Some Like It Cold

Getting cozy with the scene at Sequences, Iceland’s premier art biennial.

Scene from Sequences

At Kling & Bang, a gallery in Reykjavik, there’s a Carolee Schneeman work hanging. And a Finnborgi Petursson, a Martha Blondäl, a Ragna Helgi Olafsson, a Ragnaheidur Gestsdottir. To a New Yorker’s ears, all these names sound otherworldly, but these artists in Reykjavik for the Sequences Art Festival (which runs through Sunday, April 19), Iceland’s only artist-run biennial, are local art world elite. The tiny but mighty island has a disproportionately strong art community, which Alfredo Cramerotti, the UK-based curator and first non-Icelandic director of the seven-year old festival, was quick to find out. The first night he spent in Iceland was at Bjork’s house, where she dee-jayed the night away. No big deal. In Iceland, everyone is friends.

The festival is an equally social affair. Artists bump into each other in the snowy streets, cozy cafes, and sweaty saloons. Foundation directors and gallerists drink amongst kin. With nearly 30 artists, half of them Icelandic, tackling the central theme of plumbing—the island is known for its baths and geothermal energy, after all—discovering the artwork secreted throughout the city mimicked, as the curatorial statement describes it, a “complex network of pipes and wires.” Get dug in.


This year marked Carolee Schneeman as Sequences’ Honorary Artist. The septuagenarian, who is a pioneer in feminist video art, wasn’t able to make it to Iceland—doctor’s orders—Kling & Bang, one of Iceland’s most internationally regarded galleries (the other is i8), restaged some of her past work, including 2001’s More Wrong Things, an installation of 14 television monitors suspended from the ceiling, depicting the artist in circumstances that society would deem “wrong” or immoral.


The videos of Beatrice Pendiconi, an Italian artist working in New York, possess an obscure wonder. She considers herself a painter, and the screen her canvas. She affixes a camera above a surface upon which her “paint”—organic materials from cream to honey to water—flow freely. Then she builds black box theaters where each wall shows these mystical videos, such as 9’ Unlimited, on view in the Loftsson Supermarket. (It belongs to the MaxMara family’s Marimotto Foundation.)


Have you ever wondered what a hipster digital art collective would like in Iceland? Meet Kolbeinn Hugi, who set up Plato’s Parable of Light Astral Pavilion 3D at Loftsson, where he and a clan of equally lanky Nordic beauties slithered around inside a translucent tent reacting to Internet-driven images being coded by friends on the outside. The takeaway? Emojis and gifs are the language of the future.


Ragnar Helgi Olafsson, known for deep philosophical meditations using digital tools, took a long-derelict public restroom on Reykjavik’s high street to play with the idea of surveillance. He spent three days inhaling detritus and debris while he refurbished the men’s bathroom, which was a well-known cruising spot, understandably. “How do you think an unflushed toilet smelled after 16 years?” Olafsson joked. The long line of art lovers didn’t seem to mind.


One of the best performances we’ve seen all year might be Styrmir Orn Gudmundsson’s “The Death Show,” in the lobby of the Hotel Holt, a midcentury gem touting Iceland’s largest collection of historical art. Blending performance and painting, the post-apocalyptic weirdo (in the best sense of that word) acted out a piece involving Tostoyan soliloquys, a death contract with an unseen Creator, and a visit from a Vishnu-like goddess.


Well before Carsten Nicolai and Olafur Eliasson, Finnbogi Petursson was melding light and sound into transformative experiences. Although he doesn’t have an international reputation, he’s considered a heavyweight in Iceland. During the festival, in Loftsson’s light-filled attic space, Petursson unveiled Tesla Tunes, an homage to Nikola Tesla where the artist shot electricity through eight pipes of differing lengths at 50 mph, the same velocity as a heartbeat.