Hafnarborg welcomes guests to the exhibition Magic Meeting – A Decade On by the Spanish-Icelandic artist duo and recipients of the Icelandic Art Prize 2021, Libia Castro & Ólafur Ólafsson with the elastic artist-and-activist collective The Magic Team. Looking back, it has now been ten years since the artists’ last solo exhibition at Hafnarborg, where they focused on the Icelandic constitution of 1944, as well as it being a decade since the new constitution of Iceland was written.
The current show is the latest step in their socially engaged and interventionist art practice, continuing their investigation into the merging of art and activism and experimenting with the magic of art and its potential agency as a tool for social transformation. The exhibition’s subject is the constitution that was written in response to the Icelandic public‘s demand for a moral inventory following the financial crisis in 2008, but the project gained international attention for its innovative and democratic approach. On October 20th 2012, the people of the country voted in agreement of the new constitution in a national referendum. As of today, however, the new constitution has not been ratified by the Icelandic Parliament.
Magic Meeting – A Decade On is a follow-up to their latest performance In Search of Magic – A Proposal for a New Constitution for The Republic of Iceland. A durational and collective performance that took place on October 3rd 2020, at the Reykjavík Art Museum, the streets of the city centre, in front of the Prime Minister’s Office and at the public square Austurvöllur, in front of the Parliament House. Libia and Ólafur, in collaboration with Cycle Music and Arts Festival, invited a large group of composers, musicians, artists, civil organizations, activists and members of the public to collectively create a multivocal composition and performance that brought to life all 114 articles of the new proposed Icelandic constitution, written in 2011.
The exhibition’s central piece is a new five-hour video work that captures the polyphonic performance from last year. The work has been edited from video footage and cell phone recordings made by participants documenting the performance, interspersed with archival footage from the era of social unrest in Iceland in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash until today. Another 90-minute version of the film will be televised by RÚV, the national broadcaster, during the exhibition period.
At the exhibition, a porous multimedia environment will expand beyond the walls of the art centre into public space. This environment is comprised of works from their ongoing project on the new constitution, starting in 2017, and works that predate it but inform its foundation and background. Photographs, sketches, videos and drawings documenting the process and their collaborations, from idea to performance, will be on display as well as the monumental text and textile works that were used in the actual performance.
Magic Meeting – A Decade On is an open-ended exhibition. As part of an ongoing movement, the project itself is ever-evolving and the work will be changing over the course of the show. The centre´s ground floor gallery will open a week later as a “work-in-progress” space, with public events like workshops, activist meetings and a place of ongoing research and production of new work. In addition, a symposium is scheduled for mid-May on the topic of the new constitution, similar civil struggles around the world, art and activism. In this multifaceted manner, Libia and Ólafur and The Magic Team will occupy the museum space and transform it into a hub for critical reflection where art meets activism, as their innovative artworks and interventions in the sphere of civil politics and public debate keep on unfolding.
Libia Castro & Ólafur Ólafsson have been in collaboration since 1997 and their work has been exhibited nationally and internationally on many occasions, including the 8th Havana Biennial, Van Abbe Museum, Manifesta 7, the 54th Venice Biennial, CAAC Seville, Kunst-Werke Berlin, 19th Sydney Biennial, Norway´s National Gallery and La Casa Invisible. They work in Reykjavík, Berlin, Rotterdam and Málaga.
Exhibition text by Hanna Styrmisdóttir:
When I walked onto the balcony, open to twenty audience members at a time, over the Reykjavík Art Museum‘s courtyard at half past two on Saturday October 3rd 2020, having just understood as I entered the museum that I would not be an activist in the courtyard, walking among the artists as they performed, but an audience member on the balcony due to Covid; I was struck by the immensity of the scene unfolding as I looked down.
Being, on the one hand, closely acquainted with the complexities and challenges involved in preparing and producing long-duration, large-scale art projects; and on the other, familiar with the intricacies of Libia & Ólafur‘s artistic method, I used my half-hour to absorb, enjoy and grasp as much as possible of the detailed and manifolded action taking place.
When my half-hour was up, I left for a walk and came back to the museum as the artists, activists and other participants in the almost five-hour performance were gathering in the street outside, carrying banners face-up, putting into words for the cameras above the ask of the action: The New Constitution, Please! It took a while to line people and banners up; some had to be turned around; that caused some commotion in the street. A couple of cars were trying to pass and in one of them, a passenger got irritated, stepping outside to shout: Move aside! The people went about their business, exercising their right to freedom of assembly, in masks due to Covid. After we all had passed by, the impatient passenger was on his way.
As I walked in the procession, observing, filming, I had plenty of time to go back in my mind to other works of Libia & Ólafur, to ponder their approach; their freedom in their approach; the tempo and cadence of the movement; action; of their work; the widespread network of collaborations they have built and nurtured over the course of more than two decades.
In Search of Magic is a multi-layered performance project which was years in the making. Libia & Ólafur reached out and invited well over a hundred composers, musicians and visual artists, as well as several activist groups for the Proposal for a new Constitution for the Republic of Iceland, to take part in the making of the performance in a “do-it-together” format. They also worked with and/or received support from several institutions and funds, independently or publicly run; to organise, curate, produce, fund, document, and disseminate the process, performance and five-hour film that resulted, to the public; to make public through art a democratic process that is generated by the public; the writing of a constitution, the structure on which a society is built.
The following account is based on conversations with Libia & Ólafur over many years, in varying intensity with the ebb and flow of working together or meeting as friends. Threads of these many interactions and collaborations were gathered in a conversation hosted by the Iceland University of the Arts in November 2020.[i] It is not an attempt to summarize all of Libia & Ólafur‘s work; but it is an attempt to trace a line through certain ideas, processes and works, to bring to light the many drifts and directions that converge in their practice in general and in this work in particular; the performance In Search of Magic and the exhibition Magic Meeting – A Decade On by Libia Castro & Ólafur Ólafsson with the Magic Team.
While O, Holy Times Thousand (2005) was at the opposite end of In Search of Magic in terms of organisation and scale of collaboration because of its simple DIY structure, it nonetheless carried within it many of the key components that made the later work possible. It is also, on close inspection, very significant in the genealogy of In Search of Magic. The work is based on the Icelandic national anthem, its lyrics rearranged by Libia & Ólafur using a predetermined method.[ii] The anthem, a hymn titled Oh, Our Country‘s God, was premiered in Reykjavík in late summer 1874, in the presence of King Christian IX of Denmark. The first ruling monarch of the country to visit it, he did so with the purpose of presenting the Icelandic people with a constitution. That document, which later came to play a very significant role in Libia & Ólafur‘s trajectory and therefore in this text, was a key milestone in Iceland‘s long struggle for independence.
Unusual among anthems in that it is extremely challenging for the untrained singer to perform, it carries the spirit of the time of its writing and is bound to the thinking, ideology and imagery of the nation state that was being conceived and constructed at the time.[iii] Simultaneously free and structured, O, Holy Times Thousand was performed by opera singer Hrólfur Sæmundsson wandering unannounced into an indoor marketplace. In the filming and making public of the performance, Libia & Ólafur noted a number of things: that the camera performs along with the performer, that poetry has freedom of assembly and retains its core meaning when rearranged; and that working with music, which they did here for the first time, was vital to their practice.[iv] By 2007 they had determined to take the logical step towards the constitution as subject matter.
“Words come first. The constitutional law of nations defines the power to govern them, where that power lies, who holds it, and what limits it. Constitutional law is the supreme law of the land, the structure that everything else rests on. In democracies it is meant to be flexible enough to grow along with the society it serves. Amendment must be possible, but neither too difficult nor too easy. A constitution is a “living document”,[v] a kind of interactive structure that we shape and are shaped by. Constitutions are usually written or amended in turbulent times, at the end of war or revolution, upon the establishment of independent states, or when a society has been so transformed by other factors that a major shift is required.
In late 2007 Libia & Ólafur commissioned the composer Karólína Eiríksdóttir to set the eighty-one articles of the Icelandic constitution to music. The unusual lyrics gave Karólína a free hand in style and compositional method, resulting in a kind of cantata with alternating solo and choral passages. The musical spectrum underscored the legal text, bringing out both its literal meaning and the symbolic meaning of the constitution per se. The complex and layered form that Libia & Ólafur had created for their work accentuated its main import: repeated unveilings of structures.
The work was recorded in a bare television studio. There were no props or scenery, only the studio equipment; lights, recording tools, monitors, and cables; and the artists, film crew, stagehand, performers, composer, recording engineer, script supervisor, curator, sound man, make-up artist, and all the others who popped in and out of the studio that day. The recording made visible the structure of the performance and its setting, lingering on it in unexpected places and for an unusually long time, more as the eye itself does rather than a camera in professional hands. The artists looked for contradictions and unexpected analogies between the structures they examined, revelations that could make us pause and look afresh at what we took for granted.”[vi]
In Libia & Ólafur‘s preparation for their exhibition in the Icelandic Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale 2011, they decided to include a new addition to an ongoing project, Your Country Doesn‘t Exist, which they had started as a campaign in Istanbul almost a decade prior (2001). A live performance on the canals of Venice, filmed shortly before the opening of the pavilion, it lyricized for the first time the words of the campaign[vii] set to music by composer Karólína Eiríksdóttir. An important development took place in Libia & Ólafur‘s performative work in the process; for the first time viewers did not encounter the performance; rather, the performers encountered the people (walking along the canals of Venice) as their gondola moved through the canals of the city, the site of the work. Libia & Ólafur see these as two elements continually in dialogue in their work; portraying and intervening.[viii]
When Libia & Ólafur brought their Venice exhibition to Iceland in early 2012, the matter of a new constitution for Iceland had progressed.[ix] The artists responded to its development in their reinstallation of the exhibition at the National Gallery, including the full text of the Proposal for a New Constitution for the Republic of Iceland. The decision to do so rests in the artists’ approach to their work as a living process that is never in itself complete; a social sculpture that by default responds to and engages with its environment.
That living process which may be likened to agile methodology, where responding to change is prioritized over following a plan, is key to comprehending the kinetic and multi-layered operation at play in the performance In Search of Magic and the exhibition Magic Meeting – A Decade On. It takes as its cue the groundbreaking crowdsourced process followed in the writing of a proposal for a new constitution: a randomly selected forum of almost a thousand people, who together laid the conceptual groundwork on which the Constitutional Council based their work. The purpose was to engage the voice of a cross section of “We, the people who inhabit Iceland” [x]in the constitutional reform.
In this spirit, Libia & Ólafur invited a broad-ranging group of composers, performers, singer-songwriters and artists to work with them in the years-long process that preceded this moment, which they launched in an exhibition project over two editions of the Cycle Music and Art Festival in 2017 and 2018. Within this broad-ranging group of collaborators, the Magic Team, they encouraged a wide range of levels and ways of collaboration in order to „bring the proposal for a new constitution to light, and to the public again, through music and performative means.“[xi] They made the exhibition space the scene of an assembly of voices from within art, activism, philosophy, law, et alia, to reflect on how ideas, like people, like wood, drift from one country to the next, enriching and diversifying the shores they wash onto.
[i] In Conversation: Collaborations in Contemporary Art. Libia Castro & Ólafur Ólafsson, November 30th 2020.
A series of conversations hosted by the Department of Fine Art at the Iceland University of the Arts in autumn 2020 between artists or artists’ collectives and Hanna Styrmisdóttir, Professor of Curatorial Practice. References to this conversation are to direct quotes by and ideas developed by Libia Castro & Ólafur Ólafsson: https://vimeo.com/488236289
[ii] The anthem is a hymn, written ahead of celebrations in 1874 commemorating the millennium of Iceland‘s settlement. In church services held nationwide, pastors were urged to seek inspiration for their sermons in Psalm 90 of the Psalms of David, by decree of the Bishop of Iceland. The poet and pastor Matthías Jochumsson, based in Edinburgh at the time, wrote a hymn inspired by the verses decreed, as well as possibly another source, an anonymously penned 16th century German poem he had previously translated.
[iii] In Conversation: Collaborations in Contemporary Art: https://vimeo.com/488236289
[iv] In Conversation: Collaborations in Contemporary Art: https://vimeo.com/488236289
[v] The Constitution of India, Preface: lawmin.nic.in/coi/coiason29july08.pdf
[vi] The Structure Unveiled, Hanna Styrmisdóttir. Under Deconstruction, ed. Ellen Blumenstein, Sternberg Press, 2011.
[vii] Lyrics to Your Country Doesn’t Exist:
This is an announcement from Libia and Ólafur: Dein Land gibt es nicht, your country does not exist.
Then there are nations without states – the Kurds, for example, are stateless people. There are also people who continue to demand ‘a state of their own’ but live in forms of apartheid backed by big and powerful states. And what about these really big and powerful states whose existence nobody ever questions?
[viii] In Conversation: Collaborations in Contemporary Art: https://vimeo.com/488236289
[ix] When Libia & Ólafur started work on The Constitution, the economic crash in Iceland had not happened and could hardly be foreseen. The subsequent constitutional experiment was not even a remote dream. In the massive social upheaval caused by the crash in 2008 and the Pots and Pans Revolution that ensued, it became clear that change was not only necessary but unavoidable. The uprising led to parliamentary elections and the decision to revise the constitution through a groundbreaking, crowdsourced process: In June 2010, Parliament passed The Act on a Constitutional Assembly which stated that a National Forum of one thousand people, selected by random sampling from the National Population Register with regard to equal division between genders and distribution of participants across the country, would be convened in preparation for elections to a Constitutional Assembly. The purpose of the forum was to engage the voice of the public in the constitutional reform.
[x] A Proposal for a New Constitution for the Republic of Iceland, Preamble: http://www.stjornlagarad.is/other_files/stjornlagarad/Frumvarp-enska.pdf
[xi] In Conversation: Collaborations in Contemporary Art: https://vimeo.com/488236289