Sheep and Perspective

The two installations in this exhibition, by Árni Páll Jóhannsson and Finnbogi Pétursson, seem unrelated at first sight but in fact share a great deal, both as regards form and content. In Árni Páll’s installation we see photographs of sheep on the walls and heavy logs of driftwood on the floor; in the other gallery, Finnbogi has installed several security cameras in a circle around the audience, with other equipment to play the images they capture and sounds that are modulated by the images. The exhibition seems to contrast two eras and two ways of living. On the one hand, there is the old Iceland that many longed to return to after the collapse of our modern economy in 2008: Sheep and driftwood, symbols of the sustainable lifestyle of our forefathers who survived here on their farms without imported breakfast cereal and lunchtime pasta. On the other hand, there is the modern world with its technology and alienation where we look at others and talk to them mostly through machines. The symbolic connections between the two installations are much more complicated, however, and cannot be so neatly separated into a cosy, healthy past and an inhuman threatening present. Our reality is much more complex and more dangerous than such a dualism would imply. The title of the exhibition is Fellow Icelanders and the image on the front of this booklet is its icon: An old sheep pen built of volcanic rock. This gives us an indication of symbolism they wish to address. The pen is not only a reference to the happy days in autumn when farmers come together to gather their sheep from the highlands and get a little drunk in celebration. The pen has a certain purpose: To gather the sheep so that one may survey the whole flock and separate out the sheep to make sure each one is returned to its fold. The security cameras in Finnbogi’s installation serve a similar purpose is the modern world of humans: To survey, monitor and separate people. In the gallery, the cameras are arranged in a circle and inside the circle is the audience, we ourselves. When we stand by the pen as the sheep are corralled we survey the flock; here it is we who are the sheep, surveyed by the cameras. It all comes down to perspective: Who is looking at whom and how can we understand a situation of which we ourselves are a part? We cannot ask the sheep what they think and their look in Árni Páll’s photographs is ambiguous, their gaze sometimes distant but sometimes piercing, even accusing. We have lived with these animals for more than eleven centuries. We have praised the sheep for clothing and feeding us but have little interest in their point of view. The logs of driftwood are perhaps a fine symbol for the Icelanders – we drifted here a long time ago and were left high when the tide receded: Waterlogged, some wormeaten, heavy and quiet and still a little bewildered by this new country, fairly apathetic towards our surroundings and what fate may have in store for us. The form of address “Fellow Icelanders” is such a cliché that we no longer pay it heed. Yet these very words should put us on our guard: Who is being addressed and to what purpose? Definitions – e.g. of what it is to be an Icelander – always come with a certain perspective and a certain purpose, whether we realise it or not. He who controls the perspective controls the definition: He rules the sheep pen and however much the sheep may bleat, no one listens to them. Finnbogi and Árni Páll have created a strange world with their deceptively simple installations. The symbols they evoke are strong and insistent but if we are to fully grasp their message we must remember that we ourselves are the subject – we are no longer just an audience.

- Jón Proppé, critic and curator, 2010