February 13, 2015

Magnús Pálsson, Eileen Myles, and The Importance of Being Iceland

Magnús Pálsson, Chess Palindrome, 1972


I’m under the influence. On the wall in my room hangs a riddle by the Icelandic artist Magnús Pálsson that requires careful thinking - it’s a chess palindrome written on eight toes of two feet that can be read backwards and forwards. It is in Icelandic and says: 8 H Á TÁM backwards MÁT Á H 8. Translated: 8 H´s ON TOES backwards CHECKMATE ON H 8. But it's not just the riddle. I started googling Magnús Pálsson’s name and came upon those kinds of sentences that make you stop dead in your tracks. Like: “The less material there is in art, the more noble it becomes, and once it has long since ceased to be visible except as a memory of art, that’s when it is best…” Or: “Artists are doing the impossible all the time, creating things of great value without having any resources. I can say that I have created valuable things, maybe, for no money at all. I think that's the genius of the artist.” And: "When the feeling of friendship between people disappears from art, something is lost.” 




The cycle seemed complete when I acquired Eileen Myles’ The Importance of Being Iceland. Like the riddle, Eileen Myles talks about chess and she says that women in Iceland play as much chess as men do. Chess, it was explained to her, is inherently Icelandic, meaning “the Icelandic style of silent understatement”: “One approaches a lot in this country with trepidatious awe (all the ashes, the loneliness, the intensity) only to realize the Icelandic approach is also quietly witty - what is that word - ? Glettio. A slow sort of humor that’s elegant and pathetic and reliant like language and time and landscape - we hope.” Still, this didn't solve the enigma hanging on my wall. So I decided to rely on higher forces and go online for a free tarot card that promised to reveal something about my current life situation. The card I chose depicted a man hanging upside-down by one foot. The accompanying text advised me to look at something and try to find out if I can also look at it from another angle, like the opposite one. “Don’t act,” it said, “but keep quiet, so you can gain insight.” 


Magnús Pállson, Flæðarmál (the beach), 1976. With permission of the artist.


When I met Magnús Pálsson in Iceland last year, he told me that once, he made a cast of the sun, or so I think he told me, because thinking about it now, it seems too impossible to be true. Magnús Pálsson tends to do the unimaginable. Early on in his career he seems to have realized that the artist must stop trying to shape things. Basically, it wasn't the sculpture he was interested in, but its mold. So he started to give form to spaces in between and around things by using plaster. He picked those sorts of spaces that you don’t have a (mental) image of. “If you cry, and you cry into the mold, that is the shape of your sorrow”, the artist said in an interview of the European Live Art Archive. His work Suspense was made by pouring plaster into the pages of an open crime novel. And at the Venice Biennale of 1980 he made time solid by making a cast of the space between the three tires of a helicopter and the tarmac, seconds before it touched down. 

After a while Magnús Pálsson even stopped shaping the spaces in between. He turned to sound and action. Here I have another great quote for you: “The artist saw how absurd it was that a person made of marble was perceived as a sculpture but a person of flesh and blood wasn’t. And maintained: I am a sculpture. When I move I am a mobile sculpture, when I make a sound I am a sound sculpture.” At the Reykjavik Art Museum I saw a few of Pálsson's performance videos. In one of them the artist is lying horizontal and the camera focuses on that awkward part of the body, the Adam’s apple, its silhouette emphasized while the artist is talking. “Everyone in some fashion lives in their throat,” Eileen Myles writes, “Their connection to the room.” Another video shows Pálsson with his face positioned next to a woman’s breast, reciting a text that starts with: “When I come home I’m terrified by the walls of my room. The art on them intensifies my sense of menace.” And that's when Eileen Myles finally answers in The Importance of Being Iceland: “The stuff on my wall [...], it’s no longer art - even if it is. It’s a stuttering attempt to illustrate a thought that can never be seen.”  


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