Incorporation of Art as a Public Image: The Rise and Fall of the Icelandic Oligarchy

The general situation in Icelandic politics from the end of the twentieth century till 2008 was marked by the rapid change of what had up to then had the appearance of a stable democracy into an impressive oligarchy—a political structure controlled by the increasingly powerful economical sector. This was especially evident in the arts, with the public relations people of the newly rich organizing artists in various ways in order to promote the public image of the oligarchs, thus stabilizing their control over society. With the economic crisis of 2008, and the general collapse of the Icelandic financial system all this collapsed. In the aftermath of the fall, artists were confronted with a need to address the situation critically, but without the proper discursive means to do so. Now, however, we are seeing an emergence of a movement of younger artists that prove themselves more and more capable of controlling their own public image. These artists are finding the means to turn their backs on nihilist, non-critical and perverse tactics—the general case before the fall—to more constructive community building and critical activities.

Rise of the Icelandic Oligarchy

From the early 1990s till 2008 there came about a profound change in the management and organization of both the Icelandic economy and its political system. This development was led by the neo-liberal Independence Party and led to great changes in the general structure of society. Part of this was the privatization of most of the states’ enterprises, such as the telephone system, the postal service, and the largest banks. Many of the remaining o#cial assets were ‘incorporated’, made into limited companies owned by the state, not run as services but as independent market forces. Other common interests, such as the abundant rights to fishing in the coastal waters, were systematically privatized as well, given to the entrepreneurs without any compensation for the general public. After 2000 the greatest step in this change was put in force, involving a change in the taxation system. Before this the lowest income groups paid almost no taxes, with the middle and higher income groups paying about 35% of their income as tax. After the change the tax burden in the lower and middle ranges increased, while the tax burden of the highest income group was reduced to between 10 and 15%.

Synchronous with this change in property rights in Icelandic society was a curious change in the electoral system, purposely in order to make it more ‘democratic’. This change involved the introduction, on behalf of the major political parties, of a ‘pre-election’ system where the public was allowed to vote on the order of candidates on the parties lists for parliamentary elections. This sounded quite innocent, and democratic. In practice, however, it proved one of the most effective ways in changing the democratic system so that it became directly more dependent upon sponsorship from corporate bodies. Before this system came about the private sector had been supporting the political parties to some degree. This support was most for the independence party, but as individuals that were elected had no direct connection with the funding authorities it was thought not likely to affect the decisions of individual candidates. This became quite different when individuals, in order to gain a higher seat in their parties lists, started getting large amounts of funding, as individuals, from the commercial sector. Thus individual members of parliament started receiving direct funding from large corporations. It is a matter of speculation whether this direct access to the candidates ensured the oligarchs an ‘attentive ear’ when it came to policy making. It is however a fact that the aftermath of this process was a transformation of major laws, a transformation enabling the wealthy to amass more wealth than ever before in Icelandic history, gaining control of the most crucial sectors of the economy. Whatever the reason, the taxation of the rich was reduced dramatically in a span of few years, at the same time that governmental control over the commercial sector was reduced drastically.

It is this that can be termed as the ‘rise of the oligarchy’ in Iceland, enabling a limited number of wealthy people to gain disproportionate power over the economy, rendering the political system particularly powerless in reference to them, and with members of parliament becoming dependent, personally, on the major corporations for the funding of their campaigns.

Incorporation of the Emerging Art Scene

At the same time that the privatization and commercialization of the state and the transfer of economic control to the oligarchy was taking place, a similar change was occurring in the relationship between the state and the art scene. Although interest in art and artistic practice has increased a lot over the last two decades, the state has systematically reduced official funding for the visual arts. The major public art museums have seen their funding cut, as did state-funded collective art spaces. The general message to these institutions was that the responsibility for funding should be gradually be overtaken by the private sector. Major museums were required to generate a larger share of their income through private and corporate funding. Their funds for buying artwork, an important factor in funding the progressive art scene, also progressively reduced in value, it being understood that the museums should increasingly depend on corporate funding in order to buy new work from artists or for ambitious exhibitions of new art.

In oligarchies patronage has always been an important element in order to substantiate the oligarchs’ claim for power. Oligarchs therefore traditionally demonstrate their social importance by funding social institutions, schools, hospitals—as well as the art scene. As the principles of oligarchy gained control of Icelandic democratic institutions, the enterprises also started focusing on this traditional role. Indeed it can be said to have become a necessity for them to take up this role, in an attempt to cover up the increasingly unjust division of wealth that was taking place in Icelandic society. The state had already provided the oligarchs with access to the public art institutions, but the corporations also saw possibilities within the budding experimental art scene. Powered by ‘public relations’ advisors the banks and other large corporations therefore turned their attention to patronage of experimental art. In practice this meant offering artists limited resources with great fanfare. The main intent was obviously to secure the greatest possible visibility of the leaders of the new oligarchy in public spectacles, demonstrating their commitment to the ‘vibrant’ art scene.

Through their expansive system of public relations the oligarchic companies incorporated many of the most promising artists’ initiatives and movements into their ‘public image’. This often involved giving the artists access to derelict buildings for free or at a reduced price, and sometimes with limited sponsorship as well. In return the companies and their chairmen achieved a fresh and modern public image, this helping to establish the impression that the huge o#cial transfer of wealth to the oligarchy, through control over state assets and changes in taxation, was somehow justified because of the increased ‘social supportive activity’ of the oligarchs.

The artist groups that became involved, were among others the radically innovative Kling and Bang gallery, and the more established artists’ collective The Living Art Museum. The former overtook for a time the management of an enormous derelict industrial building, Filling it with activities and spectacles for more than a year, all in the name of Landsbankinn, the former largest state-run bank now turned over to the new oligarchy. The Living Arts Museum took over a floor in an office building by the main street, sponsored by one of the largest property management companies. A company that was at the time busy trying to make a good public impression while trying to force the city’s building authorities to change zoning regulations in the city centre to enable them to build more massively and tear down a number of protected buildings. At this time The Living Art Museum even went so far in supporting its sponsors that it started hosting ‘pre-openings’ for the elite, something totally at odds with its traditional co-operative and democratic image.

Oligarchic Infiltration of the Art University

As I have demonstrated, the incorporation of the Icelandic Art scene by corporate interests became really extensive in the years preceding 2008. This involved an involvement with artists’ run spaces, the recruitment of promising curators for galleries that were true showcases of the companies involved, even to the extent of bearing their names, and a systematized incorporation of the public museums. In addition to this the large corporate interests had a chance to establish a ‘positive’ connection with the Art University of Iceland. The University was established as a self governing, although publicly funded, institution in the end of the nineties. Situated in various locations throughout the city, one of the main aims of its governors from the start was the establishment a centralized location for the University. In this the rector and governing body had the curious overriding priority that the building be erected in the centre of the city, being dissatisfied with the premises that the educational authorities offered as a site, only about a kilometre from the city centre proper. This priority proved highly problematic for the governors of the Art University, with the city centre packed with older buildings, mainly from the beginning of the twentieth century. This fact, however, made the Art University the perfect ‘partner’ for the most powerful body of oligarchs, as these entrepreneurs were already busy buying up as much as they could of the properties in the centre, in order to demolish them and provide space for immense new and more profitable developments. The governors of the Art University therefore became easily enmeshed in these plans. It was quite obvious that the oligarchy thought it quite useful to link themselves with the institution offering the only program in architecture in the country. In terms of their public image, this was as well a demonstrating their progressive attitude towards the art and design scene in general, with a good chance of financial gain as a bonus. The result of this collaboration was a proposal for an enormous building to host the University in the centre of the city, built in between the older structures, although the intention was to demolishing most of them. The building would have exceeded all zoning regulations, but that was of course no worry for the contractors—they were used to having them changed according to their needs. But through this the contracting firm, an affiliate of one of the privatized banks, thought to make a really good impression with the public, and especially on the generation of art students at the Art University itself.

Isolated Resistance

Although many of the most inspiring artists’ initiatives were slowly incorporated into the public relations image-making industry of the oligarchy, there were others that resisted and attempted to work critically. The main thrust of those artists, however, was not in responce to the new oligarchic social order, as might have been expected, but focused on the accompanying environmental issues. One of the side effects of the new regime, so to say, was an increased emphasis on large scale energy facilities, which were to provide power for large industrial complexes, especially aluminium factories, the construction of which resulted in an immense economic pressure, forcing prices up and enabling the private banks with a possibility of rapid expansion. Because of the possibility of short-term gains, these enterprises were prioritized despite the huge environmental problems such a rapid development in the energy sector caused. Established artists, such as Rúri, and the collaborative efforts of Anna Hallin and Ósk Vilhjálmsdóttir, were in the forefront of the resistance to the construction of the planned dams that would destroy large tracts of the unspoiled landscape in the interior country. Rúrí produced a large-scale installations and performance pieces commemorating the waterfalls endangered by the industrialization plans. Anna Hallin and Ósk Vilhjálmsdóttir created spectacular installations and interactions intended to increase the public awareness of the environmental situation. Although these artists were not able to affect a change in the projects already underway, at least they had a part in changing public opinion and making it more difficult for the energy companies to continue with their disregard for environmental issues. That was actually quite a feat considering the general political climate at the time, where the industrial and oligarchic tendencies were constantly being idolized, partly because of an extremely efficient public relations strategy.

Other artists attempted to employ a traditional tactic of ‘institutional’ critique, collaborating with the oligarchs and industrialists while attempting to criticize them ‘from within’ the institution. Most of these efforts, however, turned against the artists themselves, only demonstrating the appreciating and accommodating viewpoint of their patrons. Examples of those can be seen in various exhibitions by Kling and Bang gallery, where the artists attempted to criticize the ruling oligarchy by creating an insane anarchic party scene within the gallery space, an attempt to re-enact and surpass the general culture of waste evident in the attitudes and practice of the new oligarchic elite. These, sadly, proved mostly futile, as they did not provide any positive way out of the situation, remaining distraught nihilist screams engulfed by the overreaching influence of the oligarchs public relations strategy. The climax of this ‘party strategy’ became the emblematic exhibition organized by King and Bang by the Serpentine Gallery in London as part of the Frieze Art Fair. They rebuilt ‘Sirkus’, a popular central Reykjavík bar, and enacted the merry and anarchic party that had made that bar famous among the young artists of the period. This was the most extreme example of this strategy, and, whether by way of creative intuition or mere luck, the only one that really succeeded. As they were in London, satirizing the general Icelandic scene of waste and limitless affluence, the premises for their outcry suddenly and effectively collapsed. This meant that instead of creating a mildly shocking scenario, as they had done before, they suddenly had full support and understanding of a British public that got caught up in the crash as the ‘miraculous Icelandic banks’ tumbled, taking with them most of their savings in the fall. Thus the show in London can be taken as emblematic, as the mark of transition as art needed to move away from a state of nihilistic insufficiency to actual critical and empowered practice.

The Fall and its Aftermath

The approach to the end happened suddenly in the autumn of 2008, although the indications of it had been appearing for about a year or so. After the events happened, one can therefore say that the intensity of the final exhibition of Kling and Bang gallery in London was in a way a premonition of what was actually happening, that the chimaera was spent, the public relations people no longer able to sustain the illusion of the economic miracle they had being doing in the previous years. At any rate the effects caught the government by surprise. As the banks collapsed one by one they just watched in dismay, not able to take any decisive action in order to salvage the situation. As the government had in effect been made powerless, the new oligarchy having functionally replaced it in almost all crucial matters regarding the economy, it didn’t any longer hold the reins of power necessary to address the situation. The general public of Iceland was also taken by surprise, this leading to a situation of dismay and powerlessness, although soon enough, as the facts of the situation become more and more evident, to intense rage. For the first time in the history of the republic the general populace reacted by protesting, these going on until the government finally resigned. In the ensuing election left wing parties gained the majority of seats in parliament for the first time, and formed a government charged with the responsibility of cleaning up after the fervor of the neo-liberal years before.

In the wake of the events Icelandic artists were suddenly faced with a completely new situation on their hands. To begin with they followed the general tendency of the population at large. First in dismay, and then many artists became active participants in the protests. As the general form of resistance before the fall had taken the form of nihilistic practice, at the best a parody of the wastefulness evident in the practices of the oligarchy, artists soon discovered that they were really lacking in tactics to face the new situation. The general response to begin with was therefore neither affirmative, nor progressive, in terms of dealing with the situation, but rather a mode of expressing the same rage and dismay felt by the public.

Luckily, even though the most effective groups of artists had been recruited on a large scale on behalf of the oligarchy, they never really got any substantial funding from the corporate entities—in fact one can say that Icelandic artists were ridiculously cheap. This, however, meant that for these groups, like Kling and Bang gallery or The Living Arts Museum, the blow was not so severe when the private funding came to a halt. They merely found ways to continue their practice, on a reduced budget but in a much more progressive artistic atmosphere. They are therefore still active and adapting to the new situation.

Towards a Climate of Democratic Rehabilitation

Today the artistic Icelandic community has entered a phase of unprecedented change, where the political and the social have opened up as discursive and operative spaces after a long period of closure and oligarchic appropriation. Hand to hand with that we are also witnessing the emergence of a new generation of artists willing to address social and political issues in their art as well as in their practice. These artists, some of which are participating in the present exhibition, are focused on empowering themselves. They seek to escape from the previous ideas of private identity, and personal ‘branding’ associated with the previous corporate atmosphere. Instead their practice shows evidence towards increased communication, group and network building, and socially affirmative practice, as well as dealing in a critical manner with the pressing social, political—not to mention global—issues they are faced with. In general they demonstrate the need to press for communal solutions and a drive towards heterogeneity in their work, instead of the previous cynicism and nihilist practice that only functioned to close off the art scene from the social and political spheres of life.

This change in emphasis and security on behalf of emerging artists is for example evident in a recent exhibition in Gerðarsafn, a municipal museum in a town adjacent to Reykjavík. In this exhibition a group of young artists is given a chance to find an expression in response to the situation following the economic collapse. Many of these artists ere active in the protest movement that arose after the fall of the banks, and the exhibition demonstrates that they are moving away from a general and unproductive display of rage towards a more positive and critical attitude.

Many of the artists participating in the present exhibition are also representative of this group, doing critical and situation-oriented work and interactions. An example of this is the humorous work of Una Björk Sigurðardóttir and Katrín Inga Jónsdóttir in a shop window on Hverfisgata. There they have appropriated the cliched imagery from the sex-shop across the street, but with an incorporated ‘political’ message. A further dimension is added to the work as the sex shop is located in an old industrial building, one that was to be demolished in order to build the new Art University—the public media event where the head of the board of Landsbankinn, the largest oligarchic corporation and the rector announced the plans to build the new University complex was therefore just across the street from where Una’s and Katrín’s work is now located.

Originally published in 2010 in a special issue of polish magazine Krytyka Polityczna on Icelandic art in 2010.

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