“Everybody is doing what they can”* by Libia Castro and Ólafur Ólafsson is the first in a new series of exhibitions at the Reykjavik Art Museum—Hafnarhus where the interrelationship between the museum and the public space outside its walls is critically reexamined.
There is a longstanding convention in modernist art practice to isolate art from the outside world. Fine art is commonly considered an activity of its own kind, a special sphere of human interests that transcends everyday life and social concerns. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke expressed this aesthetic conviction well in a 1903 essay, stating that “art must not demand or expect aught from outside; it should refer to nothing that lay beyond it, see nothing that was not within itself; its environment must lie within its own boundaries.”
The urge to overcome this isolation has long been a motivating force for explorations of new forms in contemporary art. It has, as the German writer Peter Bürger has emphasized, always been the goal of the avant-garde to bring art into association with life praxis. This new exhibition series at Hafnarhus offers a platform for such explorations, with the goal of demystifying the role of art in the life of the city.
In their most recent work, Libia Castro and Ólafur Ólafsson play with the format and context of exhibitions, questioning protocols and experimenting with alternatives to conventionally staged shows. As in many of their previous exhibitions, they seek to make the boundaries of the exhibition space porous enough to allow it to become infused with the reality outside. But this time, rather than gathering all their materials for the exhibition before the opening day from “outside” the exhibition venue (whether it be the immediate surroundings or the culture and place where a project is realized), they turn the exhibition itself into a site for research—or a sculptural think-tank—where the visitor is a spectator but inevitably a participant of the process as well.
Libia and Ólafur have shaped the exhibition space at Hafnarhus into a production and presentation site, including a recording and editing studio, where they conduct screen tests publicly throughout much of the exhibition’s duration. The screen tests, which involve individuals from different backgrounds and social positions, are conducted with the aim of creating an image of the site’s social and cultural context while, at the same time, reflecting on the nature and form of “a field portrait” and on what the artists refer to as “speaking models” and “actors in reality.” During the show these screen tests will also be “broadcasted” back into the city’s diverse neighborhoods by means of a peripatetic video projection onto various city walls.
The approach that Libia and Ólafur bring to this work continues their longstanding engagement with social and cultural concerns, such as urban identity, globalization and cultural differences. The aim for the “field portraits” is not only to portray the people living in a specific cultural, social and economic environment but to engage with the (social) dynamics of locality to reactivate and reveal its current concerns. As so often before, their approach proceeds along a dialectical path. Like many artists in the last two decades, they choose to involve diverse groups of people in their work. In this way, their methods follow along the lines of what the French critic and curator Nicolas Bourriaud has called “relational art,” which he described as “an art taking as its theoretical horizon the realm of human interaction and its social context, rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space” (1996). Thus Libia and Ólafur often spend long periods staying on site and cooperating with local communities, activist groups, and immigrants and migrant workers, creating social encounters and dialogues that further a sense of community. But their work tends to be less ambiguous and more explicitly critical than “relational art.” This is the other route of the dialectical path. Whatever the medium they choose in each instance—sculpture, installation, photography, video, sound—their work readily takes the form of public intervention, where they infiltrate social situations or create temporary spaces that function as sites of contestation. In this regard, Libia and Ólafur are a part of a growing international group of artists that has emerged in the last few years, artists who are working in a socially engaged way but who have gone beyond “relational art” to develop new forms of public address that have sometimes been described as a new form of realism. As Fernando Francés, Director of CAC Málaga, has written about Libia and Ólafur’s work:
A constant element is their critique of the world today, and in which humour co-exists alongside aspirations for social improvement in a scenario full of dynamism…With their works, the artists attempt to take the spectator to new realms of reflection and to question truths that are generally accepted as absolute without reasonable doubts ever being raised as to their veracity.
Since beginning their collaboration in 1997, Libia and Ólafur have created site-related projects in various countries, including Cuba, Turkey, the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, Belgium, the U.S. and Italy as well as in their native countries of Spain and Iceland. Their work has been exhibited at major international venues, such as Manifesta 7 (2008), CAC Málaga (2007), The Reykjavik Art Festival (2005), De Appel CAC Amsterdam (2004) and The 8th Havana Biennial (2003), and has been reviewed in publications such as Contemporary (UK), Untitled (UK), Art.es (ES), Artecontexto (ES), Art in America (USA), Metropolis M (NL) and Sjónauki (IS), as well as in numerous catalogues and other specialized publications. Libia and Ólafur have been nominated for prestigious art awards and invited to various art residency programs internationally. They maintain residences in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and Berlin, where they are currently attending the residency program at Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Germany.
—Hafthor Yngvason, Director, Reykjavik Art Museum
*The title of the project derives from a talk between Libia and her father on life’s (and people’s) impulses and motor to survive, without a moral or ethical judgment. The talk was triggered by a severe drama caused by a family member suffering from a paranoid schizophrenia and a society unwilling to fully recognize and deal with such an illness.