by Peter Osborne, director of Osborne Samuel, London
I have known the Icelandic artist Steinunn Thorarinsdottir for many years and we carry on a constant dialogue about her work and the various projects and exhibitions that she is undertaking around the world. I do not yet know Iceland, more’s the pity, as I feel sure that to understand her remote, barren and geologically complex homeland would lead to a more profound personal connection with her work and its gestation. Her sculptures are rooted in that chilly and wind swept island and although they can be seen all over the world in different contexts and locations they seem to emanate from deep down in the volatile, volcanic substrata of her own country.
Steinunn’s site specific installation for Katonah sculpture garden creates a dialogue between the rough, cast iron figures and the massive Norwegian spruce trees in the garden. The eleven figures are interspersed with the trees and there is an evident resonance between the rich ochre tones of the tree trunks and the earthy tones of the cast iron figures. Both are anchored firmly to the ground but notice the angle of the figures, they are precarious, solidly founded yet leaning forward just as a tree might bend before the wind. The horizontal glass inserts are a mirror but also a window into the figures. It is a strange and oddly disconcerting device as if the glass pierces the figures and we can look into their souls. Visually this is stunning as the glass shards reflect the light and provide a thrilling counterpoint to the coarse ruggedness of the cast iron.
This work recalls another striking cast iron sculpture called ‘Earth’. Here the figure is more evidently rooted in the soil, only the upper body is seen, the head tilted back, surrounded by the fallen leaves of the forest floor. Although Steinunn also uses aluminium casting to great effect there is a significant difference in the treatments. Iron ages and weathers in a remarkable way, rust is a natural patina and the way the colour changes and evolves connects the work to its natural environment. The Katonah sculptures will evolve over time, and change in texture and hue depending on the weather and the season.
Although figurative her forms have an amorphous quality, a deliberate lack of definition that is emphasized by her choice of materials and the sand casting method that she often employs. They have an anonymous quality, magical alchemical creations that she infuses with life, humanises and sets forth to take their place in the landscape. We, the viewers, respond to this in a way that we cannot with two dimensional works. We are, to an extent, participators in sculpture, which is necessarily confrontational and provocatively challenging to our senses. We should and do engage in a private discourse with such figurative sculpture. Steinunn approves and indeed encourages this interaction. A personal, often tactile, response perhaps serves to confirm to the artist that her creation is vitally charged and not lifeless.
The particular spatial quality of a location defines our relationship to a sculpture and the context in which we perceive it. Steinunn recently made an exceptional work that spans two countries. The original concept was for a shoreline sculpture to commemorate British fishermen who died off the Icelandic coast. It so happens that some thirty years ago the British and Icelandic navies went toe to toe over fishing rights in the turbulent seas of the North Atlantic, so typically she saw the bigger picture and envisioned a companion sculpture on the English coast, each a giant figure tilting out across the vast and turbulent seas that separate England from Iceland. These spectacular figures are now installed and serve to emphasise the power of sculpture to connect, an invisible thread that links the two works and the two countries.
I once asked the great English sculptor Lynn Chadwick what, in a word, defined his art and he simply replied, “Location”. I also recall sitting with Henry Moore as a team of technicians were siting a monumental bronze reclining figure on the slope of a hill on the edge of his property. For him the sculpture did not fully exist, was not a complete work of art, until the exact position was reached. Great sculpture should and does radically alter its immediate surroundings, often provocatively.
Moore and Chadwick also taught me a lot about the inherent tension that is fundamental to all great sculpture. Both artists were obsessed by this and experimented endlessly with the tiniest anatomical variations . This is well illustrated by the interaction of figures, how the slightest change to the tilt of a head can completely alter the dynamic tension of a work, how it is impossible to make a group of figures without creating an interdependent force field that is utterly dependent on the precise juxtaposition of the elements.
Sculpture can be aloof, statuesque in an overbearing and often grandiose way. Steinunn’s figures are more modest in their bearing, they are dignified, proud, perhaps defiant but not oppressive. Evidently one can see in her work her Northern roots, the bleak, rugged volcanic environment, the toughness and stand-alone independence of remote islanders, and indeed the material she uses do underline this; raw, base metals, and a roughness of texture.
For all this for me her work is intimate, inclusive, her sculptures have a generosity of spirit that defy the harsh materials that she uses. Her figures, even if they are life-casts are not especially life-like. They represent mankind in a general sense, the necessary tension comes from the turn of the head, the twist of the body, the drop of the arms. Her figures speak of the frailty of us all. They invite the spectator to be part of an unspoken dialogue that makes us ask questions of ourselves and our place in the world, they are thoughtful, contemplative, introspective. There is a tranquility, a non aggressive posture, the hands often turned outwards in a supplicant gesture. They are of their world and to walk amongst the Katonah figures is to step into that world. Perhaps by engaging with these works we humbly learn more about ourselves.
The Privacy of Emotion
by Eiríkur Thorláksson, art historian
Steinunn Thórarinsdóttir (b.1955) came on to the art scene in Iceland in the early eighties after studies in England and Italy - and thus unaffected by the tumultuous times in the Icelandic art world in the preceding years - she soon struck a cord that has been the foundation of her art ever since: her work was figurative (and thus almost revolutionary at the time), and the themes she focused on were simple enough: the human condition in all its complexity.
The human figure has been the measure of all things in art from the beginning of history, and in the shadow of the giants of art history it takes considerable courage to select the path of figuration in our times and present something new, something personal, something in which others may feel the intensity of expression on their own in a new and surprising way. Such is the nature of the works that Thórarinsdóttir exhibits to the world in all their complex nature and yet through an almost spartan simplicity of materials.
Some critics have noted that Thórarinsdóttir’s mostly asexual figures, be they whole or ‘broken’, seem to convey an eerie atmosphere of loneliness, isolation or even sadness; others have seen the same works as monuments to meditation, dignity and peace within an individual at ease with himself. However, such analysis only scratches the surface of her works, but that is exactly where all shared interpretation comes to a stop: we can share views on what we see, but the figures give nothing away of what rest within. They do not share their inner life with the audience; they maintain a very human privacy of emotion, that we both feel bound to honour and align ourselves with. The featureless nature of the figures has further increased this feeling of representation; that these figures, in all their anonymity, do not define a him or a her, but us. The titles that Thórarinsdóttir has selected for her works reflect her great interest in the human condition. These include Spell (1985), Influence (1987), Vision (1989), Day and Night (1996), Equilibrium (1997), Reflection (1998), Calling (2000), Earth (2001), Illumination (2003), Being there (2004) and Journey (2005), just to name a few important works from her illustrious career. It is a testament to the appeal of her works is that she has been commissioned to create an alterpjece for a protestant church, a memorial to Catholic nuns, memorials for fishermen in Iceland and abroad (the latest of which is a work in two parts being unveiled in Hull, England, and Vík, Iceland, in the summer of 2006). She has held a number of private exhibitions in Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Italy, the U.S.A. and Canada, and taken part in group exhibitions in a number of additional countries, even as far away as Japan and Australia; she has also received numerous awards for her art and her works are found in public and private collections all over the world. Steinunn Thórarinsdóttir thus overcame adversity by positive creation - a hallmark of her career.
by Laura Peturson, curator, Canada. Exhibition in Odon Wagner Gallery, 2006
In the national mythos of Canada, the “Idea of North” has long been associated with mysticism, solitude and transfiguration. It is woven into the fibre of our cultural heritage through the works of Al Purdy, Herman Voaden, Northrop Frye and so many others. The northern spirit is sometimes a deliberate construction put forth to unify our sense of unique identity and assert our separateness. The inherent metaphor of the North as Other, aligns it closely with spirituality, psychology and the sublime. It was a group of Scandinavian paintings in a 1913 Buffalo, NY exhibition, which inspired Lawren Harris and J.E.H. Macdonald to aim at capturing the experience of what Macdonald called “the mythic north”.
This exhibition by Icelander Steinunn Thorarinsdottir, presents us with a group of sculptures that are varied in size, material, and construction. Despite this variation, Steinunn’s oeuvre has a remarkable cohesiveness, demonstrating the deliberateness of her aesthetic decisions, all of which service the interconnectedness of her individual works. The sculptures reflect a northern sensibility, and approach themes of spirituality, introspection and physicality in new and surprising ways. Thorarinsdottir uses representations of the figure to evoke a sense of the sublime that is tied to both our sense of being in the world and our sense of identity within.
“Position II” is a small aluminum sculpture where one figure stands upon another, and both are reflected back in the mirrored steel, which serves as a base. One cannot help but think of Brancusi’s “Endless Column” where repeating rhombus forms ascend to suggest infinity. The representation of figures in Steinunn’s sculpture, juxtaposes the suggestion of eternity with something finite and real. The body is the territory of human experience. What is common to everyone regardless of age, gender, or race, is the fact that we all have a body. It’s a form we all share and each of us has a unique experience with one. In Steinunn’s work, the representation of the body ensures us that we ourselves, have an integral part to play in the sublime.
“Dawn” is a life cast, made from a mold taken off a living subject. Because the life cast is essentially a shell, the surface or outer layer of the sculpture is paramount. Steinunn does not build up an anatomical body where the exterior is an expression of the underlying forms. The technique of life casting emphasizes surfaces in order to create a visual effect associated with skin, boundaries and delineation between inner and outer space. The dichotomy of inner and outer space recurs in all of Steinunn’s work, whether cast from life or hand modeled. The narratives unfolding within her figures are mysterious. Instead of revealing an individual psychology or human drama, Steinunn offers up an archetype, in which the figure stands in for a broader whole. Even when they are made from imprints of an actual person, the artist transforms the model into an emblem for humankind.
There is a strong relationship between the artist’s method and her message. She makes use of a process called sand-casting, which is ideally suited to images without fine detail. The process allows her to repeat the same image in different materials, each of which has symbolic significance. For example, “Gate” is cast in iron with glass, while “Morning II” depicts the same figure cast in bronze. The change of material and context imbues the two pieces with different sensibilities and meanings. “Places”, features two figures cast from the same mold, one in aluminum and the other in iron. For Steininn, aluminum represents the sky, while cast iron represents the earth. By casting the twin sculptures in different materials, she asserts the individuality of each figure, while maintaining a symmetrical visual harmony. There is a striking contrast between the rusty patina of the iron, which evolves and changes throughout the sculpture’s life, and the reflective brilliance of the aluminum. In this way, the artist takes full advantage of the potential for multiplicity that is unique to the sculptural casting process.
As important to Steinunn’s work as the objects themselves, are the spaces that they occupy. The artist consciously activates the space and uses it to define the way we engage with the sculptures. Essentially, the artist has two distinct ways of utilizing these spatial qualities. In the life-sized works, one cannot help but be aware of the fact that the sculpture occupies the same space as the viewer. When she changes the scale in works such as “Vision” or “Position”, the viewer is afforded a contemplative distance. In a sense, this sculptural convention parallels the use of perspective in painting, where the viewer is given a privileged vantage point in the case of a low horizon, as compared with the humanist tradition of equating the viewer’s own eye to the vanishing point. These are ways in which the artist determines the situation, and defines the way we perceive the artwork in relation to ourselves.
Thorarinsdottir’s sculptures invite us to walk amongst them, as both active participants and reflective observers. Their quiet mysticism has the power to move us, while their raw physicality has the ability to inspire awe. Like Iceland itself, the sculptures have a rugged beauty, and possess the strength of an authentic northern spirit. They are both resonant of their surroundings and deeply introspective. It is a kind of inward searching that her sculptures invite the viewer to partake in. Glenn Gould suggested that we go north not to inflict change upon the unknown, but to emerge from the experience ourselves changed.
Professor of Film and Literature, University of Turin, Italy
“There are two sculptures by Steinunn that seem to me to be especially typical for her poetic and artistic creation, both as fully formed pieces of art and the source for new ideas in her career: “Being there” from 1986 and “Wait” from 1987.
The former piece, which is supported by a cold and elegant structure, incorporates pieces of the human body; feet, part of the chest with a drooping head, hanging forearms. In the latter piece we see an iron structure, that implies a sitting human being, but on it there is only a suggestion of a shoulder and a human head with pieces of a face that remind us of a mask, as if there was active disintergration of the human being taking place both in it´s body and face.
When man has thus been reduced to such fossilised or archeological remains, what in fact is it that actually survives? And what is the story that these remains would like to tell us?
In other works that follow, man returns again and again in complete forms of the body. But it is a body that seems like a cast, cast in it´s own mold. Formed into a shape that does not imply death, but gives completely the opposite, a feeling that suggests life, even though it is frozen in it´s form. This is a feeling that on the one hand protects us with the massiveness of the body, but is on the other hand a puzzle that needs to be solved. As if the disintergration of the body parts, that the works show does not reach the heart, which is the source of feeling.
Therefore Steinunn´s works are neither “cold” nor “conceptual” but “warm” and full of strong human passion. For me she has not isolated herself within the easy solution that we often see in the stereotypic pictures of solitude, non-communication and alienation of the human being towards himself and his surroundings.
For me her works are a raw and forceful illumination of the feelings that are within our body but she also finds in it the prison walls that long for freedom. Something that we see happen in the clever work “Aura” from 1990. This is very important for our understanding and emotional life in the present age, where it seems that in the tension filled relationship between body and feeling, the body has managed to sedate and disengage feelings. The result of this is dramatic; the loss of the original and true being that in the end gives our life and the universe real meaning.
I do not know if people have seen these characteristics in Steinunn´s works. I find in them the foreboding and the expression that are sure signs of true art”.
curator, art historian, critic
“Steinunn uses life casts consciously in her works. She casts alternatively in cast iron, aluminium or cement as well as using clay and glass. Her casts are not made for the purpose of imitating the subject as if making a copy of the original, but rather her method to show the theatrical in art, show the playfulness as such. In that sense her works reflect common humanity that stands apart from time. Steinunn thus seems untouched by the superficial search of novelty for novelty´s sake, that so often characterizes contemporary art.”
former Director of Malmö Konsthall, presently Director of the Nordic Watercolour Museum, Sweden.
“Steinunn Thorarinsdóttir´s works are a personal interpretation of the nature of Iceland and it´s narrative tradition as well as her own reflections of our contemporary society. With precision, they visualize the alienation and the problems we face in our present age. Thus, they are human in the fullest sense of the word.
It is not the aim of art to present perfect answers and solutions; it´s strength lies in making us reflect and becoming aware and it can touch something deep down in ourselves. When art succeeds, it achieves something important”.
director of “Sculpture by the Sea” in Australia.
“Steinunn´s figurative work slowly but immediately draws one into the mood of the subject, in turn provoking reflection. The silent strength of her work impresses with a subtle yet strongly powerful emotional pull on the viewer. Subtle and silent, strong and soft, her work is sculptural poetry”.