17th July 2007 — 2nd September 2007
traditional Japanese aesthetics the term yugen refers to the way in
which something slight or suggestive can carry profound meaning; a few
words or brush strokes can evoke a depth of emotion that may be
completely lacking in something which has been laboriously crafted or
is explicit in what it connotes. It also implies a kind of mystery. The
work of Hreinn Fridfinnsson, with its lightness of touch and economy of
materials, is a perfect illustration of this concept. His current
exhibition at The Serpentine Gallery is so subtle in parts that
visitors may miss some of the pieces on display. Painted the same white
as the wall from which it protrudes, a small block of wood renders
itself almost invisible at just above head height. Aptly titled Element
of Doubt (1997), I would have walked straight past had it not been for
the title card lower down. This reductive approach is consistent
throughout and creates a sense that everything has been pared down to
its absolute essence; that it is as pure as it can possibly be.
Fridfinnsson's practice is firmly rooted in the conceptualism and minimalism of the 1960s and 1970s. With what appear to be simple gestures, he elevates everyday objects from their banal status to visually arresting sculptural artefacts. The inside of a cardboard box is lined with bright pink paper. A collection of stirring sticks are arranged on a wall in alternating rows of four or five. Each one with a slightly different combination of paints adhered to its bottom half. With their function rendered obsolete, the form of these objects and the spaces they inhabit become the focus of our attention. They are no longer things to be used but things to be looked at - things to be meditated upon if our curiosity is sufficient.
Despite the fact that all of the objects exhibited exist as coherent, self-contained pieces, Fridfinnsson's working process is evident throughout. There is a kind of transparency, or honesty, that makes the mechanics of his practice visible in some way. His use of time is relevant here. Drawing a Tiger (1971), for instance, incorporates two photographs taken almost twenty years apart. One depicts the artist as a young boy sat drawing in his native Iceland in 1952, the other as a young man in Holland re-enacting the first. Many of his pieces take several years to come to fruition and there is something very attractive about this slowness of production in our present speed-obsessed culture.
Folklore and storytelling are also central to Fridfinnsson's work. Perhaps the most notable piece in this bracket is House Project (1974), inspired by the tale of an eccentric Icelander who built a house inside out. Wallpaper, framed pictures and curtains were all mounted on the exterior of the building; the idea being that they should be appreciated by everyone, not only visitors but passers by as well. The artist has stated that what he liked most about this story was the fact that the house could be seen as a way of turning the whole world inside out. He built a similar construction on a lava field outside of Reykjavik and documented the process. It was Fridfinnsson's intention that the resulting photographs should be the piece of work, not the house itself. Gradually he began to hear stories of people coming across this strange building by chance and so it developed a kind of mythological status in the area. It stood for approximately twenty years before deteriorating. Today all that remains are a few scattered objects.
Similarly, Five Gates for the South Wind (1971-2) is another intervention in the landscape intended as a self-perpetuating myth. Fridfinnsson built a series of wooden gates along a short stretch of coastline that were designed to open when the wind came in from the south. The text that accompanies the photographs of the installation describes the day on which he built them. 'It was cold and rainy and the wind blew in from the north. I never saw them again.' It is not important to see them working as they were intended, or even, to know if they work at all.
In a recent interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist, Fridfinnsson articulates the importance of experiment and accident to his practice: 'Most of the time, the things that turn out to have been of more substance, or have opened up possibilities, are the result of what you might call luck ... things go wrong and then some part of it turns out to be exactly the right thing.' This quotation illustrates one half of a paradox. On the one hand every single piece of work seems to be exactly as it should be - that there is no other way it could have been. Yet, at the same time, the work is so ephemeral that it very easily might never have been made at all. It is perhaps this incredibly fine line between being and nothingness that is at the core of Fridfinnsson's practice.
London W2 3XA