Do you have to know when the work begins?
Do you have to know when it is over?
Do you have to know when it fails?
Do you have to know who made it?
Do you have to know who owns it?
Do you have to know from what time it is?
Does it have to be found?
Do I have to decide my own work?
Ásta Ólafsdóttir, The Silence That Headed in a New Direction (1980)
How does one preserve an idea? How do museums face the great challenge that is conserving artwork that was possibly never meant to be conserved? What is the afterlife of artworks that revolve around the process rather than the final product—the journey rather than the destination? Are short-lived artworks less important than those who are intended to stand the test of time and are easily conservable? Some of the works in the exhibition have taken a new form after a long period of storage in the museum’s collection and are troublesome to exhibit in their original context. Are they still the same artworks? Should these types of work be conserved as instruction-based art instead of the idea’s material remains?
What unites the works is the use of mundane materials such as cement, leaves and classic Icelandic food. The process and the idea are given greater weight than the object itself as the final artwork. The hand of the artist is not visible. The forces that form the appearance of the work are natural processes, the laws of physics and the steady hands of the women working at Sláturfélag Suðurlands.
DESICCATION raises questions about the afterlife of conceptual artworks and the importance of conservation and preservation.
Skúlptúr by Kristján Guðmundsson (b. 1941) is a piece of blood pudding that has been pickled in whey, a traditional Icelandic dish. A small card has been attached to a pin and stuck into the pudding and reads: “There’s no use running if you’re going the wrong way,“ a quote by the Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen. When exhibited in 1970 it was a part of a group of 26 blood puddings, each with a different quote. It is likely the only piece remaining. They were dispersed around the gallery floor and a sour stench filled the room. After a while the blood pudding desiccated and became petrified. Due to the work’s fragile condition it is impossible to exhibit as it was almost 50 years ago.
Bench #2 is a collaboration by the German artist duo Florian Wojnar (b. 1967) and Nikolai von Rosen (b. 1972). The work was produced for the exhibition CharlieHotelEchoEchoSierraEcho in The Living Art Museum in 2010. The work consists of five sculptures that were cast by pouring water into bags of cement, mixed and allowed to set. The bag embraced the concrete and gave each sculpture a unique appearance. The paper bags were peeled off and voluptuous but lumbering bodies were unveiled and placed on a wooden board, resembling a bench.
Michael Gibbs (b. 1949, d. 2009) exhibited his work Leavings in the Gallery Suðurgata 7 in 1978. Leaves and book pages were scattered on the gallery floor. The title is a play on words referring to leaving something behind and the leaves themselves. Later the artwork was placed in seven plastic bags, each numbered from 1–7. It would be unwise to exhibit Leavings as Gibbs did four decades ago due to the fragile condition of the leaves.
Ásta Ólafsdóttir’s (b. 1948) book is somewhat of a stowaway in the exhibition. Þögnin sem stefndi í nýja átt is not conceptually or materially related to the other works on display but the questions raised in her poetry rhymes with the exhibition’s dilemma. It can also inform the discussion of the objectives of museums and art historical writing.
DESICCATION is curated by Birkir Karlsson and Inga Björk Bjarnadóttir, students in the MA program in art theory at the University of Iceland.