Posted by ArtReview magazine on November 24, 2011
Issue 55, December 2011.
By Mark Rappolt
A young man strides across an open hilltop, his shoulder-length hair blowing in the Cornish wind. He spends four days hammering pieces of wood to a wooden pole, each day with his back to the ever-shifting wind: south- southwest, west-northwest, north, southwest. A week later he returns, but this time, instead of hammering wood, he lays out a single line of stones over the course of four days, again always keeping his back to the wind – first to the southwest, then west, and north-northwest and finally west-northwest – until he has achieved a crooked line.
These actions, by the Icelandic artist Sigurdur Gudmundsson, are called A Project for the Wind (1971), and subtitled Sculpture and Drawing respectively. Each project is presented in the form of four photographs arranged in a grid, with the rules of the game (and the location of the actions) spelled out in crisp block capitals below. And they are both facing my bed in the Reykjavik hotel room in which I spend the night before meeting the artist.
In many ways these pieces sum up the primary themes that have continuously travelled through the sixty-nine-year-old’s work. One part the product of intention (map the wind) and one part the product of resignation (go where the wind tells you), they describe man’s mastery over nature (for to measure is to know) and his subjugation to it (you follow where the wind leads). The end results form a sort of compass that seems to be threatening to tell you something – say, to reveal a Romantic tale about a person attempting to find himself in the world – but in actual fact tells you nothing more than from where the wind blew on eight November days 40 years ago. Indeed, there’s a hint that you’d be something of a fool to read anything more into the works: ‘the wind defined the shape of the sculpture’ and ‘the wind defined the shape of the drawing’ the text in the respective works concludes.
The photographs clearly show a man laying stones, a man hammering pieces of wood; before you know it, you can be lost in a dizzying debate about causality and intentionality (for even if the wind can claim the former, surely only the man can claim the latter). It is clear, however, that Gudmundsson intends to dump the viewer here: he never even bothers to photograph the finished sculpture or drawing, providing only four shots of a work in progress. Which in turn leads us to the question that one might suggest lies at the heart of Gudmundsson’s work: when, or under what circumstances, does an action or an object mean more than that which it appears to mean? Intriguingly, in A Project for the Wind, the artist seems to be answering ‘always’ and ‘never’, depending on which way the wind blows. “Schizophrenia is an important theme for me,” he’ll say when we meet.
That said, A Project for the Wind marks an old stage in the work of Gudmundsson; these days he looks only a little like the man in the photographs – less hair, and what remains is grey, alongside a more seasoned complexion – all of which he can’t help pointing out to me, albeit with a wry smile. That he feels obliged to state the obvious – that a person’s appearance has a tendency to change over a span of 40 years – is not so much because he assumes I might be unaware of this, but rather because any idea one has of Gudmundsson is primarily constructed around his frequent appearances in the works he was producing during the 1960s and 70s. In particular a group of photographs from the latter part of that period, collectively titled Situations – works in which the artist attempts to make himself at home in a series of landscapes or constructed situations, with various tragicomic consequences. Study for Horizon (1975), for example, features Gudmundsson leaning forward, his body stiff as a plank, at a rather improbable 45-degree angle, while in front of him a plank stuck into the sand is ‘doing’ the same. In other works in the series he’s sporting a Plasticine rainbow like a Mohawk on his head (Fairytale, 1979); roped to a post while sailing a toy boat tied to a piece of string (Untitled, 1976); attempting to crawl under a flagstone on a pavement (Event, 1975); or simply setting off a firework on a beach (Celebration, 1976). As with A Project for the Wind, it’s unclear whether the artworks are the photographs, hung in a gallery and witnessed by the audience, or the situations they record, witnessed by no one other than Gudmundsson and the assistants who helped him create the images.
“I have thought a lot about what it is – this desire to create”, Gudmundsson says when asked if making art is a surrogate for socialising. “That has been a big thing that followed me my entire life. It differs. Once I would have said that I make art to get near to others or to communicate with others. But later I would have said my art is more a monologue, not about me, but a statement that you put there, and somebody else comes there and sniffs it – that kind of communication.”
Despite his lonely appearance in the Situations works, the social has certainly played a role in Gudmundsson’s career. During the 1960s he was part of the Súm Group, a collection of artists who, inspired by Fluxus (to whom they were connected via the Icelandic artist Dieter Roth), radicalised (without any concrete agenda) the Icelandic scene. Roth was a particular influence on Gudmundsson, and after the former’s death in 1998, Gudmundsson became part of the Dieter Roth Academy (set up in 2000), a siteless, syllabus-less institution set up by Roth’s (mainly artist) friends, in which students enrol simply by contacting one of its professors.
If it can be hard to pin down where, precisely, the art lies in Gudmundsson’s work, it is equally hard to pin him to a medium. As with the Fluxus artists he admired, the Icelander slips in and out of media – performance, sculpture, photography, drawing and perhaps even, as in A Project for the Wind, all and none at the same time. As if that wasn’t enough, when he turned fifty, Gudmundsson, who had been living and working in Holland for some time, began what would become a successful literary career too. “I got so sick and tired of my own art that I couldn’t see it: I hated it,” he explains. “I was successful and appreciated, but I was totally unhappy. So I moved away from Holland in 1992, packed my studio and moved to Lisbon, where I had never been before, taking nothing that reminded me of my own art.” Along the way he cut his hair and changed his clothes (“I looked like a supergay man”, he recalls), before arriving in the Portuguese capital with nothing of his ‘old life’ apart from a pile of books, a Dutch number plate and his wife. “I was extremely opposed to any kind of taste – taste was my enemy. I bought totally random things to furnish a flat. Then I started writing my first book.” That book, Tabúlarasa (1993), has been followed by two more, Osýnilega Konan (The Invisible Woman) (2000), which was nominated for the Icelandic Literary Prize, and Dýrin í Saigon (The Animals in Saigon) (2010).
“I didn’t choose Portugal”, he insists, going back to that impulsive decision. “Unless you agree an intuition is a choice”, he continues, getting back to his favoured questions of intentionality. In 2007, the artist produced the Hypno series of photographs of performances by volunteers under hypnosis. An elaboration of the Situations series, they feature solitary figures performing imagined actions that are clearly more real to them than to the viewer (who stares, in the case of Hypno: Balloon Flying, 2007, at a woman in casual dress who is gripping the back of a chair while looking downward). “I try to use intuition in everything I do”, the artist continues, plunging back onto the trail of the unconscious consciousness. “In my creative crises I just wait from month to month until creation comes and makes love to me. I’m lazy.” But as is normal with Gudmundsson, things are not as simple as all that.
If the artist fled to Portugal to escape from himself, or perhaps the self that was trapped in the Situations photographs, it set a pattern that would repeat over the next 20 years, to the point that the artist now lives largely in China (making regular trips to Iceland and Holland). His latest novel, The Animals in Saigon, concerns a conversation between the author’s multiple personalities – “they are all psychological elements that I recognise in me”, Gudmundsson insists – a horse who’s a poet, a gay swan, a seagull who can only speak English and a fourteen-year-old girl who’s a philosopher, and is the product of a spontaneously purchased one-way ticket to the city of the title, a place where he didn’t speak a word of the language, and where he wrote in Icelandic for ten months. “I find that extremely important”, the artist says when asked whether his writing relies on an escape from language as much as it relies on language.
When it comes to the difference between writing a novel and making a work of art, he is equally forthright. “It was just like working on the same thing in another medium. It was liberating, and I really didn’t miss the art at all”, he says, recalling the trip to Portugal. “Icelandic culture is originally a literary culture. Not a visual culture and not a musical culture. Music came very late. When we were young, our art had to be poetic. If it was not poetic, it was not art. And I have kept that attitude. Later, when I grew up, I was against meaning. I’m very much afraid of meaning.”
That, perhaps, is rather an extreme position to take. It might be truer to say that Gudmundsson is against the necessity of meaning, preferring a more contingent state of affairs. Pavement, Street (1973), the photograph of a boundary between pavement and street into which a sculpted comma has been placed, is a work in which any distinction in language between sign and referent appears to have utterly collapsed, or at best to be balanced precariously on a rather unstable comma. And yet, as a statement of fact, the work could not be any more direct. And it’s that ability – to create works that are simultaneously both plainspoken and filled with ambiguity – that makes Gudmundsson’s art so fascinating to watch, and so frustrating to define.