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Vol. 7, No. 1, 2008

happy days


Gudrun Vera Hjartardottir

the art of



A solo exhibition at Broadway Gallery in Soho, NY, reviewed by

Gudrun Vera Hjartardottir, born in 1966 in Reykjavik, Iceland currently lives in Kopavogur and works in Reykjavik. A graduate of the Icelandic College of Art and Crafts and the Reykjavik School of Visual Arts, Gudrun Vera is the recipient of numerous visual arts grants and prizes. She has shown her work in both group and solo exhibitions since the early 1990s in galleries and museums throughout Iceland, Europe, the United States and China. In 1996, she began to exhibit small plasticine figures, reminiscent of human fetuses that evoke innocence, vulnerability and nature. Recently, she brought her work to New York, where I had the privilege to talk with her about her exhibit.

© Gudrun Vera Hjartardottir

TS: Vera, for this installation, you have sculpted with the medium Plastilina, which is very evocative of human flesh in color and consistency. Can you tell us about the qualities of Plastilina that appeal to your sensibilities and what it contributes to the overall aesthetic of the installation?

GVH: Plastilina is a frail material, like the body. It is also a direct medium. The artist’s fingerprints are still present in the sculptures and thus help to create a feeling of flesh. This frailness and directness gives the sculptures their aura and therefore one can feel nearness in the installation.

© Gudrun Vera HjartardottirTS: Plastilina is a pliable, impressionable and vulnerable substance; you have used it to sculpt what you call the “root children,” which are essentially limpid, unborn infants scattered like debris, with gangly roots in lieu of feet, hovering between death and an innocent child-like slumber.

I’d like to ask you about your choice to use the human baby as subject/object. A human-like fleshy form is viscerally disconcerting. I confess the first thought that came to my mind was abortion.

GVH: The image of human infant is a metaphor for innocence, or something that can not protect itself from abuse and violence. It is as fragile as a flower.

The first root children, I showed last year at the Broadway gallery, in one pile had to do with the growing interest towards heavy industry in Iceland that is causing much damage to natural wildlife. The Icelandic government has recently been more concerned with appeasing environmental polluters than with keeping sources for plants and animals in tact; they are ready to destroy vast lands to please the needs of companies like Alcoa and Alcan.
This piece, Happy Days, is a continuation of that theme, but more focused on social developments and corporate takeover, or when making money becomes more important than anything else. Nothing stands in the way of the power of greed, even if it may cost you your soul. These are times of Faust.

© Gudrun Vera HjartardottirTS: Happy Days certainly personifies that Faustian greed. In fact, at the pinnacle, you have a Mephistopheles-like character, a gremlin-ish puppet overseeing this mountain deceased fetuses. You told me at the opening you borrowed the title “Happy Days” from a Samuel Becket play. What about his play inspired you to use it as the moniker for your installation?

GVH: Beckett has touched me because of his sharp vision on social and human conditions.
In Beckett’s play a woman is sinking in garbage and shit. She takes her antidepressant pills and smiles like nothing is wrong. That is the image of the gremlin, or puppet, who sits on the top of his hollow tower.

TS: This hollow tower you mention is the pedestal, a staggered, architectonic staircase constructed from overturned, cardboard boxes. This seems particularly appropriate for the New York City location. It reflects very poignantly the cityscape of grid-like streets and gargantuan geometric structures whose capitals recede into jagged spires. As a New Yorker myself, I experience space in segments and compartments, going from my closet sized apartment to a cramped subway to my office cubicle. The boxes could also represent moving, being always on the move or moving from home, “uprooting” like the “root children”, and also homelessness, which we see so much of on the streets of New York, bodies residing in boxes as makeshift shelters. Would you talk about the box as a medium and how it informs the piece as a whole?

GVH: Like Plastilina the boxes are a fragile medium, especially stacked up like that. They are also hollow and as material they fit into the theme in some contrast with the Plastilina. The decision to have cardboard boxes was explicitly for the New York show, and as you described in your question, they have so much similitude with New York City. It would, for instance not be as fitting in Reykjavik.© Gudrun Vera Hjartardottir

TS: I want to come back to the villain at the apex of the pyramid who hovers over his fetuses like a perverse, wide-eyed mad-man. He is someone we instantly recognize as evil; allegorical and uncannily perverse. His grin is contorted and the pupils of his wide glassy eyes bulge out slightly asymmetrically and reflect the crookedness of his character. Where did he come from in your mind and how did he find his way into Happy Days?

GVH: I did a show earlier in the year at Gallery Turpentine in Reykjavík where I used a similar figure on top of a golden pyramid that had a cape like an ancient king. That symbol of hierarchy was not appropriate for New York, so I wanted a different kind of symbol, a more “stock market” like figure. I was quite inspired by the novel “Momo” by Michael Ende that tells about the spiritless gray gentlemen that are so low in outgoing energy that people felt cold around them. That image felt more fitting as the culprit of the neglected and scattered innocent root children.

© Gudrun Vera HjartardottirTS: Yes, he represents the American king, the capitalist. Capitalism is indiscriminate in its abuses of the planet until it impacts the bottom line. So much wanton abuse of our innocent planet (the root children) is done in the name of profit. We are desecrating with greed what we require for our survival. “Happy Days” accomplishes a dual and diametric representation of the evil we do and that is being done presently in the world. It is a statement that calls to us “children” to wake up, take root, rise up and make a difference. Your work is a catalyst for dialogue and action. If you could choose, what is the one thing you would like each of us to take away from our visit to “Happy Days?”

GVH: Responsibility.

© Gudrun Vera Hjartardottir

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