Unnar Örn

Í safni ófullkomleikans: 1939-2010 / In the Collection of Imperfection: 1939-2010
Listasafn Reykjavíkur / Listahátíð í Reykjavík
There are not many in Iceland who come to the defence of diversity. When almost the whole of society had jumped on the merry-go-round of the financial forces, Unnar Örn had his mind on other concerns, other values, and other systems. In his exhibitions one could take part in an unpredictable process, observe either accumulation or destruction, or look behind the scenes to catch a glimpse of something one might otherwise have missed. He still has his mind on options other than the obvious ones and now emphasises the value and import of the imperfect.

The Reykjavík Art Museum has invited Unnar Örn to exhibit in Hafnarhús and so he turns his attention to the institution as such, in a wide context as well as in terms of its inner workings. How is the culture of a society recorded, preserved and used to reflect the self image of the citizens and their history? Unnar Örn burrows through the museums of the City of Reykjavík which contain antiquities, art, architectural items, photographs, books and documents. They hold objects which most will recognise, our cultural heritage, but they hide much more than what is generally exhibited. The majority of the objects in the collections have never been seen by the public. In his investigation, Unnar Örn focuses especially on items that relate to individual history, to the histories of people who collected, recorded, created and left behind memories that ended up in the museums and are preserved there. The value of such collections was clear to the individuals who made them at the time but may be unclear to us today.

We may most recently recall the artist’s exhibition in Gallerí Ágúst last year where he worked with photographs by Sigurður Guttormsson, a bank employee, from the 1930s and 1940s. They show the homes of poor people around Iceland and Sigurður collected these images to demonstrate the class divisions in society and the dire poverty of the common people, demanding reforms to improve their lot. Sigurður’s photographs have a different significance today, even though it may be unclear what exactly that significance is. This was the question raised by Unnar Örn’s exhibition. The exhibition in Gallerí Ágúst, On the Specific Contribution of Iceland and Icelandic Society to the History of Imperfection, can be seen a preface to the exhibition that has now been set up in Hafnarhúsið.

In addition to bringing in little-known collections by individuals, held by the City of Reykjavík, Unnar Örn examines the image of the nation that authorities have chosen to project internationally at various World Fairs. The Icelandic government first took part in such an exhibition in New York in 1939 and will now take part in Expo 2010, held in Shanghai in May. In this way, Unnar Örn’s exhibition in Hafnarhús contrasts the public self image projected by the nation and the hidden and imperfect narrative of the individual. It raises the question of the significance of public image making in relation to the experience of the country’s citizens. Do they adapt to the image projected or do they have a part in creating it?

In general, it can be said that Unnar Örn’s aesthetic reflects in equal measure the impulsivity of the artist and measured consideration. He is captivated by the subject he takes on at any time but also employs rigorous deconstruction and criticism in working it out. This method of working might be said to reflect the conflict between the two hemispheres of the brain, the logical workings of the left one and the intuitive approach of the right. The core of Unnar Örn’s art is to be found in the shaping and expressing of thought, in the preservation of ideas and the persistence of memory. His works show a search for the origin of meaning, the examination of that meaning, and an attempt to break up its content. Such a revaluation of sources and their presentation in a new context inevitably reveals other values and exposes the tension between the institutional and the individual.
Unnar Örn examines in detail various systems that have emerged in society, on the political scene, within the context of economic governance or in cultural institutions. His method of working shows how these systems take on a life of their own and have a tendency to accumulate power. A system that may originally have been created to circumscribe something chaotic and unordered is at some point transformed to suppress chaos and diversity, and everything new that emerges is already in advance shaped to fit the system. Unnar Örn is fascinated by such systems but is also wary of them. These conflicting impulses are the driving force in his art.

Markús Þór Andrésson



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