a signifier of restraint and spirituality, as in the work ofRothko. It is this aspect of art that the work deconstructs, as photographs posing as high painting.
In his present work Hrafnkell Sigurðsson continues to work with his prior configurations in different and interesting ways. In Revelation the viewer is confronted by a series of images where a white structure is central in the image, seemingly floating on a field that is lighter on top and grows darker near the bottom. Upon closer scrutiny we see that the body-like form in the middle of the image is made of bubble-wrapping that seems to be swaying and folding, suspended in deep water. It is the type of plastic that is usually used to wrap sensitive objects, such as artwork. Each image depicts a different sheet of plastic, some are courser than others and the sheets vary in terms of their transparency, some being whiter and more opaque than others. Surprisingly the bubbles of air that the plastic holds somehow makes it more “organic”. They enable it to float in the water, as well as being indicators of air, and breath. In a sense they create something that could be termed as “being” within the inorganic shell we are faced with, imbuing the shapes with a ghostlike quality.
The plastic is in a way “generic” and the varying field of water is deep and featureless. The sheet of plastic, with its entrapments of air bubbles, feels like a strange body floating in a primal sea, in a strange “waterscape”. We are reminded of the nondescript landscapes in Vivid Tents, or the subliminal beings in the dreamscapes of french surrealist painter Yves Tanguy. The folding plastic also is evocative of baroque painting, where the folds of fabric are almost endless and carry more signification than the limited amount of flesh visible. In these photographs what is hidden is indeed the featureless depth of the ocean, the wrapping does not cover anything, it is the only signifying element of each image. Thus we can say that the politics of representation are, as in baroque art, inverse, in the way that the covering, which would normally occlude and hide what is behind it, here is the only signifying element. It shows precisely that which it otherwise would serve to cover. Thus, as in the tents, the body implied by the swaying folds becomes more intense than any actual, naked, body would be.
A totally different take on surface is present in the Concrete Conception series. Here Hrafnkell Sigurðsson is, as before, concerned with issues of surfaces, body, and landscapes. Now, however, the spatiality of the landscape is confined to the surface itself. The works are based on a special kind of concrete the artist has made himself, mixing the shells of coral algae into concrete. The images are photographs of the images of the surface of the concrete, seen highly magnified in a electromicroscope. It is therefore within the surface itself that Hrafnkell Sigurðsson has discovered the fabolous crystalline landscape that the images portray. Thus the concrete surface proves to be just as dramatic and sublime as any “natural” landscape. By pursuing this the artist once again demonstrates that artistic value, beauty, and bodily charm can be present in the most minute of constructions. He, in the process, elevates the low and unimportant, thus questioning the value of both traditional aesthetics and art; suggesting a way towards furthering our understanding of the processes behind our own subjectivity.
Behind the clear facades and concise conceptual framings of Hrafnkell Sigurðsson's photographs is a far reaching web of references on social issues, art historical precedent, and personal identity and desire. They are exemplary of his work in general, the way it branches freely between performative video, object based installations, and found imagery. In this work the central motif is the desiring subject, presenting us with surprising scenarios and viewpoints of a world beyond our common conception. It is in this context that we can view his occluded landscapes, his synthetic surfaces, and his indications of disembodied bodies, in order to discover something important and marvelous beyond, within, and beneath the thin veil of the surfaces we perceive.