“The Sun and the Moon are our world, you and I no longer exist, just eternity and our way to the stars.”
Johannes Molzahn, “Das Manifest des absoluten Expressionismus, Der Stum, 1919.
The Universe and its various dimensions, seen and unseen, has been an inspiration to artists throughout history. Scientific and technological developments and discoveries in junction with humankind’s ideas on our own existence have set the imagination on fire. Ideas about the fourth dimension lead us beyond the visible and inspire us to reflect on time and space. Distances, lines, rays of light, polyhedrons, angles, and dice become the manifestations of perceptible volume where mass and force come together.
Our concept of the world is abstract and personal, and marked by both scientific knowledge and perceptible phenomena. In this way, we create our own view of the world, either as a distinct space or as a general entity, aware of our limited capacity to see and sense the big picture. By researching and contemplating matters from different angles, we can perceive philosophy as an experiment in trying to understand reality, and in the same way visual art can be appreciated as a tool for visualizing it.
The exhibition, The World Without Us, brings together the artists Björg Þorsteinsdóttir, Brynhildur Þorgeirsdóttir, Finnur Jónsson, Gerður Helgadóttir, Marta María Jónsdóttir, Ragnar Már Nikulásson, Steina, and Vilhjálmur Þorberg Bergsson. These artist represent different generations and they all work with these concepts in their works even though they approach the subject matter differently and through different media. Their works highlight particular aspects of the universe, whether it is in the immediate environment or in wider context, micro or macro. Thus the various dimensions of the universe are exposed in the quest for continuum and an entity.
In his major work, Critique of Practical Reason, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) states that the starry sky begins with the place one occupies in the world, and widens in relation to “an unbounded extent with worlds upon worlds and systems of systems, and moreover into limitless times of their periodic motion, its beginning and continuance.”
Humankind’s perception of time and space was also a topic of interest to the French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941). He believed that the freedom to think outside the frame of the given resided within the soul of the artist, even though the framework of logic was continuously at play, defining life. To him there was no time without consciousness, and he divided the perception of time in two: a measurable external time, where the perception of time is like a linear process, and a psychological inner time that is grounded in the individual’s experience – duration or la durée, which is a continuous flow of “real time”. His writing on duration and the link to vital force, or Élan vital, resonated particularly with artists of the avant-garde movements in Europe in the beginning of the 20th century, such as the Cubists and Futurists.
Finnur Jónsson (1892-1993) was one of the first Icelandic artists to interpret ideas about the Universe in his works in the nineteen-twenties. In 1919-1925 he studied in Denmark and Germany and was in contact with a group of avant-garde artists in the Der Sturm movement. Finnur’s works from this period are ground breaking in Icelandic art history and display avant-garde influence that he developed with a personal touch. The painting Óður til mánans (Ode to the Moon) from 1925 is a spectacle and the magnetism of the celestial bodies is highlighted with silver and gold, adding an abstract dimension to the work. The shining heavens and ellipse forms reappear in his work from the sixties and seventies, such as in Geimurinn (The Universe) and Halló geimur (Hello Universe) from 1962, and Andromeda from 1975.
Much like in Finnur’s works, the works of sculptor Gerður Helgadóttir (1928-1975) from the nineteen-fifties distinctly allude to dimensions of the cosmos. Ideas about space, form, and volume, and the forces at play in the Universe make up the core of Gerður’s works from this period, as can be seen in delicate drawings and an untitled wire sculpture. The work Oktava from 1958 layers religious references in form and substance. Colourful glass that Gerður sets in her wire sculpture in the work Festing from 1956 send the viewer flying into space.
“I call my art co-biotic dimensions,” says Vilhjálmur Þorberg Bergsson (1938). In his cosmic paintings, where planets, stars, and cell-like forms float in the infinite dimensions of the Universe, Vilhjálmur interprets the connections between various life stages, where light and darkness reveal relationships between larger and smaller worlds in an “unlimited energy bio-space”. Everything from the most miniscule to the most mammoth things in the world becomes Vilhjálmur’s personal imagery, appearing in delicate hues of light and shadow, as can be seen in his recent works, Hringrásakrossmót and Hringrásavog.
In her video works and installations, Steina (1940) uses an angle that seems beyond human perception, where the limits of the medium are constantly being tested to the fullest. She often finds inspiration in the forces of nature, in the interaction of movement and sound. In her work, Sægræn veröld, án okkar / Emerald World, without us, from the series …Of the North, the rotation of a computer animated sphere evokes references to celestial bodies and infinite dimensions that embrace the smallest and finest, microorganisms and crystals if plant cells, to the vast and expansive. The image floats and rotates, the eye sensing the continuously fluctuating pattern of the sphere. At the same time, images of magnificent, distant galaxies and celestial bodies are created, and the vastness, beauty, movement, and cadence of the patterns formed by nature and natural phenomena create a consonance in the rhythm of life.
Prism crystal rocks in the graphic series Óskasteinar from 1986 by Björg Þorsteinsdóttir (1940) hover just above the surface and evoke ideas about meteoroids. The exotic colours, forms, and substance of the rocks refer to the primordial force of creation, transformation, and movements in the heavens.
Brynhildur Þorgeirsdóttir’s (1955) works, Meteors/Geimsteinar, created in 1998 and 1999, combine different forces that refer to both the perceivable mass of concrete and glass and the ideological references to the heavens, as if the meteors had unexpectedly fallen through the atmosphere to Earth. Thus, they form a connection to the Earth all the while pointing out to the solar system where rock and metal drift among asteroids, moons, and comets.
In Marta María Jónsdóttir’s (1974) new work rays, critical points, crystal forms, and floating spheres reach out from the image surface to the unfathomable dimensions and spaces of the heavens, and lead us outside of the familiar and predictable. Vibrant lines and play on distance and proximity, expansion and reduction, evoke a feeling of transformation and creation.
Machine parts, motors, and even out-dated tech components get a new lease on life in the hands of Ragnar Már Nikulásson (1985). He uses unassuming composite tech components, working with sound, light, and movement. Research into the context of things in the past and present refer to philosophies of the avant-garde movement in the early twentieth century regarding space and dimensions. In his work, Trop op 4.0, in collaboration with Darri Úlfsson (1980), Ragnar Már works with a colour cycle, both on film and in print, in order to achieve a visual spatial illusion where light and reflection create vibrant mandala forms on a two dimensional, stationary surface.
Human existence, our smallness in the universe and correlation to the universal systems, is the principal motif in the artwork on display in the exhibition, The World Without Us. Even though there are no humans visible, these works underline how awareness of the diminutive interplay with the most colossal phenomena in space and time, highlighting the current running through the entire chain of life.
Björg Þorsteinsdóttir (1940) graduated as a drawing teacher from the Icelandic College of Arts and Crafts in 1964. She also studied visual communication at the same institution, and painting in The Reykjavik School of Visual Arts. She did a stint at Staatliche Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Stuttgart, and in 1971-1973 she received a grant from the French government to study graphics in Atelier 17 and École Nationale Superieure des Beaux Arts in Paris.
Brynhildur Þorgeirsdóttir (1955) graduated from the Icelandic College of Arts and Crafts in 1978. She attended Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam in 1979-1980, and Orrefors Glass School in Sweden in 1980. She holds an MFA degree from California Collage of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, USA (1982). In 1982, 1998, and 1999 she attended Pilchuck Glass School in Wasington, USA.
Finnur Jónsson (1892–1993) completed an apprenticeship as a goldsmith in 1919 from the vocational college, Iðnsskólinn, in Reykjavik. Additionally, his brother, Ríkharður Jónsson, and Þórarinn B. Þorláksson tutored him in drawing. In Copenhagen he studied draughtsmanship with Viggo Brandt in the sculpture department of Statens Museum for Kunst and with Carl Meier in the Tekniske Selskabs Skole, in addition to taking painting in Olaf Rudes’ school in 1919-1921. Upon moving to Berlin he attended a two-month course in Karl Hofer’s private school. In 1922 he relocated to Dresden, where he attended Academie der Schönen Künste, where one of his tutors was Oscar Kokoschka. In 1922-1925 he attended Der Weg, Schule Für Neue Künst.
Gerður Helgadóttir (1928–1975) studied at the Icelandic College of Arts and Crafts in 1945-1947. She went on to attend Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence, Italy in 1947-1949. She studied in Paris in 1949-1951 at the Académie de la Grande Chaumiére and was privately tutored by the sculptor Ossip Zadkine.
Marta María Jónsdóttir (1974) graduated from the Icelandic College of Arts and Crafts in 1998 and completed her MFA degree from Goldsmiths College, London in 2000. In addition, she studied drawing and animation at London Animation Studio, in Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, completing a Postgraduate Diploma in Character Animation in 2004.
Ragnar Már Nikulásson (1985) holds a BA degree in Visual Communication (2010) and an MA degree in Fine Art (2014) from the Iceland Academy of the Arts.
Steina (1940) lives and works in Sante Fe, USA. She studied Music Theory and trained as a violinist. She received a scholarship from the Czechoslovak Ministry of Culture to study at the State Music Conservatory in Prague in 1959-1964, where she met her husband, Woody Vasulka. Together they have actively developed and been pioneers in the field of video art on a global level. In 1965 they moved to New York and founded The Kitchen in Soho, Manhattan, which was an experimental lab in the field of electronic and new media art.
Vilhjálmur Þorberg Bergsson (1937) received drawing lessons at a young age from Ásgerði Búadóttur. He went on to study fine art in Copenhagen with Mogens Andersen and Jeppe Vontillius at Statens Museum for Kunst in 1958-1960. The following couple of years he attended Académie de la Grande Chaumiére and Académie Notre-Dame des Champs in Paris.