What Hreinn Fridfinnsson presented at the In-Out Center was brought forth with such an intimate, personal voice that many artists still remember it today. I have looked at the Sea through my Tears is an evocative text work that encompasses all aspects of departure, longing and regret that occurs when a sea divides you from your home country. What is true for every expat, for each former inhabitant of an island like Iceland, or for anyone who wants to explore the world, is even more true for artists, who experience an extra drive to explore the world.
Hreinn Fridfinnsson, born in Baer í Dölum, Iceland in 1943, went to England to pursue his studies in art. He then moved to Limoges in France with his wife Hlíf Svavarsdottir, a talented ballet dancer who subsequently got a job at the corps de ballet of the National Dance Theatre in Amsterdam. This brought the couple to the city that Hreinn Fridfinnsson never really left. In Reykjavik, he was the co-founder of the first group show Súm in 1965, and was involved in setting up the Súm Gallery the following year. As soon as he and his wife got an apartment on the Nieuwe Kerkstraat in 1970, they started the gallery Fignal in the corridor of their small house, and invited different musicians and artists to participate. Among them was David Mayor, who was one of the pillars under Beau Geste Press, a community of artists who specialised in printing artists' publications. This relationship with the group, who had established their presses in an old country house in Cullompton, Devon, started in 1971 when their magazine Schmuck was dedicated to Iceland. Both Hreinn and Hlíf contributed to Schmuck Iceland, as Hlíf drew the illustrations for a story written by Hreinn. Additionally, the Gudmundsson brothers had their pages in the same issue.
The fact that Hreinn Fridfinnsson soon had a solo show at Dolly Melchers’ Galerie 845 (the name was derived from its address on the Prinsengracht) did not happen soon enough in his eyes. He attended every opening, but failed to attract the gallerist's attention until his discovery that she liked a certain brand of jenever. So, he gave her a bottle, but to his frustration needed more than one bottle before she got the message and visited his studio. However, his exhibition did attract the positive attention of Michel Cardena, and Fridfinnsson was therefore invited to join the In-Out Center.
The artworks of Hreinn Fridfinnsson have little physical weight, but do have a heavy load of poetry and imagination. Although the In-Out Center was not the place for old art techniques like painting, Fridfinnsson nevertheless exceptionally exhibited a painting. Or was it a text disguised as a painting? On a white ground, he painted a blue spot at the place where one would expect the sun, on the central axis above the middle line. But there is no trace of a landscape or figuration – there is just this blue spot. The accompanying text, written with pencil on the canvas, reads: "This blue spot in addition to everything else makes everything there is". The aphorism contains a paradoxical superfluity, which is exactly what the art stands for. The painting was created in 1972 – the year of another poetic commentary on creating and imagination, also presented at the In-Out Center. Now the text is typed on a little strip and pasted under a photograph. The diptych is framed separately, consisting of two similar photographs – one of the artist as a boy and one of the artist as an adult. In both photographs, the artist sits on a chair outdoors, and is sketching on a shelf laying on his lap. One photo has the text “Drawing a tiger in Iceland 1952” and the other says “Drawing a Tiger in Holland 1971”. It is not possible to draw a tiger from observation in either Iceland or the Netherlands. Therefore, the tiger is fiction and the question is regarding whether the act of fictionalising and creation has any relationship to an artist's cultural environment, descent or upbringing. A positive answer could be that his home country has never departed from Fridfinnsson's artworks.
Iceland is the country where mankind is followed by the "little people" – the invisible power that cannot be influenced. This background, richly saturated with mystery, may have prompted him to create a very original contribution for Fandangos, the newspaper/magazine that Raúl Marroquín developed at the Jan van Eyck Academie in Maastricht. The famous text in question reads, "I collect personal secrets".
Previously, in the first Vandangos – published in December 1973 – Fridfinnsson used the pad of space that Marroquín reserved for his fellow In-Out Center members for a dream. It was an incredible dream about him and his father in the field – about the shadow that his disappearing father left behind and the light that went down to the sea. The publication of this intimate dream makes it clear that Fridfinnsson's cultural context could be nothing other than Icelandic.
In the second issue, this time called Fandangos and published in Filliou-green, the allotted pad was used as a sort of ad space. He crafted, in handwriting, a call for secrets: "I collect personal secrets / Please send yours to me, I am looking forward to learn them and I will keep them carefully. / Hreinn Fridfinnsson / Kerkstraat 413 Amsterdam Holland.” The same call was repeated in the third Fandangos – this time typed with an exclamation mark after "SECRETS". The request was inserted between a photo of Sigurdur Gudmundsson performing Little Red Ridinghood and an ad reading: “COLOMBIAN WEED IS WORLD'S BEST”. Above it, a photo of Michel Cardena reading the Bible was included, and on top of that a photo of a person laying down with a clay mask ("Clay people at rest") by Hetty Huisman CERAGENETICS was also integrated.
Despite the repeated request, hardly a secret was received, which was certainly a consequence of the underground nature of the magazine. The contrary happened when more than thirty years later, the same request was published in Point d'Ironie, the magazine of Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Agnès B. (July 2009). This time, the underground nature was far removed. Fridfinnsson’s gallery in Reykjavik received hundreds of well-packed secrets, all sent in response to the call of the French bulletin. Finally, in 2015, invited by the art space Kunstverein in Amsterdam, Fridfinnsson terminated his collection and agreed to have a show titled I collected personal secrets. Did he keep his promise? Sure. Did he keep them carefully? Yes and no. He kept the secrets, but in order to never reveal them, he destroyed them without removing their wrapping. AAll secrets were shredded by his assistant, who sometimes smelled chocolate during the process, and who sometimes had trouble with a canvas – but who did not read anything. The remnants were stuck to a thick layer of nondescript material – a soft painting that could hardly be kept upright. It was an unattractive result of a beautiful project, once again demonstrating how Fridfinnsson's art is imbued with a philosophical vision that implies that artists have do a start, but grow older – a vision that encompasses life time.
Hreinn Fridfinnsson's last solo show at the In-Out Center, from October 1 to 12 1974, was titled Handscapes. The difference between this title and "landscapes" is only one letter, so the lines of the hand that are depicted in simple gestures in a series of drawings mix these two notions in our mind. Again, a word (or a sentence or a story) evokes a stream of thoughts that are not confined to fixed interpretations. On the contrary, these works open us up to unfathomable sights. But unconsciously, we realise that many people have ancestors who did labour on the land, with their hands. An artist with a conceptual penchant does not use his hands – not even for making art. He distils lines from his hands and connects them to other lines – to other horizons. For Hreinn Fridfinnsson, the In-Out Center undoubtedly functioned as a place where dreams could originate and imagination was swept to unbounded destinations.
It was the right place.
© Tineke Reijnders, 2017