A Private View in Reykjavik
My daughter Boo said “Let’s take a trip to Iceland to celebrate your birthday”. So we did. The first time we went down town to visit the Art Museum we found it hard to find, in a very cold wind that took away one’s concentration. So by the time we arrived it was shut. There’s not a lot of day in Iceland at this time of year: it gets light around 10am and dark by 5pm, so we were surprised it closed so early. However, the next day we got there in good time.
“I can’t sell you a ticket”, said the lady behind the desk, “because the galleries are closed for an Opening.” And indeed, people were wandering about the middle of the ground floor with glasses in their hands. So we crept upstairs, in this clean, functional and rather fine building, and across to a picture window looking out onto the harbour, at the other side. It was very large, with a disconcerting crack at the bottom right hand corner of the glass, as if someone had hurled themselves at the window in a frenzied attempt to get out.
A friendly elderly curator came over to us, and we three chatted for a while, looking out of the window – about the weather, the population of Iceland, and so on. Then he said to Boo “Why don’t you put your rucksack in one of the lockers downstairs: then you can join in.” The lockers were facing the public and free: you just put the key back in when you had retrieved your things. No ‘Security’, as in airports: just informal friendliness.
The Opening now began. We were all welcomed in English. “But now,” said the
speaker, “I must say a few words in Icelandic-” which of course left some of us floundering. Icelandic is apparently (it says here) a fully inflected language, and because it has, with rather more success than the Academie Francaise, resisted absorbing foreign words, there is little for an incomer to latch on to. So the sound of Icelandic rippled on for a while, like the sound of a stream rippling over pebbles, not that you could see the bottom, however. At the end people applauded: I failed to do this, through some vague mimsy fear that I might be endorsing some improbable view or demand, which made me feel mean and discourteous. But at that point the galleries were opened, and we all traipsed upstairs.
The main exhibition seemed to be three or four rooms given over to a young American with an improbable name. One room contained groups of two vertical objects, somewhat modified, leaning in pairs on each of the walls. There was a ski, for instance, a vacuum cleaner, and a skateboard with the face of Bart Simpson on it. In the next room there were vertical video screens each containing a still figure in the upper half, while the lower half contained a moving reflection in water of what was above, quivering and shimmering as you looked at it. Another room held a large video screen playing a loud repeating loop: a basket ball player, seen from behind, bouncing a ball, and then throwing it, jump cut to a frontal view of the player, and then back to the bouncing again
I said to Boo “This seems to be an artist with lots of technical skill and no imagination.” “Hush,” she said, ” He may be just behind you.” I don’t have any objection to conceptual art, but how often does it really grab me? It’s been around a long time now – the R Mutt “Fountain” Man Ray’s |”Gift,” and Meret Oppenheim’s fur-lined tea-cup were early twentieth century, and the business of Art shocking people, or even provoking them, is worn, apart from being extremely difficult nowadays – Goya’s Desastros seem no more than a note on reality.
In another gallery were some very large paintings by Erro, whose work I didn’t know before. I was rather distracted from the pictures themselves by their sheer size.- they went on for yards. Having recently struggled to get two 6 x 4 foot canvasses into the back of my estate car in such a way that I could drive without looking (and feeling) like Houdini doing an escape, I wondered how you could transport them without doing damage. Anyhow, they were blown up versions of smaller collages, also on show, They were homages to particular painters, or groups of painters. The format was constructed of meandering paralell lines, with paintings or bits of paintings in the collages stuck down between these lines, the whole thing then blown up large-size and painted throughout. There was a Miro panel, a Matisse panel and a German Expressionist panel. I share the attraction of making a copy of a painting you particularly like, partly to see how it is done, partly to get to know the work better. Of course it also relieves you of worry, as the outcome is already a fine solution. I did enjoy the panache of these pictures and the manic energy it took to produce so many of them.
When we went downstairs we found that there were no post-cards of these, presumably current, works. The old story with lack of post-cards. I also couldn’t find a postcard of work by Louisa Matthiasdottir, another painter I hadn’t know before, but whose work I had seen in a large heavy monograph in a shop at the National Theatre. There was also a largish painter of hers there, donated by the family, hanging in the gloom of the atrium. To my mind it was the wrong picture: one of her over-simplified Icelandic horse pictures, not one of the intense self-portraits. A few more of her pictures would have brightened the place up.
The post-card problem returned when we got back to London. We went to the British Museum. There used to be a large collection of post-cards as you went in, down a corridor to the left. Now it seemed there was only a very shrunken selection of PCs in part of the rotunda. The PC was and is the foundation of the poor man’s, or stdent’s, art gallery, as well as a little celebration of companionship – as when a gaggle of Italian girls out on a spree would all sign a card to someone – it was cheap, celebratory and joyful.
Here is a suggestion to the Post Office: bring back the cheap rate for post-cards. They are the perfect vehicle for short communication. My old tutor, who could get more words on a card than most, used to say that it was a perfect way of not having to settle down to a serious letter. And the picture is a bonus. There is nothing, in this era of the insubstantial screen image, like a real physical object, delivered by hand. Bring back the cheap PC rate, and see the traffic increase.
But I keep forgetting: the Post Office isn’t ours now. It’s Private.