eva heisler



Ólöf Nordal. Great Auk, 1998. Aluminium

Eva Heisler


Iceland Specimens: On the works of Ólöf Nordal

Walking along Reykjavik’s craggy south coast, one encounters a penguin-like bird on a boulder in the sea.  Clearly artificial—metallic, smooth—it is a duplicate of the extinct great auk.  Out of reach in the cold sea, Olöf Nordal’s sculpture is a beaked ghost located at the coast off of which the last known nesting pair of great auks was killed in 1844.  Aware that the great auks were near extinction, collectors offered large sums of money for display specimens, and the pair was killed by Icelanders for a foreign collector.

Nordal’s aluminum representation of the extinct bird, about twice the size of the actual bird, may strike one as a conventional figurative monument evoking a fallen hero—in this case, a flightless sea bird slain for quick profit and, ironically, “preservation” by a collector.  Nordal’s sculpture is not simply a memorial to an extinct species, however.  It also evokes a more recent event in Icelandic history: in the early 1970s, there was a national campaign to raise money to purchase a stuffed great auk that was reputed to have been from Iceland.  The art historian Audur Ólafsdóttir recounts the story of the nation’s efforts to acquire the specimen from Sotheby’s: “There was a general hue and cry, everyone contributed to the fund to bring home the great auk; children even emptied their piggy-banks, and at the end of the day there was money enough to buy the equivalent of a three-room apartment.” (1)  Ólafsdóttir suggests that the attempt “to bring the great auk home” was a collective act of penance.  It was the acquisition of a loss, a loss in the form of an object whose sole purpose was to display that loss.

Both acts—killing the nesting pair of great auks in 1844 and purchasing the stuffed specimen in 1973—involved transactions with foreign collectors.  Nordal’s bird is cast of aluminum, a material whose production for foreign interests has led to further impoverishment of Iceland’s natural environment.  This work by Nordal marks a spot, and a violence, and an absence.  As the art historian Rosalind Krauss has put it, the traditional monument “sits in a particular place and speaks in a symbolical tongue about the meaning or use of that place.” (2)  Nordal’s bird questions the use of the particular place in which it sits.  The work mourns a loss, but it casts the loss—in aluminum—in a material and form that interrogates the very nostalgia that it risks.

The irony of the great auk’s extinction is that its rarity was its demise: it was the desire to display the rare bird that contributed to its value and hastened its extinction.  The politics and aesthetics of display are central preoccupations of Nordal’s works.  “Corpus Dulcis” (1998) consists of fragments of an idealized male body cast in chocolate and heaped on a podium for the consumption of viewers.  In a 1996 exhibition at The Living Arts Museum, animals associated with Icelandic folklore were represented in plaster and displayed as if neoclassical figures.  These included “busts” of a ptarmigan and falcon, sister and brother in folk tales, and embodying the twin values of gentleness and fierceness. (3)  Traditionally the bust, even though it presents only part of a human form, is not considered to be a fragment.  These bird-busts, however, strike one as fragments.  By transferring a convention associated with human portraiture onto the representation of a bird, the artist generates an unsettling and dissonant coupling of forms.

The recent “Iceland Specimen Series” consists of large photographs of animals that are, or have been, part of natural history collections in Iceland.  Ten photographs feature specimens of albino birds found in Iceland. These include an albino raven, snipe, arctic tern, thrush, and puffin.  Each albino—

colorless beaks pointing to the left and pink feet pointing right—floats in the center of the picture plane.  The background is a Reykjavik sky filled with clouds.  For a moment one might think one sees a soaring bird, but on inspection each albino is clearly lifeless, lying on its side with wings closed.  The profiles of the birds are recognizable—the long bill of the snipe; the short, wide beak of the puffin—but the uniform whiteness renders the familiar profiles otherworldly.  There is an odd contrast between the deflated bodies of the birds and the drama of the skies:  the whiteness of absence and error in contrast to a white that indicates activity and suggests presence.  One might recall Herman Melville’s digression on the whiteness of the whale in Moby-Dick.  Melville wonders why whiteness, despite its associations with beauty and purity, “shocks the eye” when encountered in the form of the albino.   He points out that “in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors.”  Melville goes on to ask, “Is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows—a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink?”  He suggests it may the “indefiniteness” of whiteness that “stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation.” (4)

—excerpt from a catalogue essay

Eva Heisler´s essay Iceland Specimens: On the work of Ólöf Nordal
was printed in a catalogue published in connection with
Ólöf Nordal´s exhibition Iceland Specimen Collection,
Gallery i8, Reykjavik 2005

© Eva Heisler


(1)“Nútímaafsteypur táknmynda,” Skírnir 177 (Winter 2003) 516.  English translation of passage by Adalsteinn Ingólfsson.

(2) “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Myths (Cambridge, MA and London:  The MIT Press, 1985) 279.

(3) Sveinsson, Einar Ólafur, The Folk-Stories of Iceland, rev. Einar G. Pétursson, trans. Benedikt Benedikz, ed. Anthony Faulkes  (London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 2003), 296.

(4) New York and London: Penguin Books (2003), 212.