Racial theory, colonial history and concept art
15 November 2014 – 18 January 2015
At first glance, Icelander Ólöf Nordal’s two series of archives resemble magnificent photos of old archive material. In fact, that is what they are – at least at first glance. However, on closer examination, you also see what the pictures are, what stories they conceal and what ideas and theories they express.
For Musée Islandique, Nordal critically examined and photographed two scientific collections with close links to Iceland, one dating from the 1850s, the other from the second half of the 20th century. The older of the two collections consists of plaster casts of Icelanders and Greenlanders: busts, hands, lower legs and torsos, all collected in the course of a French expedition to the two countries. The other was collected by the Icelandic anthropologist, Dr Jens Pálsson (1926-2002) and consists of pictures, hair samples, letters, memories, impressions of palms etc.
Nordal studied the collections, their backgrounds, the individuals responsible for them, the meaning they had in their own time and, particularly, the significance they possess today, once rescued from the dark depths of the archives and displayed in a contemporary, post-modern context.
Though the collections were established in different contexts and historical periods, their raison d’être was basically identical: a fascination with the concept of “Nordic” and a desire to gather data to substantiate the notion of a “Nordic” race. Together, the two series of works tell a wealth of stories associated with colonial history, identity and self-understanding, dodgy racial theories and changing scientific discourses.