When did you get here? Reuniting the past & the present in Hrefna Hörn Leifsdóttir’s A carefully chosen set of advises

, 20 August 2019

On stepping into Berlin’s Kunsthaus KULE for Hrefna Hörn Leifsdóttir’s A carefully chosen set of advises, curated Joel Mu of M.I/mi1glissé, the bare walls invite you to bring your attention to your feet. The floor is flecked with divets and aberrations from past shows and passages. Where the ground meets the walls are piles of earth. There are pristine institutional grey rectangles painted on the floor like pages from a textbook. On which small things, sit. Sinewy yet delicate, exhausted forms in bronze. Weapons made tender or tenderised like dead flesh. The masculine seemed rendered flaccid, deflated. Are they amulets, remnants from ancient civilizations, or something that escapes the human altogether?

Hrefna Hörn Leifsdóttir, ‘A carefully chosen set of advises’ (2019). Installation detail. Photo by graysc.de. Courtesy Kunsthaus KULE, Berlin.

At first, Neue Nationalegalerie prize nominee Simon Fujiwara’s 2010 forays into mock archeology with ‘Frozen’ comes to mind but the effect here is less theatrically affected, less legible—more personal, pared down—evoking the ambiguous bronze works of Louise Bourgeois’ ‘Nature Study’ (1986). As if possessed by a strange magnetism, the objects seem to both invite and repel the touch. The viewer becomes an uninvited visitor to an archaeological site, becoming aware of their own presence amongst layered pasts. Experiencing this in Berlin, a city that appears in constant reinvention, gentrifying into a digitally flat future—papering over its own trauma—it feels uneasy, like a trespass.

During the 10th and 11th centuries in the Leifsdóttir’s native Iceland, Pagan mysticism that spread power across the genders was disrupted with the arrival of Christianity, whose patriarchal norms came with an associated diminishment of female power. Silvia Frederici notes in her book Caliban and the Witch, a similar shift as patriarchal capitalism took hold of society witch hunts. “It was women who most strongly defended the old mode of existence and opposed the new power structure, plausibly because they were also the ones who were most negatively affected by it.” 

Is A carefully chosen set of advises an invocation to look again at the current ontological shift that our current technological advancements are having on people’s behaviour, with associated tech bros running rampant in a similar way? Given its location at KULE—an exhibition space and home for generations of Mitte-based artists, a bastion holding off against gentrification—is Leifsdóttir’s exhibition an invocation to reverse this passage? 

Hrefna Hörn Leifsdóttir, ‘A carefully chosen set of advises’ (2019). Installation view. Photo by graysc.de. Courtesy Kunsthaus KULE, Berlin.

The artist has been a collaborator, writer, curator and performer in many projects that have occurred within the contemporary, digitally-infused ether, yet her own visual vocabulary has increasingly resisted these motifs. Leifsdóttir both borrows and distorts ideas of lineages. With each element of the show, there seems to be both a presentation and obfuscation.

Rather than being explanatory, the exhibition text is a fragmented prose poem, travelling from whispered opening dinner anecdotes to fictional archeology and etymology. Shifting between anecdote, prose and poetry, the words refigure the viewer’s gaze in the exhibition space. Like a contemporary emergence of Icelandic Sagas, the strong visual imagery, illustrative sentences activate the objects energy within the space, creating an atmosphere where time and space, object and discourse are intermingled. 

At the opening, Leifsdóttir invites Vigdís Howser of Icelandic group Fever Dream (and formerly of rap collective Reykjavikurdaetur) to perform the writing. The decision folds in another genealogy, that of the contemporary music scene in Iceland, which moved from early 00s krutt indie pop to the male-dominated rap scene and now a recent female one that leans on collectivity to express anger. The performance galvanizes A carefully chosen set of advises’s sculptures, somatizing the text into growls, making the bronze works vibrate at a resonant frequency and imbuing them with a rage that defies language and the cognitive overload of today.

Hrefna Hörn Leifsdóttir, ‘A carefully chosen set of advises’ (2019). Performance view feat. Vigdís Howser. Photo by graysc.de. Courtesy Kunsthaus KULE, Berlin.

Howser’s screams magnify the unreadable forms of Leifsdóttir’s sculptures—meanings which are only activated through the connection between the space, the object and the sounds. These momentary changes in Howser’s screams create a rupture in the surrounding atmosphere of the pieces, shifting its presence between materiality and spirituality, keeping the viewer in a state of flux.

A certain set of advises evokes and associates constellations from layered pasts, both recorded and inferred. As the French-American Bourgeois asserted, “In order to liberate myself from the past, I have to reconstruct it, ponder about it, make a statue out of it and get rid of it through making sculpture. I’m able to forget it afterwards. I have paid my debt to the past and I’m liberated.” Perhaps the Icelandic artist is enacting the exact reverse. Leifsdóttir is liberating herself from the present.**

Hrefna Hörn Leifsdóttir’s A carefully chosen set of advises performance and installation was on at Berlin’s Kunsthaus KULE, running July 4 to 13, 2019.