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Review by Kremena Nikolova-Fontaine. Photos courtesy of the artist.
As an omen of good fortune, every tourist visiting Iceland is greeted upon arrival by cheerful 24m-high steel sculpture of a stained-glass rainbow at the international airport in Keflavik. The artist is quite well-known in Iceland, but I wonder how many of the foreign visitors know who she is?
Personally, I encountered Rúrí's name in 2003, when her installation “Archive – Endangered Waters” represented Iceland at the 50th Biennale di Venezia and was exhibited for the first time at The National Gallery of Iceland in 2005.
Famous for her socio-political consciousness and thought-provoking concepts on native and global issues since the early '70s, this work is an example of Rúrí's philosophically perceptive but scientifically analytical mind at its zenith.
“Archive – Endangered Waters” is a massive unsettling steel file-system of 52 photographed endangered waterfalls where by pulling the slides, the sound of each waterfall is unleashed, perhaps, to be heard for the last time. (The work can be viewed on the top floor in Hall No4 to the left of the staircase).
The inspiration behind this memorable installation was the construction of the Kárahnjúkar Hydropower Plant, heavily criticized by environmentalists when the project begun in 2002 and was completed in 2009.
Prior to visiting this enormous retrospective of Rúrí's prolific career in the span of 40 years so far, I must admit that I knew very little of her early works and they got me by a pleasant surprise.
Rúrí (b.1951) started her career in 1974 with the performance work “Golden Car” when she destroyed with a sledge-hammer a gold-covered Mercedes with the help of friends and some unknown spectators at the Lækjartorg square in downtown Reykjavík. (Documentation of this act is exhibited on the ground floor in Hall No2 behind the reception desk).
I had seen photos of this performance before, but I was not aware how much aggressive disapproving reaction this simple revolutionary action provoked in the Icelandic society at the time: anonymous threatening calls, a drunk man tried to set the artist on fire, her friends formed a protective wall against an angry crowd, as revealed in the accompanying book of this exhibition and the first comprehensive monograph on the artist (entitled simply “Rúrí”and published by Hatje Cantz, 2011).
From today's point of view, I suspect the “been-there-seen-it-all” audience of 2012 would simply watch, clap and walk away.
In an interview by Christian Schoen from the same book, Rúrí explains that the art scene in Iceland was dominated by abstract expressionist painters at the time who did not welcome experimental art and the younger generation of artists felt dissatisfied, in particular female artists who were underrepresented.
Rúrí was only 23 at the time, a long-haired baby-faced fragile nymph but already a wife and a mother, and I cannot help admiring the courage of this tiny woman to rebel against society and the confidence to bear the weight of social injustice.
Naturally, I asked Rúrí at the organized talk with the artist as part of this exhibition whether the brutal outcome was a conscious scandal. The artist denied such intention and clarified that the attacks did not happen during the performance but much later. Rúrí also added that she is unafraid of criticism but on the opposite, criticism should be welcomed in Iceland.
I rather expected that another daring performance “A Proposition How to Change the Icelandic National Costume to Meet with Modern Icelandic Society” (1974) should have provoked a much angrier reaction, where she protested joining NATO and the American military base in Keflavik by transforming the Icelandic folk dress into an American flag. (The costume is exhibited on the top floor in the lobby between Hall No4 and No3 facing the staircase).
Rúrí commented that the work was, in fact, quite well-received, perhaps, because it was performed in front of a young audience at the University Cinema. The artist joked that today she won't be able to fit into this dress to re-enact the same performance.
As much as I wanted to talk in detail of her diverse less famous but equally interesting works, I couldn't help falling in the trap of emphasizing her already established masterpieces because it is simply not possible to ignore those.
Rúrí might not be a nymph girl anymore, but her drastic change of appearance with shortened boyish hair in austere black suit has the silent confidence of a spiritual person who firmly stands their ground.
“RÚRÍ-Retrospective” runs until May 6, 2012.
The National Gallery of Iceland is located on Fríkirkjuvegur 7, 101 Reykjavík.
Kremena Nikolova-Fontaine – email@example.com
Kremena Nikolova-Fontaine is a passionate collector of art books, dedicating every spare moment to learn more about art while dreaming about having an exhibition of her own. She studied graphic design at the School of Visual Arts in Akureyri from 1999 to 2002. In college she realized that she didn’t want to be a designer or commercial artist but rather an illustrator and writer. At the moment she’s experimenting with her first graphic novel.