7 Standout Artists from Sequences, Iceland’s Artist-Run Biennial
Installation view of Edith Karlson, Can’t See, 2023, in “Sequences XI: Can’t See.” Photo by Olof Helgadottir. Courtesy of Sequences XI.
Installation view of “Sequences XI: Can’t See. Photo by Maria Luiga. Courtesy of Sequences XI.
Can’t See is the title of a half human/half fish sculpture by Edith Karlson, who will represent Estonia at the Venice Biennale in 2024. It’s also where Iceland’s artist-run Sequences Biennial—this year in its 11th edition—gets its name. The title refers to both the wonders of biodiversity that are hidden from human perception, as well as our dogged refusal to recognise the havoc we are wreaking on the planet.
After focusing on the domestic scene in 2021 as the world emerged from COVID, the organizers this year turned their gaze outward, selecting a collective that works at the Estonian Centre for Contemporary Art to curate the 2023 festival and associated exhibitions in Reykjavik, which remain on view until November 26th. The result is a deeply thoughtful delve into the Icelandic scene, in dialogue with international artists.
Installation view of “Sequences XI: Can’t See. Photo by Maria Luiga. Courtesy of Sequences XI.
The curators—Marika Agu, Maria Arusoo, Kaarin Kivirähk, and Sten Ojavee—have divided the biennial into four thematic chapters: Subterranean, Soil, Water, and Metaphysical. The artists taking part often explore evolutionary processes and alternative viewpoints, using art and scientific research to envisage new narratives. “We wanted to make this exhibition an homage to non-human perspectives so that we could enter into those worlds inhabited or perceived by other beings,” said curator Kivirähk. “You don’t find any humans here, except for us the viewers.”
Here are seven artists to look out for in the festival’s exhibitions.
B. 1993, London. Lives and works in New York.
B. 1993, Houston, Texas. Lives and works in Portugal.
Precious Okoyomon and Dozie Kanu, installation view of Fragmented sky - wind - fly giving presence to wind, 2023, in “Sequences XI: Can’t See.” Courtesy of Sequences XI.
Exterior view of the Grótta Island Lighthouse, Reykjavik. Courtesy of Sequences XI.
Precious Okoyomon and Dozie Kanu have created an atmospheric installation, Fragmented sky - wind - fly giving presence to wind (2023), at the Grótta Island Lighthouse at the northwestern-most point of Reykjavik. For this work, the artists have strung up 600 small bells on long ropes between poles along the shore, around the perimeter of the lighthouse and up through the interior, which chime in the wind, giving the visitor the sense of being on a pilgrimage. This impression is heightened by the limited accessibility: Surrounded by black sandy beaches, within a nature reserve, visits must be carefully timed as the lighthouse sits on a spit of land that becomes submerged by the sea at high tide.
Inside the lighthouse, a rope strung with bells extends up through the center of a stairwell; ascending the steps to the top, it’s hard not to brush against it, setting off loud clanging, as if one is being summoned by some higher force. Each level of the lighthouse is adorned with a purple strip light (the color, Kanu said, inspired by a popular cocktail of his youth). “It gives you a slowed down feeling,” he said, adding that he hoped visitors would come “with no expectations and let the experience slowly creep up on you.”
Meanwhile, a recording of a roaring gale juxtaposed with Okoyomon reading out their poem plays in a loop from the top floor of the lighthouse, reminding visitors of their proximity to the elements.
B. 1961, Reykjavik. Lives and works in Reykjavik.
Ólöf Nordal, installation view of Blirds, 2022–23, in “Sequences XI: Can’t See.” Courtesy of Sequences XI.
Ólöf Nordal’s sculpted hybrid creatures she calls Blirds (2022–23) feature in both the Soil and Metaphysical chapters of the festival. These bronze forms often have human legs that kneel or sit, with enigmatic bird faces where the neck or shoulder would be. Nordal has endowed each sculpture with its own sounds—recorded on the saxophone and playing through speakers embedded in the pedestals—which gives them an animate quality as if they are singing or chattering.
The sculptural series emerged from Nordal’s deep-seated fascination with birds, which figure prominently in Icelandic folklore and in the country’s natural environment. In many cultures, they are also symbols of the soul’s departure from the body upon death. Nordal’s Blirds embody this idea of transition and struggle—between the earthly and spiritual, and between matter and form (since the sculptures originate in clay on a small scale before being enlarged with a 3D printer). With their frail legs and guileless, inquisitive faces, these creatures that dwell between realms exude vulnerability and demand our protection.
B. 1978, Guatemala City. Lives and works in Guatemala City.
Portrait of Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa by Yohan López. Courtesy of Sequences XI.
Tying in with the theme of fragile life is Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa’s poetic audio piece Songs of Extinct Birds That Were Previously Unknown to Science But Have Been Rediscovered Through Spiritist Sessions No. 1-3 (2015). The work is part of an ongoing project involving the performance of seances to contact avian souls of extinct species. The performances are not documented with photos or videos, but instead consist of audio recordings, visual sound scores, and automatic drawings by participants.
Ramírez-Figueroa grew up in a non-religious family that nonetheless had a healthy respect for ghosts. While at college in Chicago, he began attending a spiritist house, where he learned how to become a medium. The audio recordings are a mashup of vocal sounds made by people attending his seances, channeling imaginary or real extinct birds, sometimes individually, sometimes communally.
The strange audio makes intriguing connections elsewhere in the Soil section of the exhibition, to a series of rock and wood creatures sculpted by Guðrún Nielsen (1914–2000) and an otherworldly bird-plant-totem by the Estonian leather artist Elo-Reet Järv (1939–2018), since, in a sense, the work is a call to listen to non-human voices. If we don’t, the work suggests, our reckless actions will destroy more species, including our own. But Ramírez-Figueroa, whose family fled Guatemala’s brutal 1960–1996 civil war when he was six, deliberately does not privilege humans. Illogically utopian, Seances is both touching and hopeful in showing us a way to collectively dream.
B. 1957, Reykjavik. Lives and works in Reykjavik.
Anna Líndal, 3D printed replica of Wrinkled dome structures, 2023. Courtesy of Sequences XI.
Portrait of Anna Líndal. Courtesy of Sequences XI.
The volcanic island of Surtsey, which formed by submarine eruption in 1963 off the Icelandic coast, has exercised a strong hold over artists’ imagination. Two who have visited the uninhabited and strictly restricted island with scientists are participating in this show: Anna Líndal and Þorgerður Ólafsdóttir. In the Subterranean section of the exhibition, Líndal’s multidisciplinary project Mapping Underwater Microbial Colonization (commissioned for the festival) relates to the discovery of life far beneath the basalt rock surface. Líndal accompanied scientists on a drilling expedition to Surtsey in 2017, where colonies of microorganisms were discovered at a depth of 213 feet. Lindal was inspired to create a series of artworks that gave material form to these invisible microbes.
Among the works presented here are two screenprints showing enlarged images of six microcolonies attached to a gas bubble seen under a microscope, as well as an embroidered cross-section map of Surtsey detailing the substrate and the borehole where the living organisms were found. Elsewhere, she presents a 3D-printed sculpture of a microcolony blown up in scale. While that all may sound highly technical, Líndal’s work translates the wonder of this uncharted, imperceptible realm into a range of art objects that make it comprehensible to a non-scientific audience.
B. 1987 in Vilnius, Lithuania. Lives and works in Amsterdam and Berlin.
Emilija Škarnulytė, installation view of Sirenomelia, 2017 in “Sequences XI: Can’t See.” Courtesy of Sequences XI.
In the Nordic House exhibition, which is dedicated to the Water chapter, Emilija Škarnulytė has created an immersive, cavern-like space with iridescent sculptures reminiscent of lava lamps for her video Sirenomelia (2017). The work’s title refers to a rare congenital disorder also known as “mermaid syndrome,” in which babies are born with their legs fused together. The video’s protagonist is a mermaid, played by the artist, who dives and weaves through the ruins of a former NATO submarine base in the north of Norway that was active during the Cold War.
Far from the tragic Little Mermaid of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale who becomes human for the sake of her prince and ultimately dies, this creature has agency, as mistress of this remote ecological idyll abandoned by a shifting geopolitics. Scenes of the submarine base are juxtaposed with futuristic shots of the Geodetic Observatory at Ny-Ålesund, Spitsbergen, the northernmost permanently inhabited settlement in the world. Škarnulytė has described her perspective as that of a “future archaeologist.” For the viewer, meanwhile, watching the mermaid cleave through the vast expanse of water in this eerie place reminds us of nature’s capacity to regenerate itself in the absence of humans.
B. 1984, Tallinn, Estonia. Lives and works in Berlin.
Katja Novitskova, installation view of Hydrothermal Potential (Lost City) and Hydrothermal Potential (Loki’s Castle), both 2017, in “Sequences XI: Can’t See.” Photo by Vikram Pradhan. Courtesy of Sequences XI.
The Water section of the exhibition also features two fantastical sculptures by Katja Novitskova resembling towering fingers of rock, each jarringly affixed with what looks like a large reptilian eye. Titled Hydrothermal Potential (Lost City) and Hydrothermal Potential (Loki’s Castle) (both 2015), the works were created from found digital photographs taken by robotic autonomous underwater vehicles and printed on aluminum cutouts (the eyes being also sourced from the internet).
The titles refer to an inaccessible patch of ocean between Iceland and Svalbard known as Loki’s Castle (in reference to the Norse mythological god) that is home to a field of active hydrothermal vents, located at a depth of 2,000 meters in the mid-Atlantic. The extreme ecosystem is believed to be the most similar current climate to that of earth when life began, prompting a rush by biotech companies and mining corporations to exploit the zone as a new frontier for rare genetic matter and minerals. Calling to mind the legendary city of Atlantis, Novitskova’s sculptures evoke the possibility of monstrous new life forms coexisting with sophisticated unmanned machines in these far submarine reaches, beyond our limited human sight.