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Ólöf Nordal's Skeletons in the Closet of History

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Ólöf Nordal's Skeletons in the Closet of History

Review by Kremena Nikolova-Fontaine. Photos courtesy of the museum.

This month I had four exhibitions in mind to potentially write about. The first one I went to see was Musée Islandique by Ólöf Nordal (b.1961) at the National Gallery of Iceland, and I instantly decided that her peculiar works mixing art, science and Icelandic myths is long overdue to be honored with an art review.

If you are not acquainted with the artist's previous works, you might wrongly assume that the exhibition is merely a historical one because two anthropological collections are juxtaposed: French casts of Icelanders from the time of Napoleon, and another collection of countless samples and measurements carried out by the Icelandic researcher Jens Pálsson (1926-2002) to catalogue the physical characteristics of the Icelandic nation.

olofnordal_bjarnijonsson_(2)Plaster bust of Bjarni Jónsson, cast by Mr. Stahl from a life model, painted by Mr. Froment, 1855.

To the left of the hall, you will encounter aesthetically pleasing photographs of light close-ups against a dark background of classical female and male busts and plaster casts of body parts (hands, limbs, feet and chests).

olofnordal_fridrikagudmundsdottir30_(2)Front of torso, cast of left arm, cast of left leg of Friðrika Guðmundsdóttir, born in Reykjavík, January 28, 1819.

Except for the only painted bust of Bjarni Jónsson (1809-1869), which rather resembles a living person than a sculpture, I would not have suspected that those individuals, reminiscent of Roman patricians, are representatives of different social classes from Icelandic society in 1856–when a French expedition documented the exotic primitive inhabitants of this peripheral island in the north for the anthropological archive of the Musée de L'Homme in Paris.

The collection of 25 casts was later sold to the Museo Canario in the Canary Islands where the artist found it for her post-modernistic investigation in the hidden closets of history.

To the right of the hall, photographed series of collages from Pálsson's catalogues are displayed: notes, hair-samples, fingerprints, eyes, frontal and profile photographs. There is also a screen-projected TV news clip from 1972, showing the scientist at work.

olofnordal_on_04_(2)Das Experiment Island IV, photo 90 x 135 cm. 2012.

At a first glance, I appreciated the historical reference, but having seen many dusty sculptures and documentaries, I couldn't care less whether the subjects are Icelanders or non-Icelanders, and if their location is in Paris, the Canary Islands or the National Gallery of Iceland. At second glance, I acknowledged the professional photography, dramatic dignity of the busts and lyrical arrangements of hair locks.

olofnordal_on_05_(2)Das Experiment Island VIII, photo 35 x 50 cm. 2012.

Knowing Ólöf Nordal's previous artworks, I knew that her conceptual art is neither about artistic “prettiness” nor historical awareness, but everything beyond what the eyes cannot see...

olofnordal_bjorngunlassen_(2)Björn Gunnlaugsson, aged 68, teacher, born at Tannastaðir, Iceland.

I remembered encountering her work for the first time at the opening day of the exhibition Iceland Specimen Collection – Razor-billed Auk, Arctic Skua, Puffin, Arctic Tern, Snipe, Guillemot, Great Black-backed Gull, Thrush in 2005 at Gallery i8, and the experience was similar: Icelandic birds photographed in the clouds, so what?

I couldn't figure out at once what is the fuss of the visiting crowd all about, but then I started noticing that the birds are all white, the artificially blissful background of carefree clouds in contrast with the stiff unnatural aerodynamic position of their bodies (they seem to have been forcefully catapulted forward in the same right-to-left direction rather than casually flying), and I knew that there is something fishy.

It turned out, that those birds are albino samples from Iceland's National History Museum, whose rare appearance is a mystery where science and legends meet. Taking their bodies out of the museum back into the world provides a strange landscape of reality and imagination.

I advise you to check the publication of Gallery i8 about Ólöf's series Iceland Specimen Collection which is available in the gift shop of the National Gallery, where you can also find the brochure of the current exhibition Musée Islandique.

The extensive texts of the latter provide an indispensable insight into the complex veils of history where anthropometry, colonialism, the Icelandic sagas and Nazism blend.Musée Islandique by Ólöf Nordal runs until November 4, 2012.

The National Gallery of Iceland is located on Fríkirkjuvegur 7, 101 Reykjavík.Kremena Nikolova-Fontaine – kremenan (at) gmail.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.

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