In Love of the Commonplace

From the beginning of his career Finnur Arnar Arnarson has been particularly drawn to generic circumstances where art is displayed in a volatile state, scarcely visible at the narrow margin between art and life. Taking advantage of unaesthetic, real-life situations, experienced in absence of artistic ambiance, he excelled in drawing attention to neglected pores and corners where his art was fully integrated into a perfectly commonplace ensemble. In these initial works, in the early nineties, he used to reconstitute a given moment in a series of site specific works showing an unusual daring in furthering the limits of art.

In the exhibition “A Sort of Everyday Romance” – Eins konar hversdagsrómantík – at Reykjavík Art Museum, 1995, Finnur Arnar showed a used car pertaining to him and his family. Guests were allowed to open the car and participate in the artist´s own experience by sitting in it. As such the dilapitated vehicule figured as an autobiographical element, one of many objects in its owner´s daily life invested with the particular aura which is associated with memory. At the same time it also seemed to question the legitimacy of the fetishized object. Although Finnur Arnar´s car did not come anywhere near Elvis´ guitar as res venerationis, it could be seen to possess the germ of commodity sanctification. Yet, extended to include an artist´s general experience it becomes virtually impossible to distingush between his inescapable use of objects in order to express his range of experienced sensations and the idolatrous consequences of his actions.
Finnur Arnar´s double-edged approach appeared as early as his career and has ever since given his works an extra dimension of contradictory nature. They can be interpreted in a certain way but that does not necessarily prove that that is what they are about altogether. Behind an obvious denotation of a general kind lies a hidden connotation of a particular nature easily opposing that which seems so obvious, most often referring to art and artistic practice in a manner which emphasizes its unusual nature as a professional activity. Of this kind were Finnur Arnar´s works at his solo exhibition at the Living Art Museum, in Reykjavík, 1996. There he showed a series of eight salary receipts of different official employees, either working for the state or the municipality of Reykjavík.

What immediately struck the visitors was the artist´s blunt exposure of the eight persons´ income, an information which for ordinary Icelanders is almost sacred as the ultimate secret, and the last thing they would want to reveal publicly. Yet, after a while it dawned on the onlookers that there might be a latent twist to the series. Behind the display there might be a comparison between an ordinary opaque working contract and the transparency of the artist´s lot in terms of wages and working conditions, when receiving for instance a publicly announced prize or grant, when selling a work at a sum which is known to everybody from the price list, or when winning a competition where the terms are usually published by the press.

Suddenly the public is forced to reflect on these facts without the artist giving any clue to what might be his personal opinion. By exhibiting five CVs, describing the career of as many office clercs in the same way as an artist´s curriculum vitae is listed on annual basis in a catalogue, Finnur Arnar discreetly and indirectly opened a hermeneutical access to the salary receipts. The third series of works at the exhibition and the only one which was composed of three-dimensional objects was a three part installation based on momentary absence of the installator, “Off to the second floor”, “Off to see the show”, “Off to fetch a bulb”. Left on the floor or in the corners are the unaesthetic remnants of an unfinished exhibition, open cans of paint, an aluminium ladder and an open tool-box.

Although it may be harmless to leave a work unfinished in any other profession, an artists must not be caught off guard as an ordinary worker. Every move demands a perfection, which excludes absence on behalf of the technicians responsible for the exhibition. Yet, in all the anarchy which appears to reign throughout the exhibition the atmosphere is as if it were the artist´s solemn wish to eschew all the formal rules of a traditional exhibition bien faite. The comparison between an ordinary working place and the gallery turns into a conflicting and slightly melancholic envy of commonplace freedom, not that the upside down disorder would ever be considered better or more beautiful than the artistic orderliness, but because it is truer to life, where proper arrangement is inexistant. Unlike aesthetic orderliness which pleases the common eye uncouth chaos happens to be the artist´s neverending source of inspiration. In another, related installation from 1996, put up in an abandoned prison, Finnur Arnar arranged a prison cell as if the inmate had just left momentarily but would be right back. A coffee jug, a half-eaten biscuit, an unmade bed and an ashtray full of cigarette butts condensated the actuality of the situation while ironically reffering to the common allegation that Icelandic prisoners have a extensive freedom of movement, almost as if the prison were a hotel.

An old tango from the fifties by September 12, a late Icelandic popular composer and painter, speaks of a prisoner´s dream awakened by an angel who has the cell miraculously opened. It is as if Finnur Arnar had had this tune in mind since two years after his installation ‘in the prisoner´s absence’, he had yet another solo exhibition in the Living Art Museum, where the theme of aspirations and expectations was mediated through the general statement of ‘I have a dream’, expressed by three different parties, five members of a punk rock group, and a lady, eighty-seven years old. At first glance the plan of operation seems to lack logical grounding but by reading through each statement an authentic difference between the two generations unfolds revealing not only divergent views and wishes but also a dissension in terms of moderation and sagacity. The installation consisted of five small sculptures of the members of the group, each on its respective shelf, accompanied by a text expressing the person´s longing. Together they face a large colour photograph, the profile of the old woman in her kitchen, leaning on her cane behind the printed text of her hopes. Suddenly the enormous aesthetic difference between the hopes of the old lady and the desires of the group members is disclosed, revealing the distinction in expression between modesty and redundancy.

The speculation of time and experience in this work can be seen as an introduction to Finnur Arnar´s more recent temporal works, many of which are composed of video projections together with photos. With the advent of the video projection autobiographical sketches have become more frequent, although it would be erroneous to interpret them too literally. Despite the role he assumes as a male and father facing the contemporary crisis of masculinity, there are deeper and far more inveterate concerns in Finnur Arnar´s melancholic description of his hero´s daily existence. In an untitled installation from 2001, in Gothenburg´s Röda Sten, he sits gloomily on the floor near the corner of an empty room, barefooted, leaning his back on the side of a free-standing radiator and playing with a small, dagger-like sword. They way in which he balances the weapon sticking it into the floor while hiding his head in his hand every now and then, demands a speculation on behalf of the spectator. Are we witnessing suicidal crisis of the kind which threatens particularly young males in Iceland?

A part from Finnur Arnar and the radiator the only thing visible in the projection was a colour photo hanging on the wall, possibly of himself with a pram by the sea, silhouetted againt the agitated high waters and the turbulent clouds gathering in the ominous sky. The position of the small silhouetted person in these sublime surroundings is certainly reminiscent of Caspar David Friedrich´s romantic seascape Mönch am Meer, from 1809. On the wall beside the projection but quite far from the running video another photo in four parts shows the artist with a plastic bag in middle of Hagatorg, during a thaw, an enormous round square in the west part of Reykjavík, facing the four major directions, as if unable to choose which way to select. If there is a connection between the two photographs – in the projection and outside it – which we are led to believe, the cultural crisis of the contemporary male seems to be carried beyond culture. The undecided male with the bag might be compared to the fulmar, the sea bird of the petrel family which is unable to fly when it does not perceive the sea.

There is ample reason to see in Finnur Arnar´s works from the new milennium the extension of the male crisis comprising the general crisis of nature, or rather man´s cultural crisis reflected in the global degradation of our natural environment. As his art evolves it becomes ever more evident how closely Finnur Arnar associates our dwindling spontaneity, perceptual frigidity and loss of innate boldness – all retreating instincts in contemporary culture – with man´s alienation from nature. It is a major feat of Finnur Arnar how through relatively simple means he has been able to rekindle the pertinence of Sigmund Freud´s lucid questioning of Civilization and its Discontent, from 1930, echoing Gauguin´s late masterpiece from 1897, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Heading?


Halldór Björn Runólfsson  the director of the National Museum of Iceland