In recent years, the sculptures and installations of Icelandic artist Katrín Sigurdardóttir have been shown widely. Years before she achieved international acclaim, she was a student at the San Francisco Art Institute, earning her BFA in 1990 — and now she’s returning with Metamorphic, on view May 11–September 16 at SFAI. Here, she discusses her work with the curator and writer Constance Lewallen, who has long followed her career.
Constance Lewallen: Katrin, I would like to ask you about your show that’s opening at the San Francisco Art Institute. It’s a kind of homecoming because you were a student at the Art Institute. What dates were you there?
Katrín Sigurdardóttir: I came originally as an exchange student from Iceland in 1988 and I ended up transferring to the Art Institute and graduating in 1990.
CL: It was a time when there were a lot of students from your country, as I recall. What drew you here?
KS: Like many students from Iceland, I went abroad to further my studies. It was kind of a coincidence or serendipity that I ended up in San Francisco and not in another place.
CL: Do you think that your studies at the Art Institute really informed the work that you’ve been doing ever since? Was it a fruitful experience for you?
KS: I remember feeling when I graduated, that everything that I knew had been taken apart. Maybe that partially had to do with coming from a different country and being in a new city, in a new environment. But perhaps this is one of the best things that can happen when you go to school. Often students come into art school with a certainty about what they know, and thinking of school only as a place to put into effect something that they are very sure of. I guess the older I get, the less secure I am of any knowledge that I have. And maybe that is exactly the sign of youth, to be very certain about what you know.
And so, going to school and ending up with one’s system of values deconstructed might be a very good thing. I could almost say that upon leaving the Art Institute I was ready to begin to put myself together as an artist. My years there were almost like raking the soil so that you can actually start to make something grow. I was not an artist that came out of art school, particularly not out of my undergraduate studies, with a clear sense of who I was. In fact, I tend to be suspect of that type of certainty when I see it in new grads. I feel lucky that I had several years after finishing my graduate studies, before I entered an international stage as an artist.
CL: Which you have done. I’m fortunate to have been in New York to see your show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2010, before I knew you, and then Bill [Berkson] and I were at the opening of your show at the Venice Biennale in 2012, when you represented Iceland. I visited your studio in New York a couple of years ago, so I have some firsthand familiarity with your work. Let’s start with the Met. The name of your installation was Boiseries. You used two of the museum’s period rooms as the basis for the work, and in recreating them you eliminated the color and reduced the scale, right? As a result, the visitor experienced these rooms in an abstract way. Does that make sense?
KS: That’s true. By formalizing — or in the traditional, the most pure meaning of the word, by abstracting elements in the design of these two rooms, I set the stage for a certain phenomenological occurrence between the body and the environment, the form that surrounds us. I think both of the works ask us to be conscious of an embodied physical experience within an architectural form.
CL: Are you thinking of Merleau-Ponty?
KS: Yes, of course.
CL: His phenomenology that is experiencing the world through your body, which resonates with what I’ve been thinking about lately for something I am writing. It seems like a lot of your work relates to architecture, furnishings, to home, including your current work that you will be showing here.
CL: You did a show in New York in which you reproduced a royal palace guardhouse, shifting the scale and using other kind of perceptual tricks — playing with the shift between what you expect to see and what you see. This is a little bit of an aside, but as you know I’m working on a book about Bruce Nauman’s architectural work; it’s very different from yours in most ways, but something about it in that respect is not unlike your work.
KS: Absolutely, it’s the relationship between expectation and surprise in space and what kind of dynamic — even psychodynamic — responses it brings about.
CL: I remember when we were in your studio you showed me this, I think it’s called Green Grass of Home, a suitcase that unfolds like the Russian nesting dolls, except what is revealed are seventeen miniature landscapes and public parks in places where you lived, including here and also New York where you live now. The piece is a conflation between home and public spaces.
CL: Do you regard that as a key work in your oeuvre?
KS: Yeah. Often when I lecture, I use this piece kind of like the gate to walk through to enter my work, enter the narratives that I work with again and again. They have to do with memory, they have to do with place and perception, with how we capture and depict space and also with a personal story or an account of a human life. When I’m representing something that has to do with a human life, for the sake of authenticity, what I mine is my own experience. And I think no one can really get very far from his or her own experience. But it’s not for the sake of wanting to bring attention to myself.
CL: It’s not autobiographical.
KS: It’s not autobiographical in that sense. This might be strange to say, but I really believe in telling the truth. The truth that I know — my experience. So, there are often personal specifics in my work, not because I am trying to draw attention to them per se, but just because they are authentic information.
CL: There is no direct human presence in your work, but it’s in everything you do. Architecture is certainly something that we all experience; furniture speaks to domesticity and home. You have an indirect way of talking about the human condition, let’s put it that way. I would like to talk about the show that you created for the Venice Biennale, which was installed in a former laundry on the grounds of an eighteenth-century palace. You created a floor with tiles that had an ornamental design.
KS: The framework of this project was of course that I was asked to represent Iceland in the Biennale. The basic premise of the work has a lot to do with that, the fact that it was Venice, and I was representing a country. Originally I was thinking about a traditional eighteenth century pavilion in Venice, and because, like many countries, Iceland does not have its own pavilion in Venice.
CL: Did you select the site or was it suggested to you?
KS: I selected the site. It had been used by Iceland before but I looked at many different sites before selecting this one. I was working with the paradox of a fancy pavilion in a house of labor and service. The footprint of the large form I created in no way fit within the laundry, this small building. This displacement could then take on meaning in the context of Venice, national representations, etcetera.
The work is a direct continuation of the show I did at the Met, which was also dealing with architecture and design of the eighteenth century. In both works I am walking in the shoes of the artisan and this also has to do with my quandary about the role of the artist in a larger framework. The division between the artisan and the artist, in any time period, relates to economic and to societal structures, structures of power.
CL: Are you interested in the idea of elevating craft or at least recognizing craft as an art form? Or are you commenting on the fact that the lines between these different disciplines are not as distinct as they once were?
KS: I don’t think I am really doing either. If anything I’m commenting on the relationship between the artist and the client. This is essentially examining economic models relating to the production of art, and doing so in these works within the dimension of history. It boils down to issues of authorship and power.
CL: Let’s now move forward in time and consider the work you are exhibiting here in San Francisco. Chance seems to be a key concept in this work…
KS: Yes. Over the last twelve years I’ve made several works using a “method” where the work is subjected to chance transformations. Maybe this speaks of a certain attitude of recklessness, but if you think about it, this is actually a very controlled act. You can liken it to the throwing of a dice: You don’t know what is going to happen, or what? Actually, you know that there are only six possible outcomes. So the chance is actually quite bracketed, and maybe this to me is a way to speak about artistic expression in general. To liken it to a game of controlled chance. But also, it begs a deeper question about what qualifies as an art object, and what constitutes value, economically and aesthetically.
In the studio, all kinds of events happen all the time, events that, after the work is supposedly “done,” would be seen as destructive. This sequence of events is stunted when the work leaves the studio. But take this little stool as an example: It arrived in San Francisco in its crate, in twenty pieces. What you choose to call this occurrence is qualitative, it determines the work’s value. You could say that is simply a transformation, a change of form. But before this was ever this stool it was a bag of plaster. By the same logic you could say that when I made the stool, I destroyed the bag of plaster.
CL: You are referring to the plaster stool that is one of the several “furniture” pieces that comprise your upcoming show — chairs, a table, a stool… there’s something ghostly about them because they are white. I know that you shipped them knowing, intending that they would arrive broken and that you would “repair” them when you arrived. Now that you have, you can see cracks and patches in different colors depending on the material you used to adhere parts or fill in holes, so in fact they aren’t pure white due to the various materials that you used subsequent to their original casting. This method relates to the Japanese concept of wabi sabi, which means finding beauty in imperfection, but also kintsugi which has to do with the way that the Japanese repair broken pottery. Rather than trying to hide the fact that an object was broken they enhance it by using gold, a precious material, to put the pieces back together to make them whole again, and maybe even more beautiful.
KS: Generally in Western culture there is a reverence for what’s new and we think of things to be perfect when they’re new and untouched, whereas in some other cultures, things become perfect as they are shaped through time.
CL: And time and life itself, interaction with the environment or with people. That’s true, of course, of furniture.
KS: There are examples in Western culture, too, such as patinas, where a texture and color are built up through oxidation. Blue jeans — worn, patched, faded — are maybe another example. I still don’t think this is quite the same as the reverence for chance, for example in Japanese ceramics. But for this particular show here in San Francisco, I have been thinking about marble, which I think is a good example of how we love time in a material. Marble is originally created by sediment, then vibration, seismic movement or other events cause breaks and then another sediment flows into it.
CL: Which accounts for the various…
KS: Which accounts for the striations and strata, etcetera. In geology, marble is termed “metamorphic rock” — hence the title of the show — a rock that changes when the minerals in the rock change, or the geological structure of the rock changes without the rock melting. In other words, the shape remains but the ingredients transform. When you look at beautiful rocks you are looking at a lot of events, a lot of “destructive” events, which result in these beautiful, stripes, these striations. The original material in these sculptures is also a mineral; it’s plaster, which of course is related to marble. So this is maybe an exercise in simulating geological processes and a probe into what might be suggested by that act. Reassigning value to destruction, taking an optimist attitude to cataclysm, presenting a destructive outcome as beautiful, valuable, something to revere.
CL: When these sculptures are installed at the San Francisco Art Institute are they going to be sitting on the floor or are they going to be elevated?
KS: They’re going to be directly on the floor. I have made several other works that also deal with transit and things being moved from one place to the next. I like to bring them into the gallery and put them on the floor, just like you would a crate. The crate comes into the space and you just put it directly on the floor.
CL: This reminds me of Walead Beshty’s glass sculptures that he purposefully shipped in cardboard crates without taping the glass to protect it. When they reach their exhibition venue, the crates are opened in the space, and the cracked glass objects remain on the cardboard.
KS: They are very beautiful.
CL: Very beautiful objects that also serve as physical documents of their journey. I don’t know if that plays into this body of your work.
KS: Absolutely. I think several of my works over the years share this narrative with Beshty’s work.
CL: Although they look completely different.
KS: Yes, different specifics and different identity. In the late ’90s I was making these boxes and valises — you know, the suitcase that you talked about in the beginning, is an example of this body of work — they are basically transit objects.
CL: Yours (and Beshty’s) relate to Duchamp’s Large Glass, Beshty’s specifically because his objects are glass, but the idea of the chance accident, which is embraced by the artist. In the case of The Large Glass, Duchamp thought it was improved by the damage caused when it was cracked in transit.
KS: I was talking about the game earlier — chance and chess and all of these sort of systems of allowing things to happen, and then how we…
CL: Relinquish control.
KS: The question of control is in certain ways left open. What might seem like relinquishing of control, might in fact be quite the opposite. That would be true for Duchamp’s Large Glass, and for Beshty’s work — and mine. The way the artist deals with the outcome of the chance event, you could say. Subverting the chance event, the accident. This is something that has so much potency for people. For artists and also for all of us. In essence this is something fundamental to all of our lives. Culture is controlled chance. Even war, and the destruction of war, is controlled chance.
CL: When you do display these in the exhibition are you going to provide information on how they came to be or do you want people to try to figure that out?
KS: I guess the older I get the more relaxed I am about not explaining everything. There is the philosophical question about whether the work has an inherent meaning in and of itself or if it is always just what we bring to it through our perception, knowledge, experience. Maybe it’s not either/or, but I tend to think that as an artist, it’s hard to control the meaning of the work. In certain circumstances this can be problematic, because it leaves the intellectual rights of the artist in a gray area. But between the work itself and what people bring to it, there’s not that much beyond a certain point that I can effect.
CL: You have your intention for the work and when you put it out in the world it has a life of its own.
KS: If you try to hold onto the being of the work, then maybe art, making art is going to be a very frustrating enterprise.
CL: I want to ask you one last question. I know that you are very attached to Iceland and you spend time there every year. I’ve found in my limited experience that that seems to be true with many Icelandic artists who may live elsewhere but who maintain a very strong connection with their culture and their country. Would you say that was true in your case?
KS: I would say that Iceland is always in my work. What is Iceland? —
CL: Iceland is a tiny country with a small population, and yet it seems to have a strong pull on people.
KS: You say so with certainty. Iceland might mean something different to me. And in a certain sense, Iceland is simply a word, and container of meaning, an idea, label, narrative, brand.
When I pose the question what is Iceland, I am asking, what is a nation? What is a national boundary, what is a national identity? And what is a home? To what point does a place belong to anyone? There is some kind of conflation of all of these thoughts in my work. What constitutes a membership to a nation? To some extent this has to do with my own personal life and in some ways not at all. In many ways it has much less to do with my personal life than with the time that we live in, with issues of migration, displacement, and homelessness. We see this in San Francisco, in America, and all over the world. So, I think that the best way I can answer your question is: Iceland is always in my work — but what is Iceland?