By Sabine Russ
Ragna Robertsdottir Patterns of Energy
By Sabine Russ
To capture energy and the great capacities of natural force has always been a challenge in visual art as energy itself is not really visible. All matter, bodies, and systems are engaged in energy exchange yet the attempt to picture the phenomenon that makes life happen reveals the intangible and elusive quality of energy as such. Ragna Róbertsdóttir's works, while minimal and austere in appearance, are deeply involved with earth's primordial forms and energetic patterns, with forces of formation and destruction, namely volcanic force, and ultimately with what one could call the potency of life. Her "lava landscapes" on walls and floors consisting of actual volcanic matter as well as her abstract sculptures made of basalt stones and turf resonate with the high energy of nature. At the same time there are obvious references to human dwellings-from traditional Icelandic turf houses to modern concrete buildings. In almost all of her works Ragna Róbertsdóttir applies earth surface to urban surface, or in another sense nature to culture-a kind of reverse act as human culture normally intrudes on nature. Simultaneously, her art (especially her lava landscapes) is a form of domestication of natural force, an attempt to create an intimacy with something that is anything but intimate and tame. Sometimes the materials collected from the land are juxtaposed with man-made materials such as glass, rubber, or acrylic, which either simulate or challenge natural patterns. Róbertsdóttir's works always occur in a sensual and intuitive but also carefully staged dialogue with the architecture of the museum or gallery. Her art is never obtrusive; instead it energizes the space and expands it into a realm that can be both physically and metaphorically vast.
Volcano on the mind
Iceland has one of the most turbulent surfaces on earth and there are few countries where geological force is present in such vicinity to daily existence. Making up the only above-water meeting point of the North American and Eurasion tectonic plates, the island's surface is continuously in commotion due to geothermal, seismic, and volcanic activity. Iceland is literally on the move as it is precariously riding a hot spot beneath the Mid-Atlantic ridge. When the rift valley, a central feature of the island, cracks and widens magma wells up from the earth's mantle and Iceland is actually growing, or at least gaining weight. In such a place you might not take it for granted to walk through life on solid ground. Volcanoes are always on the mind.
Ragna Róbertsdóttir has a long and ongoing love affair with Hekla, the majestic volcano in southern Iceland, which has recently been erupting about every ten years. She often spends days in the lava fields around Hekla-absorbing its presence and, so to speak, harvesting its fruit. She gathers the small, lightweight pieces of hardened lava or pumice that the volcano has spewed over time in all possible directions. It's astounding to realize how every single piece is unique in shape and structure as, during an eruption, millions of hot lava scraps are individually molded by their flight. Depending on distance and the force they were expelled with, the fragments are more ragged in certain places, rounder in others and they also vary in color from dark brown to black and even white. Entering Hekla's territory actually means encountering the loose layers of geological history and absorbing the fossilized energy of centuries. Some of the lava pieces Ragna Róbertsdóttir picks up might be from an eruption a thousand years back while others are from the most recent eruption in February 2000.
Volcano on wheels
Having collected the pumice for a particular installation Ragna Róbertsdóttir then drives the volcano home to her Reykjavik studio in large basins filled with countless stones. There the lava gets rinsed and sorted and eventually travels to where the artist will apply the fragments by the thousands to walls or floors-haunting and charging the space with volcanic energy. There is something both bizarre and touching about Róbertsdóttir driving Hekla not only to the city of Reykjavik but flying Hekla around the world, be it to Sweden, Germany, the United States or China. It's an insistence on a landscape that grounds her personally but that has a symbolic importance too-after all it is solidified magma that allows us to walk on earth. Besides black pumice from Hekla and Katla (another great volcano in the South) the artist has also used the red lava from Seidishólar and a mixture of sand and lava from the beaches of Myrdalssandor. When Ragna Róbertsdóttir travels, her native landscape is not only on her mind, she takes it literally along.
Volcano on the wall
Paintings, photographs, or video projections of volcanoes (erupting or not) are nothing unusual on a museum's wall. Yet the physicality of geological force is hard to communicate in an image. Ragna Róbertsdóttir's "lava landscapes," titled just like a traditional landscape painting, are acutely physical as they are the actual landscape. But they are also paintings in their own right (a kind of obsessive pointillist painting) and they are meticulously made by the artist's hand.
Róbertsdóttir starts by taping up the outlines of her lava field on the wall, then covers the plane successively with glue and tosses handfuls of small lava chips onto the wall. Most of them stick where they land; others fall down and get another throw. The lava fragments create their own patterns due to gravity and depending on the force they are propelled with, just like in nature. Resulting on the wall are lighter and darker parts-dense and clotted areas and others that are more airy and open. However, there is an equal amount of chance and intent involved as the artist has subtle ways of manipulating the texture. At the end she uses pincers to tenderly remove or insert individual pieces of lava-a procedure that has an element of the grotesque given the material's explosive origins. Clearly, Róbertsdóttir's gentle and quiet ways of handling something so violent and noisy as a volcano reveal her affectionate and contemplative relationship to her native landscape.
Over the years, and it is a process that is never the same, Ragna Róbertsdóttir has created lava landscapes in a whole array of sizes-from small rectangles to enormous, even panoramic expanses, some of them affecting every inch of wall space in a room. If you stand close to the wall and look at the work from the side, the field appears solid like the flank of a volcano covered with layers of pumice. Face-on it resembles what you might see during an eruption-a sky speckled and darkened by innumerable lava bits being expelled from the crater. From any perspective Róbertsdóttir's lava landscapes are gorgeous, they are seductive and even addictive to the eye. The longer you look the more elements and patterns you behold, similar to the experience of gazing for a long time into a star-studded sky. The swirling mass of fragments appears simultaneously distant and close, alien and familiar, aggressive and calm. The effect can be hallucinatory and bewildering, meditative and cathartic all at the same time. Interestingly, Róbertsdóttir's lava landscapes (which are a considerable effort to "make") are usually not meant to last. When the exhibition closes the eruption is over too. The pumice is scraped off the wall-a volcano with limited run.
Indoors, Outdoors, and Nodoors
The threshold between inside and outside plays an important role in Ragna Róbertsdóttir's art. Historically, and in Iceland that means quite recently, there was hardly a separation between interior and exterior living space. Today, even in the bustling modern city of Reykjavik, indoors and outdoors, human housing and an imposing landscape are not as removed from one another as they are in most contemporary cities. If you live in New York you have to drive at least one hour to see anything remotely resembling authentic nature. In Reykjavik you look out of your window-or, if you don't have the view, you walk a few minutes down to the water-to have a glimpse at a landscape of remarkable presence and visual power.
Ragna Róbertsdóttir always works in a direct dialogue with the existing architecture of the space, especially with its openings to the outside. Her lava landscapes often match the size of a door or a window in the same room, suggesting a view outside. You might see trees through a gallery window and right next to it an equally shaped rectangle made of pumice competing with it. It's intriguing to notice one's confusion in determining which is the more immediate perspective to the outside-the view through the glass of a door or a window or the bare earth surface applied directly to the wall. The view in the lava "window" can be strikingly dynamic, especially as the incoming daylight plays with its eventful texture. While making works that allude to earth-shaking and hugely transformative events, Róbertsdóttir is an artist who pays scrupulous attention to the smallest details such as minute variations of color and texture, or the subtle effects of light.
Trapping the volcano
Obviously, there is something eccentric about trapping a material that is so associated with violent force and chaos in such carefully delineated and orderly rectangles on the wall. Ragna Róbertsdóttir has also developed a type of portable window-and this is a good example of the playful and humorous side of her works- with a manipulable volcano inside. It's a kind of "lava shaker," a sealed double-glass frame that is partially filled with pumice. The loose lava fragments can be moved in any direction-shake them up to have an eruption or wiggle them to make the desired horizon line.
For her current exhibition at the Reykjavik Art Museum Ragna Róbertsdóttir was planning to take the idea of a lava-filled window to the extreme by blocking the view through Kjarvalstadir's large window/door front with a layer of Hekla's black pumice almost the height of a person. After installing a prototype on-site it turned out that the glass didn't withstand the power of the volcanic material. When the sun shone on it the blackness of the lava produced so much energy that it caused the glass to overheat. The window burst-threatening the museum with an eruption of volcano/art. This is a curious anecdote as Ragna Róbertsdóttir's works generally involve a certain testing of how urban surface holds up to an applied layer of raw nature. In this case it didn't. A row of twelve sealed double-glass panels filled with black pumice is now displayed on the large wall behind the window/door front. The panels match in size the segments of the opposite glass façade and they are also reflected there, creating a kind of illusionary threshold. The enormous, dense and dark lava field on the wall reaches all the way up to one's chest or even one's neck, with an effect that can be intimidating, even threatening as the pressure of the trapped volcanic material is utterly palpable. Here, Ragna Róbertsdóttir stages a subtle yet robust invasion of interior space by a huge amount of potentially hazardous lava, which is only barely held in check by a thin layer of glass.
Domesticating the volcano
On several occasions Ragna Róbertsdóttir has covered the floor with pumice as well. In the entrance area outside an exhibition space, for example, she makes the visitor walk over rectangular fields of red lava gravel. These lavish and fiery red lava carpets look and feel (as they crunch under one's feet) at once precious and precarious. And they illustrate how Róbertsdóttir's appropriations of earth surface can go two ways: On the one hand she is domesticating a force that in reality can't be bridled (when an erupting volcano carpets its surroundings with lava you wouldn't want your house anywhere near). On the other hand her lava works metaphorically imperil the house, a place that is normally associated with comfort and safety. Even though gravel is a common material for the adornment of the home environment, Róbertsdóttir's lava carpets make the "home grounds" seem uncertain and perilous. In her current exhibition, the artist has also covered a narrow footpath leading to the yard in the back of the museum with red pumice from Seidishólar. Again, the reddened trail-shimmering and winding between trees and bushes-becomes an ambiguous ground. It looks like a rolled-out carpet inviting and welcoming the visitor but it equally suggests something one better not walk on-a hot lava channel inevitably forcing its way through the landscape.
Recycling the volcano
Given Ragna Róbertsdóttir's affection for unpredictable surfaces and her obsession with detail, it is not surprising that she has used a special type of porous gray lava rock found in Iceland. It's a basaltic rock filled with cracks and holes, which are caused by gas bubbles being trapped inside the erupted magma as it rapidly solidifies. Róbertsdóttir had these coarse and imperfect rocks cut into perfect identical columns (each cut revealed a different and unique surface) and stacked them in a sequence of differently shaped sculptures that look like miniature industrial buildings but also suggest abstracted domesticated mountains. These are the works by Ragna Róbertsdóttir that are mostly associated with the vocabulary of minimalism and the non-narrative geometric arrangement of basic and unadorned forms.
Although these works are indebted to minimalist serial sculpture they are flawed as such with their randomly freckled and eventful surfaces that speak of complex geological processes. Besides being drawn to the material's lively texture one can suspect Róbertsdóttir having been inspired by the vertical basalt pillars, which are nature's own serial sculptures and are among the most impressive rock formations in Iceland. As a place that is entirely built from erupted and intruded magma, the country is continuously involved in some sort of self-recycling. Ragna Róbertsdóttir's play with variations of forms might also allude to this recycling process, which is particular to basaltic rocks-they can melt and erupt again as lava flows only to reappear as transformed but similar structures. The lava rock sculptures were accompanied by a set of exquisite black ink wall drawings, which developed a single circular form (reminiscent of an atom) into fields or spirally chains of cells. Although they remained ambiguous as to what they actually represent, the repeated forms-delicately connected among each other-evoked primordial patterns. And they seemed to be intensely driven as they floated above the lava structures like formations of clouds. With this in mind, it's interesting to recall how vortices are formed in the sky when clouds encounter an obstacle such as a high mountain or an erupting volcano.
Slice of life
The swirling form, a shape found on every imaginable scale in nature (from plant cells to shells to water whirlpools to spiral galaxies), also appears in Ragna Róbertsdóttir's turf sculptures, which are smaller or larger rolls of sod mats simply resting on the floor of the exhibition space. Turf, if you look at it closely, is a slice of life. It contains roots and weeds, lava, crushed shells, bodies of tiny animals, microorganisms, and traces of all the elements particular to the region where the turf was cut. The complex life energy inherent in this comparatively small sample of earth surface would be impossible to communicate otherwise (for instance in a drawing). This is one reason why Ragna Róbertsdóttir doesn't manipulate the turf in any way but displays it rolled up as it can be purchased for re-greening purposes. Obviously, there is a reference to traditional Icelandic turf houses too. Turf or soil is not only the interface between the rocky, uninhabitable part of earth and life, it also used to serve as the sole interface between people's outdoor and indoor existence-in Iceland until as recently as the nineteenth century. In this sense Róbertsdóttir's gracefully simple yet highly charged turf sculptures could be seen as a kind of compressed and wrapped-up symbols of living potential- for Iceland and way beyond.
Window of time
Besides lava and turf Ragna Róbertsdóttir harvests another earth surface-a remote seashore (at Iceland's Westfjords) that is covered almost entirely with crushed shells. Róbertsdóttir has a rare eye for such treasures, for their beauty and for the energy inherent in them. Picking up a square meter of this beach she has an exquisite and comprehensive cross-section of an oceanic life form in shards. Fastened to the wall (in the same fashion as her lava landscapes are applied) the fragments make up a gorgeous and shimmering silken field that suggests an opening to the outside. At the same time these "shellscapes" (if one wants to give them a name) represent a window of time, which allows a glimpse into a species' various stages of existence.
Glacier of glass
Shards are also what Ragna Róbertsdóttir's so-called "Glacier landscapes" are made of. Here, she uses a man-made material, namely transparent or colored glass, to evoke another landscape of extraordinary physical power. These "glacial fields," consisting of thousands of bits of crushed glass glued to the wall, can be enormous in size, sometimes covering an entire wall. They are seductive and dazzling with their sparkling surfaces as they absorb and reflect the light. When you look from a distance they appear lovely and peaceful, becoming almost invisible from certain angles. Yet when you go close they reveal their daunting texture and aggressive surface made up of countless sharp-edged pieces of glass. As one is reminded of the harmful and destructive potential of glacial avalanches one might also wonder how Ragna Róbertsdóttir literally gets such a hazardous stuff onto the wall. She approaches the challenge of working with such "difficult" materials with just the same sensuality and curiosity as she does with lava, turf, or shells. By the way, to represent a glacier landscape by shards of glass is not such a far-fetched idea as glass is usually made of silica sand. Silica is a mineral that appears in magma and therefore in rocks and therefore in sand which might be transported by glacial melt waters. But the glass here is also simply the stuff of the window, which, in the context of Ragna Róbertsdóttir's other works, makes her glacier landscapes into a kind of window windows, metaphorical double-openings that offer a multifaceted view.
Finally, there are Ragna Róbertsdóttir's bright and even neon-colored wall works, which she titles "Neolandscapes." They consist of tiny pieces of plastic or acrylic, again fastened in thin layers to the wall. These works, made of mass-produced materials, appear noisy in comparison to the lava landscapes, which are of truly uproarious origin. A beaming red square, for instance, hovers in the upper corner of a room like a warning light while a rectangle in "screaming" green suggests an opening into another "reality." However, the neolandscapes also call to mind the intensely colorful ryolite mountains in the center of Iceland, which owe their astonishing hues to a high mineral content, emphasized by the particular quality of light. Ragna Róbertsdóttir's neolandscapes are indeed new; they are shrill, puzzling, and beautiful as they pay homage to a different kind of environment. Displayed next to the various earth surfaces that the artist brings into urban space, the neolandscapes appear urgent, even alarming. Made of a myriad of elements, which are animated through the subtle interplay between color, texture, and light they charge their surroundings-just like the lava and glacier landscapes, turf sculptures and "shellscapes"-with vibrant energy. Ragna Róbertsdóttir's layered surfaces exist in a vast but equally intimate zone that is somewhere between outside, inside, and the mind.
New York, August 2004