Monday, June 29, 2015

Interview with Arna Valsdóttir

From “Vatnið syngur” or “ The Water Sings” from the exhibition "Vatnsberinn-Fjall+Kona” 2015 by Arna Valsdóttir at Ásmundarsalur, The Dome; photograph by Pétur Thomsen
Arna Valsdóttir is currently working at the REITIR arts collaborative in Siglufjörður, in northern Iceland, which annually features diverse, well-known and emerging artists across various disciplines from June 24th to July 7th. As an artist, she creates video and sound installations, often using her own voice and live performance. Her 'life paintings' typically incorporate elements from physical structures with elements of the human being...or being human - as she says in this interview, they are a "portrait of a human being and a portrait of buildings human beings build". She was educated in the multi-media department of the Jan Van Eyck Academie in Maastricht Holland. Arna has been exhibited extensively in Iceland, as well as Belgium, Holland and Germany. She has received commissions from the Icelandic Ministry of Culture, the Akureyri Culture Fund, and others, and has taught at the University of Akureyri, the VMA College of Akureyri, as well as part of the Nordic Light Festival.

In 2014, the Art Museum of Akureyri hosted an exhibition of Arna's work. She is one of the founding artists of the Factory, an artist-managed cultural center in Hjalteyri, Eyjafjördur. Arna is currently based in Akureyri, Iceland. Her website is

Arts Community Connection: If you had to apply labels to yourself, what sort of artist would you describe yourself as?

Arna Valsdóttir: Ohh...this is a difficult question…maybe a multi expression artist? I am mainly working with moving image and voice installations for the time being.

ACC: You're currently based in Akureyri, correct? When I first met you, you seemed to decline saying that you were from any specific place, even though you were introduced by someone else as being from Akureyri. Where would you say you are from, or is that not a relevant question to you? Do you feel a special attachment to a particular geographical place?

Arna: I grew up in Akureyri but was born in Reykjavík, where most of my family lives. My father's family is from the east of Iceland and my mother's family is from the west of Iceland, so I have always felt like my roots cross the country...and then I somehow have always had a strong feeling of the world as one's a tiny little star we live on.

I do love one mountain peek close to Akureyri called Hraundrangi in Öxnadalur. I partly grew up on a farm under it and have always regarded it as a personal friend. The mountain has a strong personality somehow.

ACC: You have a beautiful voice, and it has been used in video and performance work with incredible effect. When did you begin incorporating your own vocals and singing into your work? 

Arna: I think voices are beautiful in all their differences and I just love singing. I have experimented with using my voice in my visual work since 1986 when I finished art school in Iceland. I gave a voice to a very big linoleum cut I made and used it to create a surrounding in the exhibition space. I then went for further studies in the Jan van Eyck Academy in Holland where I kept on experimenting with live singing installations in exhibitions where I would be a part of the installation, in performances and in sound installations where the voice would come from different sides and mix in the space. I did endless recordings on the streets and in nature - singing or humming improvised lines to the naturesound, traffic sounds or what ever I met. I have a full box of cassettes with those recordings. I even have one recorded probably in 1988 in the south of France were I sing to the sound of me and my father, who died in 1990, walking on a beach. 

This then developed and has become some kind of a red thread in my an anchor, maybe. In some work I sing recognizable songs that come to my mind, often just like I remember them, maybe with parts missing - like when you are alone in your car or in other private situations - but I also like using the voice more abstract as if like drawing in the space. The space you are in is then the sheet of paper and the voice is the line. I like sending the voice out into the surroundings as a radar. Often small melodies come out of this and I like that they somehow create themselves as if coming from the surroundings. Of course its some kind of improvisation but I really experience it as something visual. The beauty of the voice is that the body is limited but with the voice you can reach the sky. 

ACC: Video - either via screen or, more often, projection - is often used as a medium in your work. How did this come to be, and what about video is useful to your aesthetic?

Arna: I made some experiments with a super 8 camera back in 1987 and I also made a life installation/performance piece in 1988 called "La". I painted my studio black - walls, floor and ceiling - took dia photos turning around in it and then painting white animals coming in from the big window on one wall, dragging white color over the space. I photographed every step - always turning around in the space - until the animals met on the opposite wall and disappoint as a small dot leaving the studio completely white again. I made some improvised song/organ sound to it and made a moving dia show out of a selection of the photos capturing the movement and exhibited it in the same space. I then put that piece on to a VHS that can be played on screens.

Around 2000 I got my first videocamera and I fell in love with it, thinking of it as a little space that I was either trying to enter or trying to put the surroundings into. I just loved watching the world get pulled into it. It also combined my different approaches, voice recording, imag catching and movement so it was just so simple and helpful to demonstrating my vision. I started singing directly into the camera while walking around with it and have kept on doing that, so most of my singing pieces are recorded at the same time as the image capturing, and I leave it most of the it happens. In fact, I use the voice to kind of explore the space I am traveling through.

I started using video projections when I was a lecturer in the University of Akureyri. I was giving lectures and used a projector and found it so interesting when I put it in a place with the image on. I loved how it changed the space and created new spaces leaking over the walls.

In my latest work I use the projections as if editing the video on the wall. I project through glass boxes that I have turned into a kind of prism - sending the image in all directions, overlapping each other. It happened this winter when I was creating a piece for a dome in Ásmundarsalur, an exhibition space in Reykjavík. I wanted to get the image all around the space. I started by trying to use different glass objects and finally dragged my glass cupboard into the middle of my living room, emptying it and using the glass shelves to create a prism in the cupboard and managed to get the projection to all directions and also to the ceiling.

Video is a simple medium that suits my aesthetics very well. I find no-thingness very appealing and the fact that you can turn the image on and off...and then there is nothing...just a memory. I also think of the projection as a thin layer or a transparent sheet between worlds. It's this feeling of taking air in your hands…

From the solo exhibition “Staðreynd” or “Local Fact” by Arna Valsdóttir at the Akureyri Art Museum, 2014; photograph by Vilborg Einarsdóttir
ACC: Define 'life paintings’. 

Arna: Whatever material or medium I use in my work is based on visual aspects. When working in a certain space, I think of it as a canvas so thats why I like calling them life paintings since they come from the same source - as if I was painting and the light, sound, voice, movement, objects around me become the lines, colors and form.

I also like painting with video sequences or sound sequences that I then build up like if I was a painting...sometimes abstract, sometimes figurative - or a mixture - but without telling a story in the context of time. But of course this is just playing with words and meanings. I like language and words since I find it/them so fragile. In fact, they are much more vulnerable than color, form, lines, touch, smell or vision. What goes in through the senses without words I find much more trustworthy and solid than words, whose meaning has to do with so many layers and can create immense communication problems.

ACC: You create works that are inspired by where you are at the moment, usually a building or some physical structure. Elaborate on your interest in inner space and outer space and could this be a metaphor for the inner and outer person or self? 

Arna: I just love this suggestion of yours! Yes, I surely think this could be a metaphor for the inner and outer person. In fact I think buildings have strong personalities and can tell you about their experiences if you listen carefully. Then again our body is a structure, like a building, and it excites me to think of it as an architectural space with an interior, outside and atmosphere. The eyelids I find very attractive. They are like those thin layers or sheets between worlds. I love it when children close their eyes and think they are hidden. I also think of mountains as both persons and as buildings…some of them too have very strong personalities.

In the works where I make video or singing performances in buildings and exhibit them in the same space, I try to go around the buildings and into them without any expectations. I kind of try to work from a null point - pushing everything I know away and just sense the building from outside and inside and breath in the atmosphere. Often a tune comes to my mind that somehow connects me to the place and I then sing it while moving from one spot to the camera and back again just as if singing it or humming to myself. In some places there comes a tune formed by the moment. I somehow feel like I don't create the works - they simply come...and the moment I step in and try to use my creative mind to form something it somehow loses some power or essence. I think I´m quite occupied in allowing things and persons to be as they are, no more no less, and that counts also for me. I look at these works as portraits of buildings.

Even though I use my self in those works I don't regard them as self portraits. I use my self as any other medium and, well, I´m easy to direct. I always understand what the artist is thinking about. When I talk about the pieces afterwards I do think of it as an individual and normally I don't address the person in the video as me. I use hands and feet a lot for expression and they could be hands or feet of people from wherever on the planet and from any period in time. A portrait of a human being and a portrait of buildings human beings build.

From “Vatnið syngur” or “ The Water Sings” from the exhibition "Vatnsberinn-Fjall+Kona” 2015 by Arna Valsdóttir at Ásmundarsalur, The Dome; photograph by Vilborg Einarsdóttir
ACC: Art is personal. Do you think art can ever be impersonal - meaning, is it ever possible to create a completely impersonal work? 

Arna: Maybe there is nothing personal about being a person? I have the feeling that when we dare to really communicate our experiences and share who we are, we can get beyond the personality. I do believe we are much more connected to each other than it often appears.

Yes, I think art is personal but also science and history and banking and whatever a human hand or mind touches. There is always the tiny little fragment of the persona who deals with things. There is a vulnerable moment where everything can be questioned and everything can change because you're not perfect and life is unpredictable in its core. But then again I don't like to answer yes or no because it takes out the possibility of things being different than I think, so... I think being a part of humankind is both a personal and an impersonal experience.

ACC: Is there a question you've always wanted to be asked? 

Arna: Yes, I want to be asked what I have learned from 24 years of teaching art. Along with working as an artist I have been working as an art teacher on all levels in the school system, from preschool to university to a home for people with Alzheimers, to teenagers with various disabilities. So I have worked on trying to get in touch with the creative force within and around thousands of children and grown up children. I would like to tell what I have witnessed. 

ACC: What is your answer? 

Arna: Each and every person I have met through the teaching, however functioning in general in connection with their surroundings, has at some point showed some really special and valuable abilities they have. If they get into an atmosphere where they feel appreciated they will show their beauty. I wish humankind could appreciate each child for who they truly are and not for who we want them to be.

Jameson Freeman interviewed Arna Valsdóttir for ArtsComCon.

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