“We don´t just see colour. Colour has a psychological effect on us. It can lift us up or drag us down mentally, stir long lost memories of events or places. For this reason colours are such an important tool in the language of visual art and at the same time one of its main research issues.” From J.B. Ransu´s text on the exhibition Dalir og hólar 2014.
Journey through an exhibition. Dalir og hólar 2014 / COLOUR
By Jón B.K. Ransu
Colours are a visible form of measurable frequency, the distribution of light perceived by human eyesight. Electromagnetic waves are transported to the human eye that recognizes colour in a similar way as human ears detect sound from sound waves within a certain scale. This is how Isaac Newton´s revolutionary theory teaches us colour is created. Although accurate, this scientific explanation of colour tells us nothing of colours emotional impression on people. We don´t just see colour. Colour has a psychological effect on us. It can lift us up or drag us down mentally, stir long lost memories of events or places. For this reason colours are such an important tool in the language of visual art and at the same time one of its main research materials.
The artist Birgir Andrésson created a book published in 1991 titled Grænn/Green. The pages of the book contain coloured, squares of uniform green from a scale of green colours. There is a little bit of text underneath each colour patch where the artist records the mix of colour according to the CMYK colour model, as though from a recipe. The coordination of the colours, apart from being within the scale of greens, is marked on each page as “Icelandic colours”. When asked about this conclusion, and what defined “Icelandic colours” Birgir would reply with a smile on his face; “This is only a game. Of course there are no Icelandic colours. Colours are international”. Birgir’s Icelandic colours were nonetheless strongly based on his perception of what he detected in his intimate surroundings. In a way, they were descriptions of environs put forward in the simplest form possible, the perception of their colours. Because places do actually have their own colour scale and if we reminisce about a clearly defined place we may find that our memory has marked it with certain colours. Sprengisandur, Landmannalaugar, Mývatn, those are all places we keep in our minds defined by certain colours.
Project Valleys and Hills-Colour that is located in Dalabyggð in the county of Reykhólar roughly follow such ideas about places and their identifying colours. Colour is taken into consideration as the curators Sólveig Aðalsteinsdóttir and Þóra Sigurðardóttir, have carefully chosen artists that are known for their colour studies and are able to draw us into their research on colour. Five artists participate in the project; their works are spread out over approximately 100 kilometers located in eight different places from Laugar in Sælingsdalur to Skarðstöðvar on Skarðsströnd and Reykhólar beneath Mount Reykjanesfjall. The artists are Bjarki Bragason, Eygló Harðardóttir, Gerd Tinglum, Logi Bjarnason and Tumi Magnússon.
It is important to emphasize the length of distance between the artworks on display, as the journey from place to place is such an important feature in experiencing the works. The space covered by the different locations of the artworks is an identifying feature of the exhibition.
For the artists the journey already began in the autumn of 2013 when they were invited to participate. During spring 2014 the five artists travelled in the countryside, drinking in its colours and history and from that point on began to form ideas for site-specific – or environmental artworks, inspired by the surroundings. The methods used merge with research based art practice where specific subjects are studied through art. The artworks in those cases are a product of clearly defined research that the artist conveys through colour and form. In some cases a lot of research has gone into making the works. But in other cases the artists are guided by their perception and intuition. Whichever approach is used the resulting artworks are site-specific. They belong to the place because they refer to its history and identifying features. The artworks resemble Cairns spread over the countryside where one can pause to contemplate its history and landscapes. They direct us to the secrets of those places, not by telling us what they are, but rather by presenting us with a window to look through. Thus we simultaneously see the places visited through the artworks and the artworks through those same places.
In Sælingsdalur the County Folk Museum of Dalir is located in the basement of Laugar, a secondary education boarding school. The Museum’s collection contains handcrafted objects made by the local people. The Norwegian artist Gerd Tinglum has arranged four artworks among the objects marked by the history of the county. Those are four paintings and four embroidered pictures paired together, titled Um verk /About works. The paintings are made with pigment from the ground that she brought over from Italy and has rubbed on the canvas. They are displayed folded and placed on top of trunks and chests of draws. With her display Gerd highlights the material, the canvas and the pigment. She objectifies the paintings rather than showing them in the form of pictures. The colour rests on the surface of the canvas, but has also sunk through and into the canvas marking it as material. As such we are shown “used paintings” just as the objects in the museum are “used objects”.
Tinglum bought the embroidered pictures at various markets. They are embroidered from designs and are placed next to the paintings. The embroidered pictures are also objects, something one feels one could touch, pick up and fold, like any other piece of textile. Questions about the value of cultural heritage are unavoidable when one studies Gerd Tinglum’s works in connection with the objects in the museum’s collection. How the passage of time influences their value, the emotional value attached to them and last but not least their colours. When we study the colours in Gerd’s works at the museum and put them into context with time, they appear to be “old colours”.
From Laugar the road takes us past Mount Miðfjall that rises in the distance in the shape of a pyramid, bluish green from the grass green ground. At the roots of the mountain we look towards Gilsfjörður where the skies reflected in the sea, intensify the colours and light as though seen at the end of a long tunnel. The destination is Staðarhóll in Saurbær. Staðarhóll farm has been abandoned for some time. It is a historical place in the Westfjords and was inhabited by chiefs and renowned people in centuries past. One of those was, Sturla Þórðarson who is considered to be one of the authors of Sturlunga.
Sturla is one of the subjects of Bjarki Bragason’s photographic work. The photos are hung in three different rooms of the farmhouse. Two of them show empty pages, white and “bare” so to speak. The third photograph shows a sample of text based on an imaginary conversation between the artist, the saga writer and the place. Here one experiences national nostalgia where the script of the saga writer is used as a reference, not only as text but also as a fragment of history. The empty pages represent the lost story, the lost script, only a portion of the story has survived and what remains is frequently out of tune with its prologue and epilogue.
The nostalgia in Logi Bjarnason’s work is related to childhood. His installation, Töfrar – Draumaherbergi /Magic – Dream Room, is put together from simple, primitive drawings and paintings, as well as ready-made objects such as balloons and a ball. During the past century a store was run in Staðarhóll, toys were available amongst other goods. Logi looks back at that time and he also looks for the play present in art, he searches for the magic shared by the toy and the artwork. Colourful pictures and objects are carefully arranged on shelves that earlier may have displayed the dream toys of children. Here the artworks have taken on the role of the toys on the shelves, to draw dreaming eyes back to childhood.
Skarðströnd beach spreads out along Breiðafjörður. In a Nissen hut by Ytri Fagridalur, Bjarki Bragason, Logi Bjarnason and Gerd Tinglum have each arranged a single work of art. In line with his work in Staðarhóll Logi’s work refers to childhood. In this case he conveys memories with a blue glow coming from inside a dust covered Jaguar. For the viewer this is not a specific memory, but the blue glow creates a sense of atmosphere of distance and mystery, the layer of dust only letting a glimpse of the glow through the mat windows.
Gerd Tinglum artwork is titled Reconciliation. Patches of colour are projected on a screen inside the space at the gable end of the Nissen hut, the artist has saved a digital image according to a distinct rhythm. The colours change in accordance with tones sounding in the space. Gerd works with a colour system she has developed and here she connects it to a system of sounds, so that we may possibly see colours in tones just as we hear tones in colours. People actually use the same words to describe colours and sounds. We talk about tones of colours; bright tones and bright colours, deep tones and deep colours, vibrant tones and vibrant colours. Here the surrounding colours resonate in their most variable form both in the ears and eyes of visitors.
Bjarki attempts to emphasize the cultural importance of the place. In a space with a vaulted ceiling a recording of the artists reading rumbles. The reading comes from an article written by Kristján Eldjárn, its subject an important archeological find at Ytri Fagridalur in the year 1965, when the resident farmer dug up what turned out to be the remnants of an ancient heap of rubbish. Bjarki regards the place as a “ready-made form”, even the colours, as “ready-made colours” and by referring to history finds reinforcement. He uses words to magnify the visual and at the same time encourages our imagination to explore the long gone past of Ytri Fagridalur.
Further along Skarðsströnd we reach Skarðshöfn. There we find a floating dock for the boats local farmers use for fishing during summer. Skarðsstöð, an old commercial building that has been abandoned is located here, its walls are windswept and its panes have long since crumbled from the window frames. The surroundings are enchanting. The sea, the mountains and the sky divide the visual aspect and the wind finds its course from the ocean towards the beach before hitting the mountains. This is the scene of Eygló Harðardóttir’s artwork, she utilizes the power of the wind as it blows through abandoned farmhouses and powers a colourful sculpture harnessed on a vertical anemometer axis that the artist has carefully constructed in the centre of the space. Scattered in the space are paintings made using wallpaper mounted on textile for protection from the wind. They are turned away from the windows so they can be seen blowing in the wind outside the building. Eygló has studied the nature of colour and colour theory for a long time and she makes good use of her knowledge. She has also developed great sensitivity for colours in the environment that influences her work. The paintings are made in situ and the environment inspires her choice of colours. Horizontal bands of colours shredded like refracted light that the artist has captured on Skarðsströnd during different times of the day and transferred onto material.
From Skarðshöfn we head back through Saurbær along Gilsfjörður.
In Ólafsdalur we see the handsome school building that housed Iceland’s first agricultural school. The school was run in the valley from 1880-1907. This location is the central point of the exhibition, on the upper floor of the building all five artists show their work, each in a separate space. The artists have researched the place and their ambitious research is reflected in their works.
Eygló Harðardóttir has gone through the history of the building and found a person she dedicates her work to. Her name was Borga and she was a housekeeper. Borga was blind to our world, but is said to have seen light in a world beyond. Eygló represents Borga’s condition with an installation where colour, refraction and brushed silk filter that the artist has painted black, indicate the discrepancy in Borga’s vision and also give her story an abstract form. The viewer perceives the work through his senses rather than being brought to a rational conclusion.
Bjarki’s installation is titled Bilið á milli þess sem vísar og vísað er í /hún sagði / leifar af bindingu handrits / The gap between what refers to and what is referred to/she said/remains of book binding from a script. Text, or an extract from a letter that hangs on a wall refers, as do other works by the artist to thoughts about nostalgia. The arrangment of the work is reminiscent of a collection of archeological finds, a tastful and modest installation where the artist arranges i.a. photographs of fragmented stones he has found in buildings in the vicinity. Not so far from the archeological find at Ytri Fagradalur except for the fact that here we have concrete objects. By the window lie the ruins of the school’s dairy, similliar to the broken fragments and stones photographed by Bjarki. When it comes to colour, we are in this case directed to the lack of colour. These are gray scale photographs and their texture is rough.
Logi looks to the past and spray paints the walls of an old classroom, the forms he paints show the foggy white outlines of a roll of barbed wire. The classroom takes on a fenced off ghostly past, although the colourful paper boats are what catches one’s attention. They are arranged on a table and are modeled on a cluster of stars used for navigation when sailing the seas. The title of the work is Vaggað um aldir alda /Rocking through the ages, and here childhood is not far off in Logi’s mind. The boats are of the type children learn to make. Two paintings of a similar simplicity as the ones he shows at Staðarhóll, point us to the waves of the sea with their blue wavelike shapes. The sea may be a clear blue colour in the mind of a child, but in the world of realistic colour the sea is like a mirror of the past. It only reflects the passing colours from above.
To experience Gerd Tinglum’s artwork Um breytingar /About changes visitors need to sit in a chair at a school desk and turn the pages of a book. Each page in the book is painted with a wide brushstrokes in two layers, one colour on top of another so that the colours blend, each one giving the other colour its trace. On the floor differently coloured pieces of paper are crumpled into balls, as though they were the discarded remnants of unsatisfactory ideas. The chair and the desk turn to face the window so we are offered a view of the colours outside the house. The mossy green slope covered with veils of yellow ochre that stretch towards grey rocks covered by a thin glaze of water from the local brook. In select areas the rough cliffs of Mount Stekkjarhyrna appear almost purple, these spots vary according to the light of the sky. The surroundings directly affect Gerd’s paintings, or bookwork.
In his work Role, Tumi Magnússon looks at the history of the house through layers of paint that have piled up on the walls of one of the rooms. The artist has found four different colours hidden beneath the green walls and he recreates them in a simple minimalistic installation. Two flat screens hang on the walls opposite one another; they each show a single colour. From two speakers the rumbles from a man painting a wall can be heard and the sound moves between two corners. We hear the squeaks from the paint roll, splashes from the paint tray and the sound the paint makes as it clings to the wall. Finally we glimpse the paint roll on the screen and its colour begins to change. The artist is showing us a full size recording of himself painting the wall. The screen appears as a frame that defines a small part of the wall and the performance and simultaneously is a window to the past, while the artist moves along the colours that earlier gave life to the space. We open our eyes and prick up our ears when perceiving the artwork.
In Kóksfjarðarnes a small cluster of houses stands on a hill above the highway. The buildings used to house a cooperative and a bank but now a craftshop is run in one of the buildings. Tumi Magnússon’s artwork Traffic 3, is displayed in a small office-and service space of the former bank and co-op. Videos are shown on three screens, they show trucks driving on the highway. Those are close ups of the sides of the trucks, so there is little background to be seen in the images. The shiny surface colour of the trucks, deep blue or bright red fills the screens and the video is cut so that the cars appear in immediate succession. In context with the local area Tumi creates a strange “Truck society”. The atmosphere becomes heavy and drained. The video is alternatively shown regularly and in reverse so that the acompaning sound when the trucks blast across the screen feels like heavy breathing in the space.
Eygló Harðardóttir’s artwork in Reykhólar is arranged at the local swimming pool. A row of paintings hangs on a string stretched across the pool. The display is suggestive of a goal, and brings to mind ball games such as volleyball. As a result visitors to the pool can enjoy the work in different ways than simply as an artwork on display. The paintings are tiny patches, a single colour is painted on each plastic and textile piece. They create a sound when flapping in the wind and hitting one another. Eygló uses a similar colour palette in Reykhólar as she does in Skarðsstöð and it is easy to make a connection to the colours in the environment.
By the coast at Reykhólar the saltworks factory Norðursalt is located. In its foyer is an artwork titled Aldir um aldir alda, /Ages through ages wave, by Logi Bjarnason. This is the last artwork on the journey through Dalir and Hólar. Plywood bent into the shape of a wave stands on the floor and leans against a wall facing the sea. It is painted with ink, a uniform blue colour, the wood has soaked up the ink making the texture of the wood clearly visible creating a wavy pattern.
The waves work as a mantra that is repeated time and again, as is the nature of the waves of the sea, unlike Electromagnetic waves, the material always returns to its original form. Electromagnetic waves transmitting colours do not abide by the same laws as solid material. They transfer energy without the need for material channels. They are light. And yet, we can immerse ourselves in their light, drink it in with our eyes from a scale we call red, yellow and blue and all the colours appearing in between. This is the mantra of colours, in our case the mantra of “Icelandic colours” that is so apparent in Dalir and Hólar, from Laugar to Skarð and then towards Reykhólar.
Translated by Didda Hjartardóttir Leaman