PAVILION NORDICO team member Nele Ruckelshausen interviews curator and Cycle-founder Gudny Gudmundsdottir about her work and the upcoming show ‘Reacción a Islandia’ opening at PAVILION NORDICO on April 10th.

Nele: Hi Gudny. First, could you tell us a bit about yourself and the festival you founded, Cycle? What is it and what drove you to create it?

Gudny: Sure! I’m the artistic director and founder of Cycle, which is a festival for contemporary music and art that’s been taking place in Iceland but also in various locations around the world for about four years now. For example, we had events in Berlin and Hong Kong in the last years. The festival was initiated to be a platform for contemporary music, both electronic and classical and everything in between, and visual art. Basically, we’ve been trying to get artists together and collaborate. As a festival, we have also been collaborating with various institutions, not only in Iceland but also abroad, and most recently the PAVILION NORDICO project here in Buenos Aires. For this exhibition, we’re bringing a research concept that we’ve been working on for many years now into one group exhibition: which is investigating and reflecting on the Icelandic psyche -- finding out more about what and who and why we are and reflecting on our cultural history. The connection to Argentina has provided a very interesting context to work on these questions.

The exhibition is based on a poem by Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges called ‘A Islandia’. How did you come across this work?

It started with very basic research of course. Most people remember that Argentina and Iceland fought in the World Cup last year, and how the Icelandic goalkeeper amazingly held a penalty kick by Messi. That was the first thing I found. But then I started looking into Jorge Luis Borges’ lifelong relationship with Iceland, his fascination with the country, sagas and language. He coined the term “Latin of the North” for the old Icelandic language. He came to a Iceland a few times, and I read the newspaper clippings of it. The poem that came out of ir is very beautiful, very emotional and quite personal. Even though it was written a long time ago it foreshadows a recent evolution of the fascination with Iceland, its creativity and cultural history, that has since spread across the globe. It is a very innocent mystification that lays the groundwork for the stereotypes that Icelanders now, to some extent, are trying to grapple with or push back on. So for the show, we asked the artists participating to investigate and reflect on the perception, history, and reality of Iceland. Tied into this is the country’s reckoning with the Danish colonization, which we are still recovering from. We never really acknowledge the trauma of having been colonized, and still today we only hesitantly construe the history as such. So in the show you also find works that reflect on Nordic colonial history, and the collective historic amnesia about its consequences.

So the show is an attempt by various Icelandic and Scandinavian artists to deal with the discrepancy between the romanticized stereotypes peddled to the many tourists that visit Iceland and the reality of being Icelandic?

Yes, exactly. It’s strange because in some ways these stereotypes are true. We ourselves don’t really know where to draw the line between fiction and reality in our identity. It’s really hard to not succumb to what people expect you to say or do, not to inhabit the stereotype that’s placed on you. For example, there is this famous study that claims that over half of the people in Iceland believe in elves. We don’t! If you look closer at this study, it’s a result of vague suggestive questioning. But when you tell people that actually most Icelanders don’t believe in elves, they are very disappointed. So it feels more comfortable to tell the foreigners that yes, we do believe in elves.

Do you feel that the massive tourism, and the expectation that these tourists bring about Iceland hinders a self-guided identification process of Iceland as a nation?

I think that is the journey that we’ve been on since we gained independence in 1944. We went from being extremely poor to having a lot of money very quickly. We’re still denying the colonial relationship. We’re still trying to find a place in the global context. This journey of finding ourselves is only staring now. It’s like Iceland has been a child for the last 100 years, and now it’s coming into adolescence.

Is this question of identity and self-discovery reflected in a lot of the contemporary art that is coming out of Iceland at the moment?

In the recent past, I think not very many artists have been working consciously about the question of their Icelandic identity but it’s now becoming a more relevant and appropriate subject matter.

Can you talk about one piece of the show as an example for this new wave of Icelandic art?

Yes, I can tell you about these three soaps made by artist Arnar Asgeirsson. For these pieces he took photographs of Nordic runes found on the internet. The stones in the images are old and covered not only in carvings, but also in moss and shadows. He takes these photographs and runs them through a topographic computer program, and the program decides which textures are important about the image and then carves them into these big pieces of soap. So the runes mix with the shadows and moss, and you end up with an unreal rendition of the original artefact. I find that his work is addressing these questions of Nordic identity and identification, and our past with a little bit of humour, seeing that he carves it in soap -- you could just wash it off!

Photography by Dagurke