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The Hidden Depths

the work of Steinunn G. Helgadóttir


Installation is a delicate art form, poised at the intersection of the trivial and the absurd, both serious and flippant, light-hearted and earnest. Historically installations relate alternately to the art of teh ready-made as pioneered by Marcel Duchamp or to happenings, as staged by Alan Kaprow, John Cage and others. In fact these approaches are often mixed and ultimately, the definition of an installation lies only in its efficacy. The most effective installations then tend to be those that have a simple and immediate effect on the audience but also allow for more thoughtful scrutiny that uncovers other layers of meaning and raises questions that are relevant to the lives of those that view the artwork.


The installation art of Steinunn G. Helgadóttir combines the different ingredients into environments that appear simple and accessible, often with a strong humorous element, but turn out to hold a complicated and sometimes disturbing symbolic message. Thus, for example, her 1994 installation at Hamarsrétt seems at first to be only an innocent play on the subject of the last supper. Inside an outdoor sheep-pen a long table has been set up with plates on which a stone, vine leaves and a small mirror were placed. There were no performances but every once in a while the sun would be reflected on the mirrors, appearing to send beams of light up into the sky, The scene is peaceful and the table tastefully set, but the location forces us to disturbing conclusions. After all, the sheep-pen is where the lambs are separated from their mothers before being led off to the slaughterhouse. It is the scene of and annual and ultimately violent ritual which in some strange way can be seen to mirror the symbolism of the last supper. The immediate effect of the work is simple and appealing, but on closer inspection the symbolism turns out to hold alarming lessons.


A similar symbolic layering is revealed in the 1994 piece Little Red Riding Hood where a sickbed is fitted out with a small video monitor in the middle of the pillow.On the screen red swirls play and above the bed hans a rough painting of the artist at the age of six. This apparently aesthetic assemblage in fact evokes a personal memory of heifers being transported to the slaughterhouse. As the screen is placed where the little girl´s head would lie on the pillow this image hints at sinister depths in the young mind and associations that most people in the audience will unnerving.


But not all of  Steinunn G. Helgadóttir´s art is quite so alarming and it is certainly not her primary aim to shock or disturb her viewers. Her use of lockers, salvaged from the locker rooms of an abandoned Sweden, shows how she manages to give  even such trivial objects symbolic associations. During an event in 1990 known as "The Night of the Sculptors" five of these lockers stood on the steps of the city hall in Haga in Gothenburg. There they simply waited, as though hoping for someone to find a use for them or waiting to be assigned new duties by the authorities. Roughly man-sized, tall and narrow but also battered by use and somehow forlorn, they elicit the viewers sympathy and prompt one to see their situation as somehow parallel to one´s own. Perhaps we, too are waiting to be filled and given new purpose, used up by life yet hopeful of finding a new role, of being somehow redeemed?


From such existential speculations Steinunn sometimes turns to more direct political statements, as in her recent show in the ASI Art Museum in Reykjavik. In a small room she has placed a chair in front of a television that is tuned to a regular

broadcast of sports and other entertainment. Surrounding this scene are a number of needlepoint samplers, some framed, others not, with the  empty slogans of the Icelandic tourist trade lovingly sewn into them with multicolored thread. From speakers  a composition by Sveinn Lúðvik Björnsson  plays where  the slogans are repeated. The title of the show is "How do you like Iceland?" - the question asked of every foreign visitor in Iceland, part challenge, part a neurotic admission of the Icelander´s insecurity. Here the point of the show lies in the blatant contradictions which define the Icelander´s relationship to their country and the image of itself that the nation constructs. The audience is faced with the challenge of having to belief a number of contradictory statements at once and is confronted by the fact that these statements we have made to define ourselves are all in clear contradiction to our real lives, more aptly illustrated by the easy chair and the monotony of the television broadcast.


One of the strongest characteristics of Steinunn´s art is her subtle use of video in installations. Her videos rarely show any actual action, being most often simple shots of a river or the sky or single scene repeated as in the piece A Meal (The Sisters) where a lame cow repeatedly crosses the same road. The videos are not presented as "video art" but serve as support for or sometimes as replacement for the actual artwork. This last function can be clearly seen in a installation from The Living Art Museum where paintings are hung along with three videos fitted into picture frames and showing arrangements  of flowers and fruit - still life. While these videos are not themselves the pint of each work, they are fully integrated into the context of the artwork. They become simply one more element in the whole, one more color on the artist´s palette.


Steinunn´s works exemplify the freedom that artists have found in what we might call our post-conceptual environment. There are no limits placed on the artist´s  use of objects and the limits separating art from everyday life are rapidly disappearing. In this context many have turned to either a rigid minimalism, imposing their own limits to define art, or to a kind of exuberant ecleticism, revelling in limitless diversity. Avoiding these extremes, Steinunn has defined her own art through subtle poetic visions, choosing to work with the symbolic worlds that can evoked through the innocuous assemblage of everyday objects and images. The threads she works with are fine, often almost immaterial, but the tapestries she weaves of them are always rich and layered with meaning. her work is always surprising, not in its shock value or unusual presentation, but for the unexpected depths that the viewer uncovers in it.


Jón Proppé, art critic at Morgunblaðið

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