ART EXHIBIT: 'Into the Tussock'

Hj?lmar Hannesson, Iceland's ambassador to the U.S., will be in Grand Forks on Tuesday evening for the official opening of "Into the Tussock," an exhibit of works by seven contemporary Icelandic artists at the North Dakota Museum of Art.

"Small Goats"
Images from the "Into the Tussock" exhibit include works "Small Goats" by Olöf Nordal

Hjálmar Hannesson, Iceland's ambassador to the U.S., will be in Grand Forks on Tuesday evening for the official opening of "Into the Tussock," an exhibit of works by seven contemporary Icelandic artists at the North Dakota Museum of Art.

Don't expect anything stereotypical from these artists -- Birgir Snæbj'rn Birgisson, Helgi Hjaltalín Eyjólfsson, Helgi Þorgils Friðjónsson, Guðjón Ketilsson, Ol'f Nordal, Finnbogi Pétursson and Katrín Sigurðardóttir -- all of whom are active in the international art world, officials at NDMOA say. There won't be any pictures of volcanoes, watercolors of ice and snow and barren landscapes, or modern-day Viking heirs hunkering down to write their sagas. Instead, this sophisticated lot has sent to North Dakota works steeped in the history of European art.

There's Guðjón Ketilsson's charming relief carvings of all the hats in Bruegel's 1567 painting "Peasant Wedding Feast," and paintings from Birgir Snæbj'rn Birgisson's "Blonde Miss World Series 1951," which Birgisson began in 1951 when the Miss World contest was established.

Birgisson decided to follow the concept of blondness by painting one portrait each year of the winner, "the most beautiful woman in the world." Cookie-cutter-like, the paintings celebrate a bland, commercialized vision of official beauty, a news release about the exhibit said.

Celebrated sound artist Finnbogi Pétursson has created a new work for North Dakota. Pétursson often uses implements that produce electronic or acoustic sound, such as loudspeakers, wires and instruments, to form sculptures. For example, in the 2001 Venice Biennale, the artist built a monumental sound tunnel that incorporated a pipe organ of the artist's own making. As visitors walked through, they were greeted with a tone that resonated, a dark sound known as the diabolus. It was banned by the Catholic Church in medieval times for its supposed devilish and disordering qualities. To create the diabolus, Pétursson mixed contemporary electronics with the centuries-old organ pipe to essentially un-censor a sound once forbidden in the Church, whose seat had been in Venice.


North Dakota Museum of Art says all it knows about Pétursson's new piece is that it is small enough to travel to several sites in North Dakota, northwestern Minnesota and Manitoba. Size matters in this exhibit organized by NDMOA in collaboration with the North Dakota Council on the Arts in order to assure that audiences from across the region could see today's Icelandic art.

Additional support to fund the five North Dakota sites, and the Minnesota and Canadian tour, came from the Icelandic Foreign Ministry, Eimskip (Iceland's oldest shipping company), The American-Scandinavian Foundation and MetLife Foundation.

Iceland has always existed on the edge of Europe, where as great cathedrals were being built, the Icelanders were writing their sagas. Literature came to dominate cultural life and still does as Iceland is rich with writers and publishing houses, the news release said.

This instinct for storytelling appears in the work Ol'f Nordal with her Iceland Specimen Collection. Three photographs of wax figures, "Son and Father," "Daughter and Father" and "Father and Son," are inspired by a legend about a man who, when crossing a mountain, came across the body of a young man left behind by a receding glacier. As the man inspected the perfectly preserved body, it occured to him that he was looking at the remains of his own father who had disappeared before he was born. So father and son met for the first time, the son in his late 60s, his father a little older than 20.

Human beings are captured in wax but rare birds are killed and stuffed in order to create natural and cultural artifacts. Nordal's work, "Iceland Specimen Collection - Great Auk," is two photographs from The Natural History Collection of Iceland. One shows a stuffed example of the extinct Great Auk, bought at an auction abroad on behalf of the Icelandic people.

The rare object was "returned" home at the same time as precious manuscripts were generously given to Icelandic authorities by the Danish monarchy. The other photograph shows an artificial or man-made surrogate of the "real" bird, made domestically before the nation owned a specimen of the great "Icelandic" bird. The replica, made from the skin of several cliff birds, is obviously misshapen: the taxidermist's effort hampered by the fact that the original bird was long extinct.

The exhibition was co-curated by NDMOA executive director and chief curator Laurel Reuter and Icelandic artist Helgi Þorgils Friðjónsson. Reuter visited many artist studios in Iceland over the past four years. She ultimately invited Friðjónsson to join her as co-curator because of the singular "Icelandic-ness" of his painting. He also has been long involved in organizing exhibitions of both Icelandic and international artists for his own Corridor Gallery, housed in his home in Reykjavik since 1979 "to open up a door to art which would not otherwise be seen in Iceland." Friðjónsson, whose work is in the show, is one of Iceland's most celebrated contemporary painters.

Building things with one's own hands is still close to people in seemingly isolated places such as Iceland and North Dakota. Katrín Sigurðardóttir and Helgi Hjaltalín Eyjólfsson, like Guðjón Ketilsson, fabricate and build their art. Sigurðardóttir is known for constructing landscapes in shipping crates which she simply folds up and sends off to the next exhibition. The landscapes, while not identified as Iceland, certainly suggest her home place.


Eyjólfsson, on the other hand, defines the rudiments of interior landscapes from rough building lumber. The housing for a grandfather's clock has no mechanism. Wainscoting wraps a nonexistent room. A slice from a tree suggests one could count rings and thus calculate the age of the tree -- except he wrapped a core with layers of veneer, around and around, adding ring after artificial ring until it measured 39 inches in diameter.

For this exhibition Eyjólfsson is creating a new work in the Museum galleries. The artist lives near the Atlantic where the horizontal lines of the water and sand dunes are broken only by a tall pole that stands on the shore close to his home. He uses the pole as a pedestal for mounting smaller objects. He is building such a pole in the Museum galleries, this time for mounting watercolors.

The exhibit's opening celebration will begin at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at the museum with Ambassador Hannesson official opening at 6 p.m., after which Birgisson, Nordal, Friðjónsson and Eyjólfsson will give informal gallery talks.

The opening will be followed at 7 p.m. by the first of the museum's Summer Concerts in the Garden, featuring the North River Ramblers.

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