05 May 2006

Interview with Ólafur Árni Ólafsson & Libia Pérez de Siles de Castro

The Icelandic/Spanish couple Ólafur Árni Ólafsson (born in Reykjavik in 1973) and Libia Pérez de Siles de Castro (born in Madrid in 1971) have been working together since 1996 in socio-political fields of tension. Their installations often react to specific places, deliberately involving the visitor or passer-by. For this exhibition they confront an asylum seeker in Iceland with one of the fundaments of its cultural history, namely Njál´s Saga written in the 13th century.

As a Spanish/Icelandic couple currently living in Rotterdam you seem to be good examples of global citizens. Would you agree?
Ólafur: Well, there are many and different definitions of the concept ‘global citizen’ circling around, which makes it difficult to answer with a simple yes or no.
Libia: I would prefer to call it a ‘citizen of the world’, which some see as a response and an alternative to imposed globalization. I do find that I can identify with the idea of a cosmopolitan citizen, striking roots in the city or place I am in or have been living in, by having a broad and open understanding of heterogeneous and changing identities and a general view on the relationship between local and global matters. Of course, we are a result of the global, economic and political changes over the last 20 years or so. Now I live and work with Ólafur, who is from Iceland, and we live in the Netherlands, which gives us quite a complex heterogeneous background and rich cultural field to work from and deal with in our everyday life. Besides that we often travel and spend periods of time in other places, which gives us a broad understanding of the set of relationships between places, between the local and the global and vice versa. Living this way and having to uphold this way of life is something that is created through an operating globalized structure. You can also say that everybody is a global citizen since everybody is affected by globalization, but the question is: Who is affected, where, why and in what way? How many have a voice to influence global decisionmaking and how many people have access to global technologies? Who is allowed and encouraged to travel anywhere without a problem, and who is criminalized and pursued for doing so, or trying to do so? What you can say is that we have grown into a broad perception of where we belong; that we feel rooted in and disconnected from different places; that we feel at home and not at home in different places; we are migrants and travellers. Reality for us is not being a global citizen or bound to your homelands, as either one or the other, but rather that the homeland has come to be more than one place, and the perception of it has changed — maybe there is sometimes a sense of wanting to find ‘the place’ or of going back to something that is no longer there. Many people feel like this, which raises new questions about the way we live in the world today, ideally creating an awareness of mondiality or worldwideness. Knowing that all is actually connected to everything else and that one place should not be more important per se than another. Knowing that our different global, political and economic decisions are influencing each others’ cultural and social development — not for the profit of all but only the very few. So it would be a positive thing to grow into an awareness reaching beyond national constructed ideas if we want to be open to what is going on and grow and resist sheer homoegenization, to become rich in knowledge of each others’ differences and common grounds and invent new ways and temporary definitions of coexisting in a good way with each other, wherever we are — or not.

What can it mean in our time to be bound to one’s homeland?
Libia: I don’t know. If it means that a big part of myself has been formed and raised within the broad culture of Spain, which already consists of many places and different languages, then maybe I’m bound to that. What I can say is that I have strong ties to family and people I love there and that I follow events, that I often go and work there in order to relate myself to the place. Sometimes I also miss its climate and geography (but tourists do that too). My mother-tongue comes from there, as do my first experiences of growing up. So I would say I carry that heritage in me and that it created or constructed the basis of my persona or identity. I carry in me that landscape. Since I was brought up on the move in very different regions of the country, I had a perception of myself as being at home and yet a guest, i.e.after I remember becoming conscious of something called home. I already perceived ‘the homeland’ as a heterogeneous place that forms and decays like the rest of the world. It was not the unity many pretended it was, but rather a puzzle full of richness and heavy contradictions. I experienced racism and the very end of 40 years of nationalist fascism that sought the creation of the ‘Homeland’ as a united and repressed mess. So I felt bound to it just as to a part of something much bigger, which made the whole ‘Homeland’ thing relative, freer and at times really confronting and complex. But sometimes we miss being in very personal places that we know well; places whose culture and life you’ve known for a long time — its moods and rhythm, its language, jokes, bodies, bones, air, colours, sounds, smells. The place in which you can disappear for a moment within the mass, totally becoming one of the group. It feels perfectly easy and welcoming, something that you really know from within. The present matching with the past, with your memory, giving you a sense of belonging. But the crazy thing is that you could also experience this in a place that is not your ‘homeland’. You could say that this is matching an even older collective memory, a universal memory, Earth´s memory.

And how does Ólafur think about this? Perhaps the boundaries between Icelanders who live abroad and their homeland are stronger because of the geographical isolation, its unique language and small community?
Ólafur: Maybe, but I think it can also be equally difficult or easy for people from large places and non-isolated cultures to move to and live in other places. It is probably more person-related than anything else. I think everyone who goes to live for a longer or shorter time outside her/his homeland is forced to deal with new situations, habits and ideas in some way. Obviously Libia and I are not bound to our homeland in the sense of being stuck to or entirely dependent on it, fortunately neither in thought, emotion nor by law. But we are certainly deeply connected to and influenced by the places we come from. Luckily we were both born, or at least raised, in relatively rich and democratic countries and therefore we have both legal and financial possibilities to travel and live wherever we choose. Not that it is automatically easy, far from it, but it’s a possibility we have and for that we are thankful. We frequently stay for longer or shorter periods in different countries to work on projects and engage ourselves in both a formal and an informal dialogue with a given site and its populace. The fact that we come from different places and live in the multicultural city of Rotterdam very much influences our life and our
perception of life, forcing us to remember that things shouldn’t been taken for granted.

In your work for the HOMESICK show in Akureyri you worked with immigrants in Iceland reading from the famous Njál’s Saga. Can you explain the background to this?
Ólafur: To be exact, for this project we are working with asylum seekers, people who have fled their country and are hoping to get asylum in Iceland — a new home. Njál’s Saga is, as you say, famous and probably the best known of the Icelandic Sagas. With its iconic status it forms a deep part of Iceland’s cultural fabric — what it is to be Icelandic. By asking an asylum seeker to read from this text we want to jump the gap between the unknown and the known, the not-yet-accepted and the very-deeply-accepted or conventional. And with this gesture we want to continue to intervene in reality and put forward for a moment our own possible subjective version of the ongoing collective creation we call reality. Until now, when working with life-storytelling recordings, oral history, we have used real stories from people we already knew and thus contacted. Mainly from migrant workers, refugees and people in the process of asking for asylum (a process some of them have been in for 9 years). We have focused on experiences of displacement, on movement and changes in culture influenced by local and global matters and the relationship between the two. In our last works we started to make a bridge between past and present, like in our work Chapter 3: The Noise of Money, where as a part of the work we presented a mixture of stories from migrant workers living in Iceland, elderly Icelandic inhabitants and a few children. The stories from the older Icelanders were from a shark-hunter and a midwife, both stories going back 50 or 60 years. They told how fishing and hunting and delivering children took place in earlier times and of the changes they had experienced. The migrant workers told of how they came to Iceland, how their lives had been before coming here and how their lives have been in Iceland — and most of them had had experiences with the fishing industry, which they also told of. Maybe the very short stories from the three children form a certain bridge to the work we are doing now for HOMESICK, because the stories they told were three very different versions of Little Red Riding Hood. One was close to the original and the other two were somewhat altered versions, adding for example a maneating ghost. We wanted to continue with this more clearly fictive narration space but still keep it rooted within today’s society and everyday life. Choosing to have Njál’s Saga read by an asylum seeker in Iceland enabled us to reflect on the Saga from a new perspective, as well as giving us the chance to reflect on the issue of asylum seeking and the position of the asylum seeker from a new angle. In this context it is important to note that the Vikings who inhabited Iceland were themselves immigrants, many of them fleeing the growing power and domination of king Haraldur the Fair-haired in Norway. This is something that Icelanders as a nation have been taught to be proud of; that these Vikings chose to migrate and settle in a new place rather than to fight in their homeland or give in to the new power. This has been looked at, from the point of view of Icelanders, as being free spirited and adventure seeking. Another aspect is the legal one. Njál’s Saga tells how Njál repeatedly tries to solve matters by way of law instead of lawlessness. This is an interesting aspect to keep in mind when viewing the fact that now for the first time Iceland is confronted with a situation of migration equal to the one that has been taking place in the rest of Europe since the sixties, and going back as far as the Second World War. So only very recently have adequate laws been developed in the country on the issues of migration and asylum.

Interview with Nevin Aladag

Nevin Aladag was born in Van,Turkey, in 1972 but has lived in Germany since she was two years old. Following the success of her video The Tezcan Family (2001) and the photo series Freeze (2003) and Jump (2004), with Voice Over (2006) she once again turns her attention to young people of Turkish origin in Germany: The fourteen-year-old Turks, who probably grew up in Germany and were socialized here, sing traditional elegies from their ancestors’ homeland. The ardently recited words tell of the loss of the homeland, of eviction, of craving and of nonreciprocated love. A semantic rift immediately opens between what is shown and what is heard, between the streetwise kids in rapper gear and the wise and antiquated.

Nevin, you were born in Turkey and grew up in Germany. Does the question of your own cultural identity play a role for you?
From my point of view we build what we could call cultural identity every day anew. We are exposed to a range of very different cultural influences; what is interesting is the evaluation of this potential.

In your works you trace the existential orientation of individual ethnic groups, mostly of young Turks growing up in Germany. How did it come about that you began to investigate this subject area?
When I was looking for a breakdancer for the video I produced in 1999, The Man Who Jumped Over His Own Shadow, I did most of my research in youth centres and came across a very creative group who, with the exception of one member, all came from very different migratory backgrounds. It fascinated me the way that a common non-verbal language was found in the form of breakdance and that a sense of belonging arose in the group that seemed to give them a footing that they didn’t appear to have found otherwise in society. I did several projects with them that referred to the forms of communication used in this old streetdance tradition and breakdance style and parallels to almost all other dance forms.

In your video Voice Over language also plays an important role alongside music, doesn’t it?
I grew up with music and dance as a means of expressing emotion. Singing sad songs and performing them within the family when you were in that very mood was completely normal for us and, more importantly, nothing to be embarrassed about. With Voice Over I found it all the more interesting the way these two German teenagers with Turkish and Kurdish backgrounds were singing such old and traditional elegies they had learned from their parents. As children we listened and shared in their yearning without making it our own. These particular songs are mostly about persecution and homelessness, and the two teenagers sang them with complete fervour. This made them into a kind of voice for their parents’ woe. Evidently, these songs have a certain relevance for their own situation in Germany.

What do you think is the cause of this new longing?
This new longing consists of a whole range of feelings, starting with a general lack of perspectives and reaching as far as a lack of acceptance within the society they live in. Basically, this is a therapeutic way of venting their suffering.

You are saying that an uncertain future causes people to return to their roots. It was Sartre who once commented that youth is homesick for its future. The statement made by your work, while concentrating on a very specific group within a specific context, can be generalized, can’t it?
I don’t think that a lack of perspectives necessarily has to lead people back to their own roots; it primarily leads to people being in search of something. And of course the statement of my video can be generalized. Not everyone would start singing elegies in that situation or one similar to it. It’s one of many forms of expressing oneself in comparable situations, so it’s merely representative.

Interview with Katrín Sigurðardóttir

Katrín Sigurðardóttir, born in Iceland 1967, currently lives in New York. The artist works with the perception of space, playing with the memories that her sculptures and installations generate within the viewer. She frequently creates miniatures that look like models or toys, such as in Chandelier, which she is showing at this exhibition. The miniatures make a theme out of an unbridgeable distance that is both physical and historical, dealing with personal memories and historical associations.

In Icelandic you have this interesting word ‘heimskur’ meaning ‘stupidity’. When translated literally it describes someone who has never left home. Is it more important for an Icelander to go and spend time abroad? Is it even necessary?
I don’t have an opinion on what is best for Icelanders or what they should do as a group.

But how about you? You were young when you left Iceland to live in the States, but in your work you frequently refer to your home country.
I live in both countries and have done so for about 20 years. My work refers to imaginary places that are neither Iceland nor any other place specifically, but which might take on an appearance that is seemingly familiar. I think it is usually those who are not from Iceland that think my work depicts or deals with Iceland. You only find in the work what you bring to it, which in many instances are fantasies about what an unknown, faraway place might be. I enjoy this trick in the work and I think the whole idea of a home country is a myth.

A myth? Why do you think so?
It is the myth that drives nationalism, the narrative that appeals to the most innate and sentimental parts of us. The place that you belong to and that belongs to you; one of inclusion and exclusion. In very basic language, it’s been used to fuck systematically with the psyche of millions of people through the centuries. You ask why I think this. I think this from having lived in two places my whole adult life and having had multiple opportunities to try out these ideals on my own life. Besides, the writings of many contemporary scholars that I respect do confirm these views. Benjamin Anderson’s Imagined Communities is one good example. Another book that I think speaks beautifully about this subject is Strangers to Ourselves by Julia Kristeva.

How would you define ‘home’?
I don’t define home. At least I am not really concerned with nationality or geographic identity at this point. I wrote my graduate thesis on it, but that was many years 29 ago. Today, these are secondary narratives to more overarching themes of memory and fiction — distance.

Your work examines the alternating effects and notions of place and site. You very often use the ‘miniature’ which confronts the viewer with a toylike effigy of the world.
You are right. I don’t have much to add to your statement, except what the work itself reveals. Memory, fiction, distance — from my point of view that has a lot to do with the idea or construction of ‘home’. What is your interest in broaching the issues of ‘distance’ and ‘memory’? One might say it is a narrative that drives at that which is unattainable, that which is rooted in a past and is heavily interpreted. A place that doesn’t exist.

Interview with Haraldur Jónsson

Haraldur Jónsson was born in 1961 as the son of Icelandic parents in Helsinki and has lived — with interruptions — in Reykjavík since he was three years old. Haraldur is not a formalist. He does not allow himself to be tied to one visual language. He draws and writes. He performs acts and creates photo series and installations. He initiates space-oriented situations spiked with associations that generate sensations within the viewer. His aim is to create a physical rapport via perception on the one hand and via interpretation on the other. But this is never undertaken as a physical frontal attack; it takes place discreetly and subtly. His site-specific installation at the Akureyri Art Museum, Crumbled Darkness, confronts the viewer with a lava field of paper, a monstrous form of void.

‘Psychosomatic sculptures’ is a term you often use to describe your work. Can you explain what it means?
The term indicates a form of interaction between the body and its surroundings — equipping your mind and body with an object or an installation. In a way it’s a state of being both inside and outside the body. It refers to the ‘inter-est’, which literally means ‘being between’. An objective example of a psychosomatic sculpture is a sock or a glove: The moment you turn it inside-out, your relationship to that object changes.

The subjective consciousness seems to be your target. Do you think the roots for this lie in childhood (as you refer to kindergarten, family or home in other works of yours)?
I am quite conscious of the fact that the emotional weather of childhood, along with the diverse structures that surround each and every one of us, shape and condition the way we feel and perceive actual circumstances. This very fact is a bottomless well of inspiration. The multiple layers of memory in different materials open up various physical and sensory possibilities — as well as contradictory associations.

Do you see in this ‘bottomless well of inspiration’ the origin of what we call ‘home’?
The bottomless well is more of a reference to the body, how it registers and reflects experience. The term ‘home’ is a more problematic term. It’s not exactly a particular place or country but an emotional and mental space. It’s where you feel a sense of belonging without having any actual documents or a map to prove it. Or even a common language.

What is your approach toward ‘homesickness’?
The term homesick, or “heimþrá” in Icelandic, evokes diverse emotions. It’s actually a minefield of impressions. Some are closely related to the body as well as to certain places. Being homesick is a psychosomatic state, just like vertigo or the act of blushing for no reason at all. Or simply being petrified all of a sudden. It’s the impossible that envelops the whole. Homesickness is related to claustrophobia. As well as the need to leave one’s own body in order to experience the closeness of the faraway. When your passport is no longer valid. It’s the act of moving the intestines to the outside and into the room itself. It surrounds you on all sides but there is still a possibility to turn your head in the other direction. It’s an empty desert. Homesick is being out of words, absolutely mute. It’s being in a space without translation. Homesickness is an impression out of the blue and a non-verbal blessing in disguise.

Is the landscape-like installation made of black paper with the title Crumbled Darkness, created by you for this exhibition, a formal and psychic visualisation of the mute or the void?
This can be one reading of the work. But the installation is simply what it is. I don’t feel like verbalizing it too much. It’s certainly not an illustration. Black paper has many references and everyone makes their own personal connection. It’s totally soaked in ink, literally, as though everything had been written down and there was nothing more to say. Or something burnt, even an apocalyptic depiction of the formless. It’s up to you.

Do you think Icelanders are more prone to suffer from homesickness than others?
‘Homesickness’ has multiple meanings. It signifies some kind of pain or missing or nostalgia. But it can easily mean the state of being sick of home, when you’ve had enough of it all. The Icelandic word “heimþrá” is related to the adjective “þrár” meaning a stubborn person, but it can also signify old meat that’s no longer good for consumption. I think Icelanders are particularly vulnerable to homesickness. They do stick to this island, but without any obvious passion or reason. They tend
to have a pathetic, even a pathological relation to it. There is a certain kind of obsessive and even incestuous mentality which characterises the Icelandic version of homesickness. That’s the Icelandic syndrome.

Interview with Guy Ben-Ner

Born in 1969 in Ramat-Gan, Guy Ben-Ner is one of Israel’s best-known contemporary artists. In 1996 he graduated in art in Tel Aviv before continuing his studies at Columbia University in New York. His videos frequently refer to different genres of film and television. For his Tree House Kit, which he presented at the 2005 Venice Biennale, he uses a school instruction film. In his video works he mostly plays the protagonist himself, although the rest of his family is also often involved. Berkeley’s Island is an adaptation of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. The desert island consists of a pile of sand and an iconic palm tree stuck in the middle of Ben-Ner’s kitchen. In his video Guy Ben-Ner tackles the opposition between a solipsistic consciousness, that believes that all the world depends on personal perception, and an existential consciousness such as Sartre’s, that believes our sense of self derives from the gaze of the Other.

Several years ago you moved with your family from Israel to New York. Has the city become your new home?
Not really. We had a tough time adjusting — I guess like any family moving to a new place. Meanwhile we’ve made many friends. New York is a monstrous city but it’s a city of foreigners, so you immediately feel at home. And isn’t the following point interesting: You don’t feel like a foreigner when you’re among foreigners? As soon as we’d started to feel more comfortable here I got a grant for Berlin, which means we’ll be moving there soon — and we have no idea where or how we’ll be living once we’re there.

How was your relationship to your home country developing? Do you feel homesick?
Sure I feel homesick. Maybe a bit more friends-sick because I miss my good friends more than anything. Whenever I go back to Israel I realize that it´s no longer my home and that — strangely enough — I don’t feel at home anywhere. Maybe it just takes time to feel at home elsewhere, or maybe this whole concept of ‘feeling at home’ is something I’ll now have to give up. Since I spent the first 31 years of my life there it’s understandable that most of the influences on my work have come from Israeli artists. You may ask me why I left. First of all because we were getting tired of the political situation, of listening to the news every hour, of experiencing social affairs with such a high level of anxiety within the sphere of our private life. Also it was quite simply a question of now or never. It certainly wasn’t a career move. I went to art school in New York just because that was the only way to get a visa for the four of us.

Your family is very often a part of your work — in the sense that they are acting with you. And as in the video Berkeley’s Island your home is the arena for the play. Is the privacy you’re presenting real or metaphoric?
I could say it’s real because this kind of art-making affects all of us in many ways. There’s no studio and the whole process from beginning to end happens in front of the kids etc. So the intimacy you get to see as a viewer is ‘authentic’. On the other hand no reality is real once a camera is directed at it. That’s why I stage a fictive narrative with my family rather than just recounting a family diary. There is a beautiful laconic saying that truth comes in the form of fiction. To stage a play about other people would reveal more about my family’s power structure than if I were to make a confessional video. It’s a play within a play, and when you’ve seen my video you don’t necessarily think about Robinson Crusoe, but rather about the situation of making a home movie.

Nevertheless, this lonely man on an island in the middle of a kitchen is a very strong image. It’s absurd; it recalls the necessity of satisfying primary and secondary needs on the one hand while underlining the lonesomeness of the human being on the other. This is the basis for something you could call ‘my home’, isn’t it?
Sure, to build your own island at home is kind of a private home inside your home, like Robinson Crusoe within the Swiss family Robinson. So it’s not so much about home as about the longing for a private island, which is, after all, a fantasy of the home dweller — a longing for some privacy to meditate about the way one can continue making art; studio work, while surrounded by little kids who call you ‘Dad’. On a different level, it’s the basis of something you can call ‘my country’. Israel is a political and cultural island in the Middle East. And you cannot leave the country by car — only by boat or by plane. That qualifies it as an island for me.