Art Festivals in the 21st Century
Inese Baranovska, Art Critic, Curator
Reykjavik – experience and power
Cēsis – creative platform and development opportunities
12.05.–05.06.2010. Reykjavik Arts Festival
23.07.–15.08.2010. Art Festival Cēsis 2010
The opening of the exhibition by Cindy Sherman at the National Gallery of Iceland. Photo: Ieva Epnere
History and Facts
The first Reykjavik Arts Festival took place in the summer of 1970, and since that time it has been the driving force and source of energy for the development of Iceland’s culture, attracting and inspiring both local artists and world class masters. The festival has always helped preserve the national confidence of the islanders and has served to promote the global popularity and recognition of Iceland. Currently it is one of the oldest and most respected festivals in northern Europe. It is covered by respected international media in Europe, as well as not so distant neighbours in the Unites States: Art in America, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Modern Painter, Artnet, Artforum, Art-Das Kunst magazine, Boston Globe, etc.

Initially the festival was held every two years, as is common for biennales, but since 2004 it takes place every year, in May. The web site of the festival ( provides an introduction to the forty year old history of the festival: the posters and programmes allow us to feel like time travellers. What we see are not nostalgically sweet memories of the past, but rather documents evoking the spirit of the age of the art and culture of the past decades, which have not lost their quality and topicality.

Despite the global political and economic crises and collisions of the last forty years, the festival has always offered its viewers and listeners the very best from the local art scene and invited only outstanding international artists and performers.

Although one of the founders, and up to this day honorary president, of the festival is the famous conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy, in parallel with music programmes an important role has always been assigned to the arts and interdisciplinary events, as well as various innovative art forms. The festival programme offers a harmonious balance of classical music and avantgarde music, world music and rock music, drama or puppet theatre, circus or street performances, cinema, art exhibitions in galleries and museums or art installations and campaigns in the public space, lectures and special literary readings, musical evenings in artists’ workshops, etc. The patron of the festival is the President of Iceland, and financial support is provided by the state and the municipal authorities of Reykjavik, as well as a wide network of private donors. In order to gain an insight into the comprehensive arts strategy of this small but unique country, I will mention just a few names, both in music and the arts, of those who have taken part in the festival over the years: Yehudi Menuhin, Vladimir Ashkenazy (1970), Leonard Cohen , Christof Penderecki, Sigurjón Ólafsson, Donald Judd, Richard Long (1988), Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Cesária Évora, David Bowie and Björk (1996), Tony Cragg, Frank Gehry, Mario Botta and other famous architects (2000), as well as the US artist Roni Horn with a solo exhibition My Oz and literary readings in her Library of Water (2007). There was an experimental art marathon in Reykjavik Art Museum, led by Hans-Ulrich Obrist, curator of the Serpentine Gallery in London, and artist Olafur Eliasson (2008), the British group ‘Tiger Lilies’, the Mexican singer and poet Lhas de Sela, the powerful group of female artists ‘Icelandic Love Corporation’ (2009). Despite the active volcano and the economic crisis, the 2010 programme was quite extensive. In music, there was the afro duo from Mali ‘Amadou & Mariam’, famous classical music performers from Norway and Germany, a gala concert of Bedroom Community – the Whale Watching Tour, the legendary Finnish accordion player Kimmo Pohjonen and many others. In the theatre there was a new production of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ by Oskaras Koršunovas, the director of the Vilnius City Theatre. In visual arts, twenty photography exhibitions under the common title of Reality Check.

The Force of Harsh Nature as a Catalyst for Creative Energy
A lot has been seen and read about Iceland, seen in the TV programme Ziemeļu puse (‘The North’) and National Geographic. We have also heard rapturous stories of artists who have been in residence in Iceland for a while, but all of these borrowed impressions are nothing compared to the reality of the island. The harsh and majestic nature, and the insignificance of the human being when compared to it – this must be what drives the Icelanders to be so independent, free-thinking, enthrallingly crazy, artistic in every expression and at any age.

During the festival I was introduced to many photographers, painters, sculptors, video artists, curators, art researchers and musicians, and with most I could observe the phenomenon which we Latvians would call the Sprīdītis syndrome. In their youth it had seemed to them that their country of birth is too confined, and they had rushed to the USA or to Europe, to study and to get to know the world. But as years passed by, the longing for home became stronger and stronger, consciousness of national identity was reawakened and they returned home, seeing and valuing their native island with different eyes.

The well-known Finnish photographer Renja Leino, one of the festival guests who took part in an exhibition at Nordic House, quite aptly declared the Icelanders to be the “Italians of the North”. They are always joyful and don’t really worry about anything – if you can’t do something today, tomorrow will also be a nice day… About that nice day – that however is quite relative, as even in May there is harsh wind. And that lush green grass, which is mostly seen in postcards for tourists, in reality can be seen only one month a year – in July. Although I had heard that Reykjavik is not a big city, the sedate and small-scale format of the city was a surprise to me: it’s the size of a picturesque provincial town with the nightlife of a metropolis and active participation in art and culture, without any trace of provincialism. On returning home, I tried to work out conclusions from the diversity of impressions experienced during the festival. Carefully I leafed through and appreciated the book of conceptual photo series given to me by the Icelandic photographer Spessi, I studied the book ‘Situations’ (1970–1982) by the pioneer of conceptual photography Sigurđur Guđmundsson, who has already achieved world fame, and the retrospective catalogue of glass artist and sculptor Brynhildur Thorgeirsdóttir. Putting together the jigsaw puzzle of my experiences at the festival and what I’d noted in the books, I started to see where it is that the roots of the suggestive power of Icelandic art and culture phenomenon lie – it is feeling for nature and the world encoded by generation upon generation, which does not allow falseness and cheap manipulation, and requires one to think and act in large categories. To my mind Latvians also have this power, except that we are not islanders, and thus have always been subjected to various external influences which complicate our perception and diminish our ability to distinguish the wheat from the chaff.
Ieva Epnere. Photos from the series 'I would like to be'. 2006. Photo: Ieva Epnere
Visiting the President and Other Opening Events
The festival opening took place in the Great Hall (a rebuilt refrigerated warehouse in the territory of the old port) of the Reykjavik Art Museum. Already in the street we were met by the group of artist and musician Ragnar Kjartansson, dressed up in oriental clothing. As mentioned before, Icelanders like to enjoy life (just like the Italians), and that’s why the first week of the festival can be considered to be one big party: you drift from one opening event to another, everywhere you meet the same people whom you’ve met before, they introduce you to other people from artistic circles, and by the end of the week you have met all the cultural elite of Reykjavik (and probably also Iceland). I must admit that I’m not a great fan of exhibition openings, it’s an opportunity to meet friends and acquaintances I haven’t seen in a while, and to show respect for the exhibition authors and curators, but viewing the exhibition at an opening is rather complicated and unproductive. Nevertheless, in Reykjavik I had to survive the marathon of openings for four days. To be honest, there too you get a déjà vu feeling as in Riga or other places in the world, but I did notice one thing: this marathon of festivities is very important for Icelandic artists themselves, just like in Latvia when we used to have the popular Art Days. On the second day of the festival all the participants and official guests were invited to attend a reception held by the President of Iceland, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, at his residence. He is also the official patron of the festival. In conversation with Icelandic artists I noticed a pleasant sense of self-confidence that the president also honours the more out-of-the-ordinary and creative section of Icelandic society, and this gesture of goodwill was also highly appreciated by the international media and foreign artists.

Reality Check – Twenty Photography Exhibitions
The visual arts programme this year was completely focused on photography: twenty photography exhibitions in all museums, exhibition halls, art centres and galleries, involving artists from many countries in the projects. The number of events was impressive, and the most surprising thing was that quality prevailed over quantity: almost all exhibitions could be rated good or excellent. It is clear that I cannot review them all in this article, though I would like to mention the most impressive ones.

As the most notable I should mention the exhibition by US photographer Cindy Sherman at the National Gallery of Iceland, as well the photo installations in the city environment by her partner, musician and artist David Byrne. The photo series Untitled Film Stills (1977–1980) instantly made Sherman a celebrity. In the photo series she places herself in the role of unnamed film heroines, reminiscent of masterpieces of US and European films of the middle of the 20th century. In the early 1980s, this was a completely innovative approach in the field of staged photography, and it surprised the viewer with perfectly maintained style and the charisma of the author herself as a model. It is a rarity to see at an exhibition the series in its entirety, usually it is available in book format. On show at the National Gallery, it was possible to verify the suggestive power of these small format black and white photographs – one could say that the personality of the artist dissolves in order to be reincarnated into a choir of multi-voiced femmes fatales.
The legendary David Byrne of the group ‘Talking Heads’ presented two projects: Inside Out and Moral Dilemmas. The first project was large format photo prints (similar to the adverts on public transport), which covered the ground floor windows of Reykjavik Art Museum. These images were photos of commonplace curtains, documented over time in many cities and countries, and totally inappropriate for the windows of a contemporary art museum. The aim of his second project, Moral Dilemmas, was to emphasize the fragile border between advertising and art nowadays. These works surprised the viewer on city advertising billboards: the brightly optimistic colours attracted attention, but the text created confusion. As in sociological questionnaires, each presented a question with three possible answers. Both the questions and the answers were equally uncomfortable, and created moral uneasiness, meanwhile the surveillance cameras depicted as if spoke to us: we are watching you. This was the artists biting reaction to the everpresent advertising industry, which incessantly and overbearingly addresses us, without permitting a dialogue.

The leading Reykjavik gallery i8 offered the photography exhibition Situations and Others (1970–1982) by the outstanding pioneer of conceptual art Sigurđur Guđmundsson .These photographs were influenced by the Fluxus movement, and they construct poetically philosophical visions with the author himself being the main character living out various absurd and ironic situations. With a touch of the harsh humour of the northerner, the photos visualize the author’s musings about an individual’s path of existence and the search of balance between nature and the human being. It is significant that later, when the artist had gained international popularity, he no longer created such moving and marginal works, but turned instead to more accepted official art.

One exhibition was a great surprise to me, as the information about it in the festival’s information newsletter wasn’t very clear. This was the photography exhibition Alternative Eye, photos from the contemporary art collection of Pétur Arason and Ragna Róbertsdóttir, which could be appraised in a subsidiary of the Reykjavik Art Museum. These were sixty photos and photo installations, publicly displayed in Iceland for the first time. This unique collection reflects the world view of internationally-known Icelandic artists from 1960s until present day. The couple, businessman Pétur Arason and artist Ragna, began collecting art already in the 1960s: photographs, drawings, installations and video works. Altogether there are now approximately 1000 items in the collection, with Icelandic and international artists represented in about equal proportions. The collection was started when they owned a gallery called Second Floor in downtown Reykjavik. During the five years of its existence it became extremely popular and gained respect among the local intelligentsia. They feel spiritual closeness to the artists whose works are in their collection, and this connection does not end with the purchase of the works. In the photo collection there are works by Roni Horn, Tacida Dean, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Thomas Ruff, Candida Höfer, as well as many other outstanding authors. I had the opportunity of meeting the collectors and asked them what I inspired them to create this collection. They told me that the choice of works was always guided by their heart, not by the forecasts of the art market; collecting art is their way of life, which brings harmonious joy and love.
Gints Gabrāns. Photon painting - new views of the world. 2009. Publicity photo
The Nordic House, built in the 1970s after a design of the famous Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, was home to the exhibition of Scandinavian artists The Present is Now. Its curators were two photographers: Spessi and Katrin Elvarsdóttir (Iceland). With the help of art theoretician Kimmo Lehtonen (Finland), they selected six contemporary authors. I would like to make a special mention of the Finnish photographers taking part. Harri Pälviranta, with his powerful photo series Battered, depicts men who have suffered in Friday party night fights – with their monumentality and directness, these portraits to me seem to identify with the Spanish painting traditions of the 17th century. There are also portraits of children by Renja Leino, their vacant faces staring at computer monitors in Absent Minds. The emotionally powerful message of her work is amplified by the fact that they are printed in large format and displayed on the walls of several houses in the territory of Nordic House. In recent years Leino consciously uses a basic mobile phone camera, using its defects and deformations as a strengthening factor: People look closely at my images. Their faces are in a foreign landscape, minds absent in front of these pixel boxes. In my imagination their brains are slowly being absorbed by the screen. What happens to their minds, when machines so completely capture their attention?”

For the first time ever, photographs were displayed in Reykjavik’s public spaces. The title of this project, Reality Check, was the motto of the artistic programme for whole festival, with the intention of emphasizing the significance of photography in our contemporary world as a me.dium for reflecting life, communication and culture. The curator of the cityscape project Æsa Sigurjónsdóttir was interested in what happens to exhibition works when they are moved from the classical white cubes to open public spaces. Does it make people to look at the works differently? A public space can serve as a neutral background, but it can also give the works a new dimension of perception, and provide an alternative visual code. What can be noticed, and what remains hidden and unobserved? Where is the borderline between documentary realism, narrative story and aesthetic values?

Æsa Sigurjónsdóttir has visited Riga several times, where she has had the opportunity to meet Latvian photographers. For the Reality Check project she chose the series I Would Like to Be by Latvian artist Ieva Iltnere. These are photo portraits of Icelandic youth which were created when Iltnere had a residency in Iceland in 2006, but were never exhibited there. I asked the curator to comment on this choice: “This portrait series of Icelandic youth attracted me with a different viewpoint of the young people of Nordic countries. It differs from the already familiar works by European photo masters (Thomas Hurmery, Rob Hornstra). Ieva’s works possess a particular sensitivity and clairvoyance. Here the youth are revealed as a silent social group, as individuals who are doomed to eternal anticipation.”

At all the best events of the Reykjavik Arts Festival one could observe the intention of authors to tell their own story, by immersing themselves in various processes of modern life, trying to substitute the vision of life rapidly flashing by with a personal view on things and events, in order to seek and get to know the meaning of human existence, trying to understand themselves and to find a dialogue with fellow human beings.

On a similar note, this year the brand new (and for now the only) art festival in Latvia CĒSIS 2010, is to take place from July 23 to August 15. In its format it is similar to the Reykjavik Festival, offering events of classical music, contemporary art, theatre and film. It has been important that from the very beginning the creative platform of the festival was clearly defined: to present only art events of high quality, to invite internationally renowned authors and to support promising new talents. For the fourth year running, the Cēsis Festival at the height of summer has attracted the attention of both Cēsis residents and culture gourmands from Riga, and there is also a gradual tendency to draw in the Baltic region and Scandinavia. We can only hope that in the future our government will finally realize that it pays to support culture and that it is a significant driving force in the long-term development of the country, which can strengthen national self-confidence and increase international recognition of this country.
Valts Kleins. Truth and lies (Entropy). Photo. 2010. Publicitu photo
What’s on at the Cēsis Festival this year?
It is noteworthy that the contemporary art exhibition which traditionally takes place in the Old Brewery this year is titled Take Care. The concept of the exhibition is rooted in the desire to establish what is the relationship between the artist and society or, more precisely, artists’ feelings and thoughts about society, in their works of art expressing concerns which are separate from their individual aspirations, and simultaneously revealing themselves to be uniquely creative.

The contemporary art exhibition this year will feature artists from all three Baltic countries, thus reflecting current tendencies in art of the Baltic region. Latvia will be represented by Andris Breže, Gints Gabrāns, Kristaps Ģelzis, Valts Kleins, Ģirts Muižnieks, Katrīna Neiburga and the young painter Anda Lāce. Estonia will be represented by a conceptual group of young artists Visible Solution, founded by three young authors and creative entrepreneurs: Taaniel Raudsepp, Sigrid Viir and Karel Koplimets. The Lithuanian curator Virginija Januskeviciute, together with a group of young authors, will create a non-functional architectonic installation, which will provide an interactive way of involving the viewers in getting to know a new space.

Daiga Rudzāte, the curator of the exhibition Take Care has this to say about the concept: “In 200, at the opening of the Latvian stand at the Venice Biennale, German curator Norbert Weber said that the main objective today is not to create new worlds, as Daniel Birnbaum had expressed in his concept of the biennale, but to take care of the world that already exists. In the global financial crisis the Baltic countries have been hit particularly hard. Are these the consequences of a lack of care? Could it possibly be that caring was understood so pluralistically, that in the “white noise” of democracy, just like in the hubbub of a big city, any kind of value reference points have been lost, causing grave consequences in practical life. Some people took care of their welfare, the others – of saving their soul, in esoteric practices, still others fought for a clean environment. But an even larger number of worries became embedded in the position of “against”, creating if not physical, then at least numerous spiritual confrontations, each with their own justification.
What is the relationship between the artist and society? More precisely, what do artists feel and think with regard to society, by expressing concerns in their artwork, which are beyond their individual desires, but at the same time expressing a markedly individual approach? What are the possibilities of interpreting these concerns? – hopefully, the visitors of Cēsis Art Festival, as well as the intellectuals writing about art, culture and society will join in seeking to find out.

The exhibition should not limit itself to just asking questions, which is the most convenient way for a contemporary artist to play hideand-seek with society. Contemporary art is capable of creating intellectual unease, which is not the same as aesthetic pleasure. Already in ancient Greece, catharsis the great objective of the tragedies, but it also had its basis in their tradition. The aim of this exhibition is not the birth of yet another tragedy, but to be a fresh breeze on the way to a meaningful life enjoyed together with friends, people who share your views and all those who could become fellow travellers through life.”

My heartfelt thanks to the Nordic-Baltic Mobility Programme for Culture, as well as to colleagues and friends in Iceland – Aesa Sigutjonsdottir, Jóhanna Vigdís Guðmundsdóttir, Spessi and Katrin Elvarsdóttir.

/Translator into English: Vita Limanoviča/
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