Determining the shape of the night to be a cone is only one of many temporary results Hreinn Friðfinnson has come to, exploring mathematics and physics with the eyes of the uninitiated and the tools and experience of a lyrical conceptual artist.
In an ambitious exhibition of artist Hreinn Friðfinnsson (b. 1943) at the Living Art Museum in Reykjavík around twenty works are on view, spanning four decades, the most recent work being from 2014. A new film based on his life and work is the center of the exhibition, Time and Time and Again, by Markús Þór Andrésson and Ragnheiður Gestsdóttir who also curated the show. Though Friðfinnsson is most known in Iceland where he grew up and started his career, and in the Netherlands, where he moved in his early adult life and has lived since, he is also known in other countries, perhaps particularly as an artists’ artist. He has visibly been a big influence to artists such as Ólafur Elíasson. The works are consistent and bear witness to an extraordinary artistic vision, carried out in a variation of media and materials. However, the exhibition at the Living Art Museum does not feel like a retrospective at all, it just feels like a great art show. It is energetic and playful and I have to admit I was not expecting that. Not because I do not appreciate the artist and the curators, on the contrary I respect and admire both, but rather because of my narrow perspective, derived from the cultural context the artist is in.
Back in Time
To explain the background shortly, we have to make a quick stop in the sixties. With breaths of fresh air to Iceland in the form of fluxus and conceptual art, a visual art scene really kicked off in the country, where there had been only a few painters and sculptors through the past decades, but never before a powerful scene. Friðfinnsson was one of the pioneers of this new art scene, usually called SÚM, after a gallery they established in Reykjavík at the time. The thriving contemporary art scene in Iceland today is in direct lineage from this one. With hardly any buildings remaining from antiquity, meager visual heritage, but a very rich literary background and a culture for charging places, landscapes and objects with significance through stories, it is probably fair to say that Icelanders were not visually dominated in general. Perhaps that is why there was all of a sudden such a strong resonance with visual arts when it got more conceptual and fluctuating. Hreinn Friðfinnsson and his peers, such as Sigurður Guðmundusson, Rúrí, Magnús Pálsson, Kristján Guðmunsson and more thus have a reserved space in the hearts of Icelandic artists, they are sort of like the founding fathers; the old wise men. With that status it is fascinating and exciting, but also a bit troubling, that they are still alive and well in 2014.
You cannot comfortably look back on the complete oeuvre of an important artist when he is always around, making something new. A certain shyness arises that has led at least me to take in the work from a certain distance, perhaps even with detachment. Writing this down I realize that this is perfectly silly and unnecessary, but I nonetheless confess that I have unconsciously been doing just that. I only realized at this show that I have never enjoyed Friðfinnsson’s works properly.
With the confident approach of the curators these precious masterpieces again become art works, open for experience and interpretation. It is refreshing to see how playful they actually are. I have always seen them as serene, poetic conceptual works, which they certainly are, but they are also bursting with creativity and often very funny. The works are spread all around the space in the museum, using the ceiling, floors, nooks and crannies of the non-white cube space of the Living Art Museum, which adds to the playful element in the works. At first glance only half of the work are seen, then gradually more and more can be discovered.
The center of the show is the aforementioned film Time and Time and Again, a fascinating film about Hreinn Friðfinnson and his art. From the first moments it lured me in. It plays with the documentary and the bio-pic in an abstract way – tracing two twin brothers that were separated at birth and raised under different conditions – to investigate the effect of gravity on the passing of time. The core of the film is the interplay and the dynamics between the twins that should never meet, played by Friðfinnsson himself as the older twin, and performance artist and friend Magnús Logi Kristinsson (b. 1975) as the twin that hasn’t grown old as fast. One can also say that Kristinsson’s character is Friðfinnsson himself as a young man. They live simultaneously but in different ages, countries and periods: Friðfinnsson in the strikingly mundane setting of a modern Dutch apartment and Kristinsson is mostly in a seventies Icelandic studio setting. They both work on the same ideas and carry the exact same objects, most of which relate to Friðfinnson’s works, adding to the feeling of both of them playing Friðfinnsson at different times. The film references quite a lot of his works, sometimes even hinting at how they came to life.
The legendary Finnish actress Kati Outinen plays an imaginary scientist working at the Laboratory of Time, investigating the two. She holds up the narrative and gives science fiction like dramatic tension to the movie. Strangely her performance is not as convincing as that of the artists. Perhaps it is rather that an artist’s approach to acting is different to that of an actor’s, resulting in contrasting moods between their scenes.
The brilliance in the movie is the insight into the studio of the conceptual artist. It is calm and uneventful for the most part with the occasional happening of something inspiring, funny or both. For instance, the major drama in the film is a computer that froze in the middle of a Skype conversation causing a color wheel to spin constantly on the artist’s screen, surprising and intriguing him but making him uneasy. The film-makers impressively manage to put the life and mind of the conceptual artist into cinematic form.
Coming out after the film I saw the rest of the work in the exhibition very differently. It felt less like a collection of important art works of a key figure from art history, and more like the result of a lifetime of playing around with objects, materials, concepts, emotions, words and ideas. And of active living.
Shape of Time
Friðfinnson’s works exist in different layers, spheres and dimensions or even between them, twisting preconceived ideas. What is there and what is not there. And what is not there but still is, perhaps even there. Pair (2004) is an example, consisting of a black left foot shoe on the floor and a small mirror raised against the wall next to it. The mirror gives the illusion of a right foot shoe being just beside the left one, completing the pair.
Coining the shape of the night, folding a star, sculpting time and questioning or altering the passing of it, or at least the thought of it, is something Friðfinnsson has done in countless ways. In Seven Times (1978–79) seven photographs show a man by a window, in different stages of looking through a window and then pulling the curtain back. The photos all seem like Edward Muybridge – freezing, dividing and extending a moment – could have made them. However, the title suggests the possibility that it was taken on seven different occasions or at least divides this simple moment into seven levels of passing time. The works have the potential to make one consider the materiality and form of time.
A great twist in the exhibition is a video piece that Friðfinnsson added to the exhibition after it opened, which he made in 2013, obviously somehow in response to the film being made about him (which took years in the making). In the video piece Correspondence in Red and Green (The Movie)(2013)he seems to be kindly making fun of the big film about him and at the same time be inspired by it. It depicts himself and Kristinsson, the same characters as in the main movie, but the title refers to his well-known colored paper works, titled Correspondence. In the video the two men correspond with letters, consistent with the ones from Correspondence. Kristinsson slips red paper in a green envelope, closing it to cover the red and slips green paper into a red one, enveloping, embracing and covering the green. He then goes out to mail them to Friðfinnsson, but on the way every time he comes to a street light he puts on an overall in a color that matches the walking street light, the overall a color layer that covers his entire body in one move, just like the envelopes. Red when he is waiting, and when the light switches to the green man he quickly takes off the red overall, puts the green on and crosses the street, stopping at the other side to take the overall off and pack it again in his bag and keep passing by. This sounds perfectly silly, but it is so focused, so lighthearted and therefore it works.
Watching the film of Andrésson and Gestsdóttir, and going through the exhibition, was a different kind of experience than I have had before in an art shows or cinemas. The film opens a window into the abstract flux of making art and plays with tales told of it. It encourages a relaxed playful approach to enjoying the subtle works for exactly what they are. This is an exhibition that I wish would travel the world and do its thing.
The exhibition runs through June 5th 2014 at The Living Art Museum, Reykjavík.