Hrafnkell Sigurðsson’s photographs record an intense, aesthetic exploration spanning almost two decades. They are remarkable for the clear and consistent approach they represent, so insistent that one almost doesn’t notice the eclectic selection of subject matter which includes compacted rubbish, pitched tents and soiled fishermen’s oilskins. The images are not united by a theme but by a network of unexpected connections that have as much to do with colours and textures as with the function or social role of the objects in the photograph. Hrafnkell’s art is hard to classify and he works in other media as well, including video, sculpture and installation. He is a minimalist in that he seeks out humble subjects and isolates them in an image presented with as little affect as possible. Yet his prints exude a rich sensuality, an almost obsessive interest in details and surfaces. Though humble, the objects in his photographs are bursting with associations that are only revealed in the image – in the process of isolating or ‘posing’ the subject. This apparent paradox contributes to the captivating intensity of the prints and this is without doubt the most striking aspect of Hrafnkell’s work: His ability to wrest a profound aesthetic experience from even the most trivial and ephemeral objects.
Born in Iceland, Hrafnkell studied in Reykjavík and in Maastricht, the Netherlands, moving to London in 1993. From 1990 he has exhibited regularly and returned to his studies in 2001–2002, finishing an MFA from Goldsmiths College, London. The earliest series in this collection were produced before Hrafnkell returned to Iceland in 2004 but in sensibility they evoke Iceland more often than London. The Mirrored Landscapes from 1996 and Facing Landscapes (Montage) from 1998 followed on from earlier experiments in physically manipulating or reframing landscape photographs and reveal a certain attraction to Icelandic subjects, combined with a suspicion of the established ways of representing them. Iceland’s landscape provides an endless supply of perfect photo opportunities and a rich tradition of related art, but this abundance, where any tourist with a camera can produce stunning photographs, makes it difficult to find a personal and original way to represent it. The very next year, however, Hrafnkell had found a way. The series Mountains shows piles of snow left by city workers when clearing the streets, a man-made temporary landscape thoughtlessly shovelled up and left to melt but still clearly evoking the more majestic mountains of Iceland’s highlands. These images completely redefine and also complicate the representation of landscape and our relationship to it: How can we continue to think of the nature as sublime and irreplaceable when it can be so casually reproduced in our cities without our noticing? They also show us how Hrafkell was to achieved this: The isolated subject, framed so as to separate it clearly from its context, allowing the camera to capture its sheer visual beauty, all the more captivating because it surprises us. Snow features again in the 2011 series Autocasts where the camera similarly focuses in on the packed snow that collects under the wings of our cars in winter, only to fall off and litter the street, still bearing the unique imprint of the wheel well and tyre.
This conflation of man-made and natural beauty continued in the series Tents in 2000–2001 and Nýbyggingar 2001–2004. In retrospect we can see the latter as capturing the beginning of Iceland’s building bubble and years of financial speculation that crashed so memorably in 2008 but they tell a much more profound tale about man’s place in nature as we expand our cities, replacing the natural landscape with our own structures. This process is highlighted by the unfinished state of the houses, photographed front-on and centred, silhouetted against the sky like a mountain in a landscape photograph and accorded the same neutral respect. This conflation renders the images slightly troubling like those in Tents, with their colourful tents of man-made materials, featured as objects of art in a stunning, snow-covered landscape, beautifully illuminated by the wintry light. Like the half-finished houses, the tents are photographed front-on and centred though some are turned upside-down, as if to emphasise that they are not being shown for their functional qualities but for purely aesthetic reasons. They are shown to have an inherent beauty to which we are normally blinded by our focus on their practical use and our distain for things mass produced, artificial or ephemeral. We have trained our gaze to pass over such things without engagement whereas we stand transfixed when faced with a tall mountain or a beautiful waterfall.
There is probably nothing that we are more determined to let pass unnoticed than our own waste and rubbish, making the 2004 series Bags all the more provocative. Showing plastic rubbish bags set out on London streets, these images invite us to focus on their colours: A few red bags huddled together under the street lights or a set of boxy, blue ones, standing firm like sentries in the night. This was the first of several works involving rubbish and the next one appeared already in 2005 with Filling, images of compacted domestic rubbish, baled up for transportation to a landfill, centred in the frame to give the tall bales a dignity that contrasts jarringly with the details of what the bales contain. Bales of rubbish reappeared in the series Uplift from 2008 where they hang as if floating in a dark space but sensuously lit to intensify the colours of the plastic bags of which they are composed. It is Conversion 2007–2008, however, that drives the ambivalent message home. It is a triptych that shows a beautiful winter landscape when open but closes to reveal a rubbish dump, framed close and in nauseating detail. This piece was exhibited in the Louvre during Paris Photo in 2006. Many interpreted it for its environmentalist message but if that were its only statement it would hardly arrest our attention. Instead we must see it in the context of Hrafnkell’s mission to question our sense of beauty and our understanding of ourselves and our desires. Like the earlier series, Conversion plays on the frisson between the subject and its presentation, and the ambiguity of presenting man-made rubbish as being somehow the equivalent of the landscape.
Looking at these images of rubbish we are torn between revulsion and attraction, disgust and desire. We do not want to look but find the image beautiful. This aspect of Hrafnkell’s art can be expanded into Freudian territory but the artworks do not seem to invite such an interpretation over any other. They are subtle but their effect is immediate and one can then unpack the associations and analyse one’s response at leisure – like the start of an affair when everything is revealed but remains to be enjoyed. The aesthetic approach can ease toward the erotic. The serene, carefully framed images tease us with interpretations, including local or personal ones. The series Crew from 2006 closely frames the front of some fishermen’s oilskins, worn, soiled and glistening with moisture. These are forceful and evocative images in Iceland where the fisheries are all-important and the harsh weather and hard living has long bred a rough, masculine identity. One might be tempted to recall all sorts of associations but the image includes no context, nothing to place it, no story.
Crew was followed by other works that involved working men’s uniforms, including two notable video works, 7 × 7 and Butchers’ Duel. The first shows a group of men performing parade-ground movements in snow-covered landscape dressed in orange overalls with white and blue stripes. The camera focuses on the contrast between the colours and the landscape, and the editing turns their movements into a strange, ritualised dance. Butchers’ Duel from 2009 shows two figures dressed in butcher’s work clothes, including face masks, using meat hooks to hang onto the ceiling and straining to reach each other with large knives that never quite touch. They (in fact the artist himself, doubled) are forever frozen in this strenuous duel without conclusion. Both videos seem to focus on restrained power, a pent-up masculinity that somehow erases the individual, leaving us to reflect on the uniforms as purely aesthetic elements.
The 2011 series Sides was part of an exhibition that included a video and large flag stitched together from oily rags discarded by workers at the dry dock where the photographs were also taken. They show details of the hulls of ships being repainted in the dry dock. At first sight they look like abstract paintings and in a sense they are: Abstract paintings discovered in the wild. Only a closer look reveals more details that betray the photographic origin of the image. These photographs are presented in pairs with each pair showing two very similar but subtly different images, in fact the two sides of the hulls, starboard and port. The effect is of an image bisected, a slight shift or displacement that is mildly disconcerting and lends an unexpected tension to the experience, as if these were stereoscopic images meant to be somehow merged. The pieces also document different stages of the painters’ work, from the first stage where patches of primer paint have been applied to cover the most worn parts to the final, finishing coat. In the former, we can still see a lot of detail in the worn sections of older paint but in the latter we are presented with flat areas of colour where the only detail is in the welds and small bumps in the steel plates – the image has become more abstract and impersonal. A further complication lies in the fact that each frame is split horizontally across the middle with one colour above and another below. On the ship this marks the waterline but in the images the effect is of a painterly decision, a deliberate, Rothko-like device to enhance our experience of the colour fields. It is surprising that so much can be packed into what would seem to be perfectly simple photographs of something our gaze would normally hardly register but this is precisely what makes Hrafnkell’s approach so captivating. The photographs don’t show anything new or unexpected, no hidden aspect of our world or unique moment, and there is no trick involved. Rather, their fascination lies in how they play on our perception and what they reveal about how our gaze orients our visual world.
A more direct approach is taken in the two diptychs from 2013, Fabriction and Fabrication II, both works involving the play of mirrors in a confined space. In the first, and old shed was filled with mirrors and the photographs taken inside. The space opens up and seems to extend to infinity in a strange, grid-like structure, lit by naked light bulbs. When originally exhibited, the photographs were hung inside the shed itself (without the mirrors) and the whole shed then suspended by chains just above the floor in a vast, disused warehouse. As viewers stepped up into the shed and walked around it swung slightly, adding to the disorienting effect of seeing the manipulated space in the photographs exhibited in the drab and rusting space where they were taken. Even without this context, the manipulation of space is almost immediately obvious and there is no attempt to trick the viewer. We see the space repeated and receding, perceiving it as an abstract world while at the same time seeing and recognising the real space. Fabrication II takes this idea to a more abstract level, using a box of mirrors, partially filled with sugar cane. The only light is that which seeps into the box where the mirrors meet so the reflected structure becomes even more like a three-dimensional, geometric grid. The organic image of the cane inhabits this abstract space like an infinitely repeated rhizome, shooting up through the photograph again and again to the distant vanishing point.
The Fabrication prints represent somewhat of a departure for Hrafnkell, moving away from the deceptively simple, almost documentary character of most of his earlier photographic work toward a visual world that, while certainly quite as real, takes on an abstract quality, not immediately accessible to our everyday perception. Yet these works show the maturing of ideas already present in earlier pieces from the 1990s. A new twist is introduced in the series Concrete Conception from 2014 that shows images of concrete – the most common and unremarkable material in our man-made environment – taken through an electron microscope. Hrafnkell mixed the concrete himself, using a mix of common cement, sand and red alga, remains of dead coral that are mined from the seabed in western Iceland and this is part of an ongoing project. Seen at such magnification the concrete shows magnificently complex structures, sometimes crystalline and sometimes disconcertingly organic. The revelation of this inner world within this unremarkable material plays on the limitation of our perceptual apparatus rather than on the habitual perception that renders us mostly blind to the beauty of, e.g., mounds of snow cleared off our streets. Yet Hrafnkell’s intention is clearly the same, to explore the aesthetic qualities that we overlook and to awaken us to the sensuous details of our experience.
The latest series in this book, Revelation from 2014, underlines this intention with images that appear almost magical. Each print shows a mysterious, undulating shape, floating in a space of pure light and shadow, the light coming from above. There is an intense, almost erotic quality to the images, a sensuous dance of fluid shapes accentuated by the strange light, almost impossibly soft, that caresses each fold. The images are almost unbearably beautiful and engaging but in fact the shapes are just sheets of bubble wrap, photographed as they float ten metres below the surface of a lake. This in no way detracts from the beauty of the image, though we may be surprised to realise that such beauty can be found in such an common material. These images seem to come from another world, as if the framed prints were really windows into a universe of abstract and ideal beauty. There is a moment of surprise when one recognises the bubble wrap for what it is and suddenly understands that this apparently transcendent image is taken from the real world, the world of our own experience.
The series also tells us a lot about Hrafnkell’s method and the nature of his aesthetic exploration. A year and half in the making, the creation of these photographs involved his learning to scuba dive and then endless experiments in several locations until, finally, he caught the images he was searching for – the sort of effort we normally associate with wildlife photographers who trek for months through the jungle to shoot a rare flower. The revelation that the title of the series refers to, and that seems to sum up the artistic intention of Hrafnkell’s whole body of work, is that such wonders can be found right in front of our eyes – if only we have an eye for them and are willing to make the effort.