Carnegie Art Award nominee, artist Heimir Björgúlfsson, talks about adding layers and dimensions to the battle between man and nature.
Heimir Björgúlfsson moved to the Netherlands from Iceland, to study Fine Art in the nineties.
“Having grown up in Iceland, which is largely untouched by man and has these vast natural areas, and then moving to the Netherlands, where most of the country is actually man made, and where you have to travel so far from the cities to find nature, was really strange for me”.
He points out that the shift between these two different places affected him a lot as an artist.
I’m very interested in the struggles between nature and man, and the points where the natural meets the man made,” claims Björgúlfsson.
This struggle is evident in his work, where he often juxtaposes natural phenomena with man made structures.
The dream of gold
Björgúlfsson moved to Los Angeles in 2005. The move changed his perspective again. Having previously dealt mostly with two struggling forces, man and nature, he was faced with the complicated multilayered structure of Los Angeles – a city of the immensely rich and the extremely poor.
“One of the first pieces I did after moving to LA was actually a neon. I would never have done a neon in the Netherlands!” he says, laughing. The piece consists of shiny pink letters spelling great places and pictures of birds, a recurrant theme in his work. The piece was installed next to another one of his called All that glittered was not evil, unavoidably leading to some thoughts on European prejudice of the American dream and all things sparkly.
California is where the Gold Rush took place only 160 years ago and the dream of gold lives on. LA being home to endless celebrities and wannabe stars does not stop its Downtown area from shifting from business and service neighbourhood to an approved card board camp site for the homeless after dark.
The city’s closeness to the Mexican border and villages of Native Americans is also evident and has affected Björgúlfsson as he informs:
“Just a few hours drive will take you to extremely poor towns and villages, built mostly from scrap. It’s of course really sad, but you have to admire how people deal with these circumstances, fixing their houses with whatever stuff they find and making life work. And then some houses that are falling apart will have satellite discs. I don’t know, it’s just such a strange contrast.”
This impression can somewhat be felt for instance in his 2011 piece Obsolete and surrounded by hail IV where scrap houses are surrounded with, even overwhelmed by, electric lines which in Björgúlfsson’s collage intertwine with a peaceful moss-grown tree.
Cruelty and stuff
The complex layers of Björgúlfson’s surroundings obviously affect him and inspire him.
“There are all these different perspectives and different perception of beauty. I like that,” he explains.
“System malfunctions and difficulties in natural surroundings leave us faced with all sorts of problems that require resourcefulness. Unexpected conditions often cause you to react differently than you thought you would have.”
Perhaps he is performing a certain exploration of humans finding their place between the natural and the man made, examining the tricky balance of using nature’s resources without exploiting it. And there is a certain pathos in his work, a longing to cultivate the natural in man co-existing with a lingering fear that the cold and heartless side of man will take over.
“Humans can be so extremely cruel. I can’t wrap my thoughts around it,” he says in amazement, showing me a huge exact replica of a brutal 18th century bear trap he has in his studio. And it is apparent in his work that the contrast between the rich and the poor, the fortunate and the unfortunate, man and nature affects him and puzzels him. But it is not always an easy black or white definition, nature equals good, man equals bad – and his work feels non judgemental. It is more multilayered than that.
In his 2008 work Being not what it is he mixes different mediums (colour pencil, spraypaint, marker and photographs) as well as different motifs; electric equipment floats next to birds and rocks and shimmering gold threads are layered over mud and wood.
There certainly is a sincere joyful fascination and great respect for animals living in harmony with nature. But there is also an apparent appreciation for moments when people, regardless of their status, live in respectful harmony with the natural and a sadness towards all our failures to do so. Perhaps he is still dealing with the tensions, meeting points and struggles between two things, but instead of it being mostly man a nature it has evolved to being the natural in any form versus the naturally removed or even degenerate.
Chasing the absurd
Today he works mostly in collage, a multilayered form of work, often based on photographs he takes and drawings as well as objects such as taxidermy animals, baseball bats and so forth. His subjects and, as a result, his works tend to be poetic, embracing and celebrating the human and the natural and the points where they meet. For instance, deserted houses or unused billboards that nature slowly takes over again. A complex and sometimes vulgar battle for dominance between man and nature.
“I’m chasing the absurd, always looking for something impossible” he notes. His 2010 three dimensional collage He is a fool who seeks to compete against the stronger, shows the strange hierarchy of an African raven resting on top of a golf club, impossibly balanced on the head of a coyote. The coyotes are common in the city of Los Angeles, bearing witness of how man took over their territory. The elite practice of today’s urban life is symbolised by the golf club bearing the raven on top of the coyote’s head. Being able to create a safe place to rest for something exotic, natural and beautiful in such circumstances feels unlikely. Acting out the impossible in his works, Björgúlfsson contradictively makes it possible.
Birds and politics
Birds are a recurring element in his work.
“I really wanted to be an ornithologist when I was a kid, it probably has a lot to do with that. To me birds kind of represent the human in my work,”
But birds are of course also a symbol of freedom, independence, majestical beauty and kind o nature’s miracles – after all they can fly. Using photographs a lot in his work I notice that he always draws his birds delicately by hand. When I ask him if he would ever use a photograph of a bird in his work, he shockingly replies;
“No! I could never! It can’t be that easy”.
But maybe it doesn’t have everything to do with it being too easy, after all sitting around for days on end waiting for birds and taking good pictures of them isn’t necessarily easy. Maybe it has something to do with the characteristics of the method. A photograph, a product of a mechanical procedure, in Björgúlfsson’s work usually represents the man made or naturally distant, while the drawings are used on a more intimate human level, representing the elements he so obviously cares greatly about and wants to nurture, natural humanity.
“My work is not at all political,” he humbly and even excusingly says, after we’ve discussed a whole lot about the injustices of the world,
“I solely pose questions on the relationship between man and nature,” he continues. His work certainly is not preaching as politcal art tends to be, but posing these big irrational questions and allowing the viewer to form his own opinion is in a way highly political. After all, questioning the world, emphasizing its beauty and putting it in a different perspective, without angrily preaching a certain message, is valid and important and not the opposite of intellectual work.