"WHO ARE YOUR PEOPLE?"
~ Michael Glasmeier
Ultimately, all complexes associated with fire are painful ones, they can produce neurosis, but they also poeticize, and they represent reversible groups of ideas; one can find Paradise in living fire or in fire at rest; in the flame or in the ashes.
Gaston Bachelard: The Psychoanalysis of Fire.
A consensus of opinion forbids contemporaries to speak for example of flowers or fire. It appears that reflections of this kind strike chords deep within the individual which modern man has succeeded in suppressing almost completely. Sounding them produces a sense of unease, reviving as it does the memory of outdated archetypes of homo faber. In fact, flower and fire images have always been metaphors for the spiritual and immaterial part of man. Literature, mythology, art and religion all display near obsession with flower and fire imagery as a means of describing and suggesting the invisible breath which gives the body life. We can still experience something of this flower and fire magic today at funerals, when the coffin, buried in flowers, is consigned to the flames; as well as in some of the ritual accompanying the festivals of the Church calendar. Otherwise, flowers and fire, especially in the form of crafted wreaths and candles, are simply decorative accessories for a kind of domestic cosiness. "ARE YOU WAITING FOR SOMEONE?"
However, I don't think we can get very far by trying to assign the most recent works of Hulda Hákon to a place under heading "Loss of the Soul" and attempt to understand them as illustrations of the Philosophy and aesthetic of Sarah Kofman, Jean-François Lyotard or Peter Sloterdijk. Hulda Hákon has already progressed a step farther. Her works belong neither to the conventions of a vale of tears school nor to the ivory tower of intellectual aestheticism. Hulda Hákon manages in a quite remarkable way to transform the distance between art and reality, which is what makes art what it is, into a personal style.
Out of this fusion of intimacy and distance into a kind of subjective objectivity arise scenes, images, and riddles of a lightness (Italo Calvino) which is typical of the courage of the story-teller. And thus, in the circular movement so characteristic of thought, we return to the soul. It is actually the story as a series of imagined events and not as self-reflective art, which manifests spirituality. Michael de Certeau characterizes narration as an "Aesthetization of knowing" derived from everyday actions. This is the kind of knowledge we find
in Hulda Hákon, a poetry which originates in ordinary and everyday things, and heightens them, not so that they can be translated into the realm of the sublime, but rather to revel their spirituality. "TO BE INVISIBLE; STAND ASIDE, LOOK IN THE OTHER DIRECTION".
That which ultimately presents itself to the viewer as a work of art is something incredibly vital, a story which captivates him simply through its structure, humanity, colourfulness, unobtrusive irony and craftsmanship. Her works often remind me of the style, methods and delicacy of Carl von Linné (1707-1778), that unsystematic systematiser who lent his observations and knowledge a vital, theatrical form, and regarding whom Osip Mandelstam has written: "I would only like to remind people that the natural scientist (Linné) is a professional narrator, the presenter of new and interesting species." This quotation is completely appropriate for Hulda Hákon. The interesting species are we ourselves, her contemporaries, with our language, our life-style and our way of pushing aside anything which is not immediately useful to us, such as fire and flowers. "TO BE UNDERSTOOOD; SPEAK CLEARLY, USE FACIAL EXPRESSIONS AND BODY-LANGUAGE".
In Hulda Hákon's customary manner, this theme is elaborated as a poetic science at different levels. Images of fire and flowers, actually blossoms and flames, alternate regularly. These are pictures which emphasize colours and detail and take the metaphors of a sea of flames and flowers literally. Their agitated surfaces emerge from the blue shades of white-speckled blossoms and the yellow tending to orange shades of the tips of the flames. When I first saw some of these pictures in the run-down studio in wintry Berlin, where Hulda Hákon had been invited to spend three months, I could actually feel a wind, which was probably the source of the rhythmics of these areas of colour; one senses the heaving movement of these surfaces. The longer I gazed into a picture, the louder the rushing of the wind and the crackling of the fire became. I came to the conclusion that the depiction of individuals of any species on a massive scale automatically leads to one's hearing a rushing sound, to a borderline experience of perception which Michel Serres calls the basic underlying sound of the great story, whose subject in this instance is not only burning, blooming, growth and decay but above all breathing.
Against the ground of this picture gallery of precisely modulated rushing, this treatise on painting, appear single flames and blossoms of the same vividness. Their plastic isolation at ankle-height leads the story back to the telluric level, the sculptures being in fact reminiscent of mysterious guests from far-away planets. They are like strangers who remind us of natives. "IS THERE ANY DANGER?".
The obvious linking of plastic forms and painting can be explained on two time tracks. Either the sculptures have fallen out of the picture and are thus similar to drops of sea water magnified under a microscope, or they want to jump back into the picture and de-materialize themselvers into the mass of co-members of their species. Hulda Hákon gives us no hints, but as always in the works of this artist, there is a third level, that of language. The sentences between the pictures embody the anthropological realm. They are like objets trouvés, accidental finds washed up by the infinite sea of verbal communication. They communicate a message which is comprehensible and which impels the story forward, but they are not meant to engrave a meaning in stone, but rather to draw the one for whom it is told, the viewer, into the play of different ideas and opinions. "THE WONDERFUL, THE EXAGGERATED, THE IMPROBABLE, THE IMPROPER".
However, the viewer is present not only through language, through the possibility of making sentences. He is a part of the whole production. He now makes the picture, as he has been forced to give up his comfortable role as viewer. He is in the picture, which is composed of images, plastic forms and words. He walks through flowers and fire, and his physical movements determine his perception, which in turn determines his thought regarding flowers and fire. And exactly at this moment, he has the possibility of perceiving flowers and fire not only as opposites, as metaphors of longing for a natural condition or to accept them as paradigms of cultural history, but rather to understand himself as the highest expression of complexity, vulnerability and humour. The viewer breathes. That is the art of Hulda Hákon.
~ Halldór Björn Runólfsson, director The National Gallery of Iceland
How much does it take to reconstruct a portrait of a deceased individual; a person who is no longer with us; who virtually attained sainthood as a living legend, a conspicuous hermit and an unpredictable eccentric, and yet the most beloved of all Icelandic artists? An inventory of almost two hundred boxes containing his personal belongings amount to relics, which give us a glimpse of the intimate world of this consummate painter and draughtsman who, after more than thirty years in the grave still manages to keep us puzzled with his original medley of art and life.
A dramatic change in way of life is bound to affect the psychological demeanour of society. Kjarval was of a generation of artists who were born into a rural community where township was virtually nonexistent. When, at the turn of the twentieth century, he left the countryside of north-eastern Iceland and settled in Reykjavik, he was fifteen years old in a town of no more than six to seven thousand inhabitants and by far the biggest town in the country. After moving to Copenhagen in 1912, in order to study art at the Royal Academy Kjarval returned with his family to see Reykjavik having almost tripled in size from the town he had left ten years earlier. As a sign of the change which had taken place was the tearing down of one of the last traditional turf farmhouses in Reykjavik, a year before his return, the paving of the first streets in the center of town and the founding of Reykjavik's Taxi Station, BSR, which soon became Kjarval's favourite cab service. He assumed the habit of taking a taxi to the wilderness, where he would put down his folding easel in middle of a lava field.
After the divorce from his Danish wife, the writer Tove Merrild, shortly after their arrival in Reykjavik, Kjarval often move from one place to another as a nomad, keeping faith with a few main spots, such as a small studio in the center of town and Hotel Borg, the city's main hotel, where every now and then he used to order a room as a regular customer. A person living in several places gets used to preserving only the things that are worth keeping. That which neither has practical nor sentimental value eventually gets discarded. One can assume that the objects found in a few cardboard boxes have been kept there because of their importance to the artist.
It is of course a matter of debate whether a collection of objects and materials can give an accurate picture of its collector; a portrait of a certain kind which might tell us something about the person, its interests, its aims, or habits. It may sound preposterous to equate a person with the things it collected during its lifetime, yet this is what is left when someone leaves. Everyone is remembered according the deeds they committed, which amounts to the things they leave behind. Sooner or later these things tell us more about the person that once was than its poor remains which continue to rot and wither away. Ultimately things collected amount to the person that has passed leaving them behind. Just as we can assume that throughout his life Kjarval kept the things he cherished most, so we keep collections of things which we find worthy of keeping. The longer they are kept the more valuable they become. In the end the oldest thing collected is bound to become the most valuable of the whole inventory.
By writing down the inventory of almost three hundred boxes with things left by Kjarval, Hulda Hákon calls for a mental picture of things surrounding the late artist, yet leaving out a detailed description of the articles. What counts is the poetry of inventory as a recital, allowing language to exert its full power upon reality under the lee from stifling representation, the enemy of myth and metonym. Visualization is the pornography of narration, an attack on imagination while being a drug for those who suffer from lack of it. Between the parameters of uttering, naming and scribbling a portrait is modeled, truer to its original than any possible attempt at rendering its facial expression. This is the truth of things, this abominable addenda to our incomplete existence, these personal belongings which are as futile as our vanity, but still are all that remains after we are gone; relics to the melancholic mourner. Its scribbling is the beginning of bible from a babble, an order from chaos without reification; a score for Conceptual Art amidst blatant redundance.
Small Epiphanies and Minor Wonders
The Art of Hulda Hákon
~ Jón Proppé
From the start of her career, Hulda Hákon has displayed a knack for presenting everyday life as a heroic enterprise, her works commemorating small victories, mishaps or just curious incidents in tableaux, images and text that show them to be, in their small way, quite as dramatic and noteworthy as what has more traditionally been the subject of memorials and monuments. Reliefs and paintings on cut-out board, emblazoned with both images and text, are a large part of her early output and together form a loose narrative of characters and events. We have met the pigeon that ate twenty-one hot dogs and the entire founding membership of the Icelandic Bulldog Association (the dogs, not their owners), in addition to the artist's friends and acquaintances, mythological creatures and wild animals. Less recognizable figures present nameless people facing everyday social situations presented in such a way as to draw some abstract lesson from their predicament. Power dressing, self-doubt and social inhibitions are all addressed as are the ever-present existential conundrums we struggle with every day. Yet from this collection of apparently trivial (or at best private) observations and stories, there emerges a more general critique which applies not only to personal circumstance but extends to social issues and even to immediate political concerns. Hulda Hákon's later work has become increasingly sculptural and she has also exhibited texts without images, works in which the texts themselves have been promoted to the place of the image or sculptural objects.
In Hulda Hákon's early works we can clearly see how they grew out of the various approaches that crowded the new expressionism and new primitivism of the early 1980s. Parallels can be drawn with Jörg Immendorff in Berlin and Jean-Michel Basquiat in New York or with any number of others at the time for whom image and text became interchangeable elements in assemblage and cheap materials offered an accessible and direct way to narrate their message. This approach, however, places great demands on the artist: If the artist's voice is strong enough it will come through clearly but the work will be just a pile of junk if it's too weak. These artists develop a highly personal style even when they work in different media, a style that can seem more like a narrative voice or poetic cadence than a coherently visual approach. Hulda's style is easy to recognize whether the work is moulded in plaster or plastic, assembled from wood or cast in bronze.
Her style is most recognizable, however, in the particular way she combines text and image. Her works have their own distinct idiom, rich in humour, affection and provocation. Most often combining relief images and text, she has presented snapshots from the world in a disarmingly straightforward way; the picture of the dog that ate the Christmas dinner, for example, lists all the ingredients. Her texts are aphoristic, short and thought-provoking. They rarely state a definitive conclusion or purpose – or, if they do, we understand them to be quoted from the real or fictional characters whose presence is suggested by the accompanying images.
These pieces always hover somewhere between narrative and abstraction so they can be approached either as tableaux drawn from life or as an ongoing taxonomy of characters and events. The last association is reinforced by Hulda's recent series showing various marine monsters – inspired by illustrations in old maps – in their named habitats in the Icelandic waters. These works also witness the increasing influence of specifically Icelandic themes, visual images and stories, in Hulda's art, developing into a sort of annals or highly personal history that is very reminiscent of the style of
old Icelandic chronologies written by farmers in often remote areas in an age when news hardly travelled and far-away wars featured less prominently than the death of a neighbour or the birth of a two-headed calf in the next valley. Since ancient times, the pursuit of historical knowledge has been divided into sapentia and eruditio – inspired, overarching narrative on one hand and total immersion in detail on the other – and Icelanders have been hoarders of details and anecdotes above all, their propensities noted already by medieval mainland authors.
The use of text as a signifying component in works of visual art is not itself a modern innovation but it is nonetheless a key to understanding the ways in which modern thought transformed and expanded art's frame of reference and conceptual scope. This is better explained with examples and they abound in modern art from the early twentieth century onwards. For an example of the new visual vocabulary of text we might even go all the way back to the first performance in Paris in 1896 of Alfred Jarry's play Ubu Roi – arguably the moment when Surrealism came into the world – when the spectacle of the entire Polish army marching in the Ukraine was staged by simply putting up a sign saying that the army was there. Dada and Surrealism is still our primary reference for text-based art which forms a traceable line through various artistic disciplines including typographic experimentation, concrete poetry, conceptual art and Fluxus, and most every one of the various formulations of contemporary art.
In the spirit of Surrealism, text can be used to add further layers of abstraction to an artwork, altering its impact by creating a tension between different levels of signification. René Magritte's Ceci n'est pas une pipe (1926) is a schoolbook example of this where text and image appear in contradiction, raising doubts about the veracity of both images and words. Often, such juxtapositions only result in humour and this element has become a very common feature in contemporary art – wry humour that sometimes may strike the viewer as supercilious – but by employing more and more sophisticated rhetoric they can establish a meta-commentary that communicates insights about the art, the artist and the viewer that are beyond the capabilities of images alone. Sometimes this is achieved in the title of a work otherwise focused exclusively on the visual; Gustave Courbet's painting L'Origine du monde (1866), showing a woman's sex, is an example. In Jarry's play the caption entirely replaces all visual staging while in Magritte's painting the text negates our interpretation of the visual image. Marcel Duchamp transformed a urinal bowl into a Fountain in 1917 by naming it and later, in the 1960s, Art & Language was to offer us a pair of monochrome canvases, one with the text 'THIS IS A PAINTING', 'THIS IS NOT A PAINTING' written on the other. These are only five quite straightforward applications of a rhetoric that interweaves text and visual objects and that permits of endless variations and nuance. It has brought us a rich new source of significance in art that operates on many levels, from the theoretical realm of Art & Language or Joseph Kosuth to a more narrative and even poetic style that develops naturally once the novelty wears off and both artists and viewers come to terms with its figures and logic. Hulda Hákon's work is to be read in this context but her command of the poetics of image and text, words and art, sets her apart and in her work she is never content with presenting only a clever juxtaposition, a fresh conundrum. She develops her vocabulary of images, objects and texts precisely in order to move beyond simple abstraction or the play of logic to reveal life as rich and engaging is all its chaotic detail and contradictory significations. In her latest work, she brings her skills to social and political issues with more directness than ever before, perhaps indicating something about her future development, but these works proceed without a break from her earlier work. They show that her voice, as heard through her art, is now strong enough for her to take on ever more challenging subjects without breaking the personal bond she has with her audience.
The French historian and philosopher Michel Foucault devoted first an essay (1968) and later a small book (1973) to Magritte's paintings (there were more than one) of (or not of) his pipe. He suggests for its analysis the metaphor of a calligram that the artist, bringing text and image into conflict, suddenly opens up, 'so that the calligram immediately decomposes and disappears, leaving as a trace only its own absence', causing 'discourse to collapse of its own weight' and allowing 'similitudes, on the other hand, to multiply of themselves, to be born from their own vapor and to rise endlessly into an ether where they refer to nothing more than themselves'. Despite Foucault's airy vocabulary, what he is suggesting here is not a metaphysical transformation but a straightforward rhetorical manoeuvre where the author or artist leaves the interpretation of his work in abeyance, letting its possible conclusions present themselves for the viewer to ponder and expand in light of his or her own experiences and understanding. Similitudes multiplying, born from vapour and rising into the ether, should not be construed as defeat, as the failure of communications or the breakdown of interpretation. Rather, they allow the artists to present his thoughts as an ongoing engagement with the viewer and his world, not a conclusion but a continuing discussion.
Hulda Hákon is not so much concerned with bringing text and image into conflict, teasing out paradoxes to raise questions about the very coherence of the artwork or our systems of signs and reference. Her aphorisms – in images and texts – are short and pithy but they do not leave the reader speechless, hopelessly numbed by the impossibility of resolving the contradictions of the work. Rather, they seem life-affirming, rich not only in the use they make of the material and its presentation, but in the way they present life, individual and social, as an inexhaustible source of small epiphanies, minor wonders and personal yet profound insights. Indeed, we would not be far off in saying that this makes Hulda Hákon no less a poet than a visual artist, a poet with a highly individual style. Yet, the same poetic touch comes through in works that have no text and even in sculptures that are only vaguely figural. Similarly, the visual impact of her work is present even in works that do away with images all together, presenting only the text in shiny burnished brass letters. Either way, each piece reveals a unique perspective on some unexpected aspect of our world, a story, an
image, or a knowing smile.