The Seven Virtues in Ancient and Modern Times (2000)

Review of outdoor art exhibition at Thingvellir, in Stekkjargja, Iceland.

R. J. Preece
artdesigncafé - art | 15 September 2009
This review first appeared in Sculpture magazine, 20(2), pp. 74-5 in 2001.

Thingvellir, located 31 miles east of Reykjavik in Iceland’s first national park, the site where the country’s parliament was founded in 930 and Christianity adopted in 1000, is also the site of Iceland’s 1,000th anniversary celebration. Geographically spectacular, Thingvellir stands in the middle of an in-formation rift valley, whose opposing walls— the European and American tectonic plates— are slowly drifting apart at a rate of two meters per century. Technically speaking, some artworks in “Seven Virtues” were in Europe, others in America, and some occupied the widening gap in between.

This poetic landscape and natural gallery was the physical starting point for “Seven Virtues,” a large-scale survey comparing the “moral consciousness of the Icelandic nation toward the end of the millennium…with the morality of the past.” Curated by Hannes Sigurdsson, Director of the Akureyri Art Museum in northern Iceland, the show juxtaposed the seven classical virtues with seven contemporary ones. The seven classical virtues— courage, wisdom, compassion, faith, justice, moderation, and hope— were respectively approached by Bjarni Sigurbjornsson, Gabriela Frioriksdottir, Halldor Asgeirsson, Helgi Thorgils Fridjonsson, Magnus Tomasson, Ruri, and Sigurdur Arni Sigurdsson. All works were made in 2000.

Courage by Bjarni Sigurbjornsson, a 1996 MFA graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute, signaled the show’s entrance with its sheer size and sky-bound ladder. The piece relates to his paintings on Plexiglas, with its “patterns of uncertainty,” made by using a blue-violet range with the upper reaches blending more with the sky. Ruri’s Moderation consisted of a Minimalist balance made of fiberglass with lead weights on a stainless steel axis. It moved slightly from side to side as the wind lightly licked its surface. At the end of the path, Sigurdsson’s Hope was bizarrely juxtaposed with Magnus Tomasson’s Justice. Both suspended by cables, the former— with plastic-coated linen and polka dot cutouts— had the viewer experience the “canvas” above as light poured through small windows from the sky. Nearby, the suspended Justice was represented with a delightfully decorative, yet unforgiving guillotine. A wooden plank lay below for the daring.

Finna Birna Steinsson, Gudjon Bjarnason, Hannes Larusson, Hulda Hakon, Olof Nordal, Osk Vilhjalmsdottir explored the seven modern virtues: honesty, health, diligence, frankness, trust, family, and friendship. At the time of my viewing, Trust lay smashed and scattered on the ground. Olof Nordal had created a clay cast resembling a police suspect for an unsolved murder case; over time, Trust melted and cracked. Theatricality emerged in other works as well. Gudjon Bjarnason’s Health—the cross—lay cleansed in a photogenic waterfall— viewed from ground level, the water’s source actually appeared to be the sky. Nearby, Hulda Hakon’s Frankness recalled a detail of a Bernini fountain in Rome— a concrete head lay as water poured out of its mouth.

With a biting twist ,Hannes Larusson’s Diligence consisted of an assemblage of vernacular Icelandic symbols— a fishing hut with implied church floorplan— enclosing a Hollywood sign, topped by a fishing container with crafted logos of businesses in Iceland. Meanwhile, a fish’s tail morphs into a portrait spinning in the wind atop a yellow pole. Although it was suggested that the portrait represents a high-ranking member of the Icelandic art community, the artist would neither confirm nor deny the identity. In any event, the symbols are woven into a representation that perhaps questions their independence and interconnectedness.

While the show set out with a rather ambitious agenda— responding to history, the millennium, Christianity, a contemporary survey, and geography— and a potentially overpowering site, “Seven Virtues” actually succeeded brilliantly with several strong and beautifully installed works.