Aðalheiður Lilja Guðmundsdóttir
iceland specimen collection – great auk
2010. photo. 110 x 80 cm
Aðalheiður Lilja Guðmundsdóttir
Ólöf Nordal draws on certain paradoxes in the psyche of the Icelandic nation in order to scrutinise the accepted understanding of the term “cultural value”. By her approach the artist sustains the experience of wonder on the two-dimensional surface of the photograph, even though the individual objects, faces, artifacts, collections and stories are commonplace. Indeed, the familiar mysteriousness of Nordal’s works makes the impossible possible and opens doors to other visions, other mindsets.
The work Iceland Specimen Collection – Brain exhibits, in a jar, the supposed brain of the famous Icelandic poet, Einar Benediktsson – creativity in formaldehyde for posterity. The object is appropriately preserved at the University of Iceland, an apt reminder of Galileo’s dictum: “Measure what is measurable, and make measurable what is not so”. The brain was removed from the exhumed body by a well-known professor in the hope that, at some time in the future, it would become possible to gauge a man’s intellectual capacity by measuring his brain’s shape, size and type. Of course the mental capacity and creativity of Benediktsson is immeasurable – his genius lives on in his texts.
In the past, phrenologists claimed to be able to discern intellect and personality traits by studying the skull, its shapes and proportions. All over Europe figures were made of individuals with the purpose of preserving them in the name of science. Later on, wax figures – like those of Madame Tussaud – became famous exhibition pieces. Around the middle of the last century Óskar Halldórsson, an entrepreneur in the fishing industry, donated foreign wax figures to the National Museum of Iceland. Halldórsson also comissioned wax figures of 18 of his contemporaries – renowned Icelanders who were alive when their replicas were made. Nordal contacted the descendants of these people; the three children still alive. Nordal had them photographed with the wax figures in the storage room at the National Museum, among precious cultural artifacts.
The three works: Son and Father, Daughter and Father, Father and Son, under the general title, Iceland Specimen Collection, are inspired by a legend about a man who, when crossing a mountain came across the body of a young man left behind by a receding glacier. As the man inspects the perfectly preserved body, it occurrs to him that he is looking at the remains of his own father who had disappeared before he was born. Father and son meet for the first time – the son in his late 60s, his father just over 20. In Nordal’s work the reclamation, transcending natural order, creates a disturbing presence, and absence, of the loved one – an uncanny meeting of the original and its copy.
Specific, living human beings are captured in wax but rare birds are killed and stuffed in order to create natural and cultural artefacts. The work, Iceland Specimen Collection – Great Auk, consists of two photographs from The Natural History Collection of Iceland. One shows a stuffed example of the extinct Great Auk, bought at an auction abroad on behalf of the Icelandic people. The rare object was “returned” home, as it were, at the same time as precious manuscripts were generously given to Icelandic authorities by the Danish monarchy. The other photograph shows an artificial or man-made surrogate of the “real” bird, made domestically before the nation owned a specimen of the great “Icelandic” bird. The replica, made from the skin of several cliff birds, is obviously misshapen: the taxideremist’s effort hampered by the fact that the original bird was long extinct.
Nordal’s work in the exhibition, approaches the legacy of a nation in an analytical and direct way. The presentation is bound to disturb the spectator and make him question the artefacts, objects and works already imbued with cultural significance.
Based on conversations with Ólöf Nordal April 2010
Translation: Geir Svansson