Sigurdur Gudmundsson's relationship with art is special. It is direct, honest, personal, and imaginitive. He invests his tall body into both his poetry and philosophy, creating works that are simple and compellingly communicative.
Born in Reykavik in 1942, in 1970 he moved – for a second time – from Iceland to Amsterdam. Since he was enrolled at Academie 63 (later called De Ateliers) during its start in Haarlem in 1963, he had already lived in the Netherlands for a couple of years. His marriage to the Dutch Ineke Wheda also reflects his connection to the country, though his bonds with Iceland also remained tight, tracing its memories in quite a few of his works.
In 1971, Sigurdur had the chance to organise (together with Gijs van Tuyl) the fourth Súm exhibition at the Fodor Museum, an offshoot of the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. Three previous Súm exbibitions had taken place in Reykjavik – the first of them in 1965 – and Hreinn Fridfinnsson was one of its founders. For the Dutch audience, the group show Súm IV was their first introduction to art from Iceland. Among others, the brothers Kristján and Sigurdur Gudmundsson, along with Hreinn Fridfinnsson, made their first appearance on the Amsterdam scene. All three of them had lived in Amsterdam for the past one or two years. Young Voss (Jan Voss), Pieter Holstein, Robert Filliou and George Brecht were also included in Súm IV. The catalogue was published by the Stedelijk Museum as number 499, designed by Wim Crouwel of Total Design. Sigurdur contributed works that incorporated balloons, electrified by a great sense of spleen. In the catalogue, for instance, a group of 9 photographs called Horizontal thoughts (1970-71) show two people facing the sea – one sitting on a chest and the other on sand. The balloon of the lower-seated man is filled with wavy lines, while the balloon of the higher-seated man is predominantly filled with the sky, corresponding to the horizontal view of the two figures. Some pictures are darker than others, reflecting how the day passes. Do the men persevere in professing their nostalgia for their home on the other side of the sea? The motivation of such works does not, as the artist says, deny a subtle commentary on the supposition by, for instance Dutch people, that inhabitants of northern countries are made for melancholia. The balloons were cut out of styrofoam, then painted and fixed into the scenery with iron thread. No work is ever manipulated. A large print of this series was displayed in the show, and was subsequently purchased by the Stedelijk Museum. For Sigurdur, photography is just a tool – an art piece is a "poem" or a "situation", but not a photograph per se.
From the moment Michel Cardena contacted him to explain his plans for the In-Out Center, Sigurdur Gudmundsson became an enthusiastic collaborator. Before long, the entire family, including the children Arni, Tomas and Katrín, were fully involved with the In-Out Center. Many guests from other countries and cities enjoyed the hospitality of the family, sometimes for months in a row. One or two dropped in on a regular basis for Ineke’s good cooking.
For the opening exhibition on November 24, 1972, Sigurdur contributed a number of serigraphs with a photographic narrative, all completed with a text. A Project for the Wind consists of two parts, each "made" by the wind. In A project for the Wind. Sculpture he hammers, positioned with his back to the wind, an armful of driftwood to a pole, vertically. Thanks to the wind’s changing direction, the wood begins to take on new angles. The result is an unbalanced, strange sculpture. In A project for the Wind. Drawing, stones displayed on the ground depict the direction of the wind. These works were realised in Cornwall, where the Gudmundssons briefly lived in 1971 during a house exchange. The landscape of Cornwall had the exact desired conditions: a rough and unspoiled rock area that permitted the artist to act as a prototypical lonely figure – brave, but subject to dominant, whimsical nature.
Additionally, Untitled (Ice-philosophy) conforms to a sequence of occurrences. It is the report that resulted from a project performed over six days for Now Construction, a short-lived gallery on Reguliersdwarsstraat. Each day, the artist brought a frozen set of letters that formed a sentence into the gallery. The ice sentence was in Icelandic language, and represented the artist's philosophical thoughts, such as "This beauty is my first acquaintance with a truth that is unknown to me". Icelandic or not, the text was barely readable during its melting process. On the other hand, the handwritten text under this photographic story presents no mysteries, and is too beautiful to not be quoted:
this is about how my philosophy became a part of human beings and their surroundings:
1. writing the philosophy and simplifying it into six sentences
2. making moulds and filling them with water - then freezing them
3. going every day to the gallery with one sentence of ice
4. the philosophy laying on the floor in the gallery
5. the philosophy has become water
6. the water is gone - some of it was carried away by peoples' shoes to the streets and their homes - some of it went to peoples’ bodies by their breathing in the gallery and there it stayed for some time - some of it went into the open air and it became a part of the clouds and later it came back as rain, etc...
Sigurdur’s first solo show at the In-Out Center was from November 4 to 17, 1973, and was centred around three performances. The pose for Aladdin was a careless, idle and spoiled boy was captured photographically, frozen in Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp, titled Illustration II. At first, the artist sat on his chair while hearing the story of Aladdin. Conversely, Little Red Riding Hood began with an empty stage (located inside the In-Out Center). The story of the fairy tale was, as with Aladdin, recorded on tape by Sigurdur’s friend, the Englishman Michael Gibbs. When the moment came for the wolf to be opened in order to liberate the granny and her granddaughter – "Just at this time the woodcutter was nearby granny's house...." – Sigurdur entered the stage with his long-handled axe. A still of this performance can be seen in his work Illustration I, 1973.
The third performance made a lasting impression on those who were present. The artist had previously had his photo taken at the dunes of Bloemendaal. Stretching a bow and pulling an arrow, he is standing behind a record player on a table. The text added to the Hommage à Grieg (Stedelijk Museum) reads, "While I listened to music by E. Grieg I shot ten arrows in the sky".
At the In-Out Center, ten slides of this sequence were projected on a wall while An den Früling by Edvard Grieg was playing. The artist presented and incorporated the music by flipping the disc each time a visitor appeared. Hommage à Grieg radiates of full-blown romanticism, while simultaneously being funny and absurd. An arrow is a metaphor for direction, but shot in the sky it is in vain – as vain as art allows.
Apart from the somewhat sublime notions that Sigurdur Gudmundsson attaches to his vision of nature, he also includes an endearing degree of down-to-earth simplicity in his work. There is no façade – just pure joie de vivre in its literal, material form. In 1971, Sigurdur presented Eight Poems at Galerie Fignal, located in the corridor of his friends Hreinn Fridfinnsson and Hlíf Svavarsdottir’s house. Each poem consisted of a daily object, such as a loaf of bread, a hammer, or a children's tricycle. The poem could not have been composed more simply, and the same work has maintained a successful trajectory throughout various museums.
His last solo show at the In-Out Center, from October 29 to November 8, 1974, was dedicated to poetry that was barely more sophisticated than his previous creations. In his series of visual Poems, the artist combined two objects whose Dutch names formed a rhyming couplet, where the physical rhyme is non-existent – it is an absurdity. A bundle of rope (touw) was attached to a wooden background next to a sleeve (mouw), creating Poem, Mouw en Touw, 1974. There were also Erren / Sterren (letter r's / stars) and Mos/Gros (moss / gross). He played with Dutch in the same way he played with Icelandic and English variants. Sigurdur does indeed have a talent for languages, but what prompted him to make these combinations was the unattractive consequence of the rhyming decisions. It amused him to disarm the good taste.
The 25 stones that he heaped up in wintertime at the In-Out Center were stones he had picked up from the streets of Amsterdam in the summertime. The stack was titled Summerstones.
The light-footed register with which Sigurdur brings his thoughts to expression is effective. He predominantly used the technique of photography to hold and freeze his performances, and they were mostly taken outdoors by Ineke Gudmundsson and later by Pieter L. Mol, one of the few people in those days who owned a good camera and knew how to use it. Photographs are made for duplications, but Sigurdur practically always produces unique works - except for the early graphic works in the opening show. Editions were a common phenomenon in those times, as it helped to spread the art around and make it easier to sell, or better: to be given away, as generosity was a shared characteristic among the artists. Horizontal Thoughts exists in an edition of 5, and Ice-philosophy was offset in an edition of 16 (printed by Anderson, Nieuwe Kerkstraat). Additionally, the two Projects for the Wind were each offset in an edition of 70, and Little Red Riding Hood was made into 5 prints.
All the young artists of the In-Out Center had the desire to receive an invitation from a respected museum of contemporary art. This became a reality more often than not. In 1973, Sigurdur participated in the Huitième Biennale de Paris, Manifestation internationale des jeunes artistes at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. His works were also featured in a group show at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha and at the Frans Halsmuseum in Haarlem in 1974. Many group shows followed, such as Ça va? Ça va at the Centre Pompidou in 1977. In 1980, Sigurdur was granted the opportunity to show his photographic stills, titled Situations, at the Stedelijk Museum – a solo show that rooted him firmly in the awareness of the collective art scene.
Siggi Gudmundsson cherishes the wonderful memories of the In-Out Center. It is no wonder that he felt inclined to start a similar artists' initiative in Xiamen, China, where he owns a house and has partly lived since 1999. Titled Nothing Gallery, it observes a similar protocol to the In-Out Center: each artist is responsible for one month of programming, and invites a colleague to share the month with them. Since 2014, some 36 presentations have been realised, all welcomed by the youthful enthusiasm of budding artists and a broad audience. Siggi has also intensely supported the Chinese European Art Center (CEAC), a non-profit space that was founded in 1999 by Ineke Gudmundsson and university professor Xin Jian. Its huge success has had an influence on the lively cultural climate of Xiamen and the greater circle of China. By now, the longing for Iceland seen in Horizontal Thoughts has developed into a permanent crossing of seas and oceans. His domiciles are in Iceland (Djúpivogur), Sweden, China and Amsterdam. What has remained steady, however, is his fresh, authentic, juvenile relationship with art.
© Tineke Reijnders, 2017