The Junk Aesthetic of Hrafnkell Sigurðsson


The Junk Aesthetic of Hrafnkell Sigurðsson

Review by Kremena Nikolova-Fontaine, photos courtesy of the museum and i8 Gallery.

The deadline for this month’s review came during a dry period when most galleries change exhibitions, leaving me only two options to choose from, one of which was “Port City” at Hafnarborg in Hafnarfjörður.

Despite the fact that going to Hafnarfjörður, a small port on the outskirts of the capital region with a cozy atmosphere, is always a delight, I wasn’t overly enthusiastic about the exhibition as the name of the artist, Hrafnkell Sigurðsson (b. 1963), did not immediately ring a bell.

I don't know if its title was inspired by Hafnarfjörður's port, which led me to expect a traditional, nautical, semi-documentary kind of exhibition. A big yawn, in other words. But the awakening reality felt like having coffee splashed in my sleepy face.


“Sides 1” (2012), photographs.

“Port City” is indeed inspired by the shipbuilding industry and a male-dominant environment, but not in a literal way. It is rather like poetry of colorful patches comprised of unrecognizable images of ships' hulls. The industrial atmosphere is unmistakable, but the photographs could have been taken in any steel factory setting.

In fact, I didn't even think of ships without looking at the title and quite liked the comparison with the meditative mystical works of the Russian-American abstract expressionist painter Rothko in the leaflet accompanying the exhibition. Pure abstract heaven!

After enjoying the symphony-for-the-eyes atmosphere of the exhibition, I still didn't recognize Hrafnkell's works from the past.


“Cloth” (2011-2012), textile.

A single click on the website of i8 Gallery, which represents the artist, gave me a eureka moment: “But of course, the tents!”

The striking symbolic minimalism in the subject of man-vs-nature in Hrafnkell’s “Untitled” photographic series from 2000-2001 (not included in this exhibition) of colorful tents in icy unwelcoming landscapes became a popular icon in Iceland after adorning the cover of the National Phone Register a few years ago.

I also recalled having seen Hrafnkell’s video installation “7x7” at the National Gallery of Iceland (also not included in the exhibition) as part of the 2009 Reykjavík Arts Festival, which is a continuation of the symbolic minimalism of the tents.

But this time workers in orange outfits at the Kárahnjúkar Hydropower Plant form a systematic group contrasted against the same harsh icy landscape.

They seem like corporate pawns at war with nature or like alien soldiers lost on earth. In other words, it’s not a friendly relationship between men and nature. Nature seems overpowering, leaving the men in awe.

When I compare Hrafnkell's earlier works with the most recent ones featured in the Hafnarborg exhibition, he evidently continues to be preoccupied with the environment and industrial junk as symbols of our civilization but the approach appears to be different.


The artist, a photo from his website.

Contrary to “Port City”, his past series seem quite literal in the depiction of garbage, as in “Conversion” (2006) and “Uplift” (2009), even though the mirror images of colorful patterns in “Conversion” hold a certain two-dimensional kaleidoscopical beauty, while the excessive mass of the garbage pile in “Uplift” hanging in the air against a dark background has a disturbing sculptural quality.

The double-image effect can be traced back to the series "Mirrored Landscape" (1996) where the rocks in Hrafnkell’s photographs resemble faces of giant creatures and mythological gods.

Perhaps these landscapes were an early inspiration towards explorations of rhythmic compositions, as found in the series "Lids" from “Port City”?


“Lids” (2012), found lids.

“Uplift” reminds me of the textile work “Cloth” (2011-2012) from “Port City”, where Hrafnkell sewed together rugs that had lost their original color, turning them into a muddy-brown flag of oil, paint and dirt as undignified sculpture-sized symbol of a wasteland, created by ignorance and carelessness.

Hrafnkell’s tendency towards simplicity came at a later stage in the aforementioned series of tents and humans in a cold landscape.

The artist’s "Crew" series (2006) of torsos in colorful latex outfits were, perhaps, the stage before his experiments with extreme close-ups proceeding towards total abstraction, as found in the series "Sides" (2012) from “Port City”.

“Port City” made me think of floating garbage islands in the ocean. After I read the statistics that a typical 3,000-passenger cruise ship produces over eight tons of solid waste weekly which ends up in the water, the symphony-for-the-eyes turned into a requiem for the planet.

“Port City” runs until May 28, 2012. Admission is free.

Hafnarborg, the Hafnarfjördur Centre of Culture and Fine Art, is located on Strandgata 34, 220 Hafnarfjörður.

Kremena Nikolova-Fontaine – kremenan (at)

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.

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