Gretar Reynisson at The Living Art Museum 2013 – English

Gretar Reynisson Geymt en gleymt 2001-...
Gretar Reynisson: "Kept but forgotten" -used objects in wooden boxes 2001 -2012 

The Gate of the Moment

Addressing Gretar Reynisson’s art exhibition in The Living Art Museum 2013 and remembering Friedrich Nietzsche

‘Everything goes, everything comes back; eternally rolls the wheel of being. Everything dies, everything blossoms again; eternally runs the year of being. Everything breaks, everything is joined anew; eternally the same house of being is built. Everything parts, everything greets every other thing again; eternally the ring of being remains faithful to itself. In every Now, being begins; round every Here rolls the sphere There. The centre is everywhere. Bent is the path of eternity.’[1]

This is how the animals speak to Zarathustra in Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical allegory about the prophet who is ‘the teacher of the eternal recurrence’ and who talks metaphorically about the human spirit, first as the oppressed camel, then as the lion of free will in the desert, and finally as the boy, a child who is ‘innocence and forgetting, a new beginning, a game, a self-propelled wheel, a first movement, a sacred “Yes”.’[2]

The unique exhibition that Gretar Reynisson has now installed in the Living Art Museum is the logical progression of exhibitions from 1997, 1998, 1999 and 2000, and corresponds in a surprising way with Nietzsche’s haunting riddle about eternal recurrence, where time ceases to be a linear narrative pointing towards a determined goal, according to Judeo-Christian tradition, but instead becomes a circle, as ‘All that is straight lies … All truth is crooked; time itself is a circle.’[3]

Gretar’s exhibition spans the first decade of the 21st century, showing us ‘eternal recurrence’ in a variety of forms, to create a single, unified work of art about time and existence in its tangible form, unrelated to any transcendental utopia, be it heavenly Paradise or the wordly delights of the consumer society. In the exhibition, we see the plywood plates with graphite inscriptions revived from previous exhibitions, but now in a new sequence, and also numerous corresponding forms, such as shirts, pillows, glasses, doormats, scales, kept-but-forgotten boxes, crumpled papers, photographs and video sequences, all of which bear witness to time and existence in its naked, material form. How can Nietzsche help us to understand this work?

The allegory that becomes the key to Zarathustra’s mystery is found in the chapter On the Vision and the Riddle, at the start of the third part of Nietzsche’s complex and equivocal narrative. Here, the prophet is travelling with a dwarf on his shoulder, and they arrive at a gate with two faces. Two paths meet at the gate; the way back, which ‘stretches back for an eternity’ and the way forward, which is ‘another eternity. They contradict each other, these paths; they offend each other face to face; and it is here at this gateway that they come together. The name of the gateway is inscribed above: “Moment.”’[4] And Zarathustra says to the dwarf, ‘“From this gateway, Moment, a long, eternal lane leads backward: behind us lies an eternity. Must not whatever can walk have walked on this lane before? Must not whatever can happen have happened, have been done, have passed by before? And if everything has been there before – what do you think, dwarf, of this moment? Must not this gateway too have been there before? … must we not eternally return?“[5]

As Zarathustra is contemplating the gate Moment he hears a sheepdog howling in the moonlight, and then notices a shepherd lying on the ground, ‘his face distorted, and a heavy black snake hung out of his mouth’. The shepherd is suffocating and Zarathustra tries in vain to pull the snake from his throat, before commanding him to ‘Bite! Bite its head off! Bite!’ The shepherd does as he is asked, then spits the serpent’s head far away from himself and leaps to his feet, ‘No longer shepherd, no longer human – one changed, radiant, laughing!’ Never has Zarathustra heard such laughter: ‘My longing for this laughter gnaws at me: oh, how do I bear to go on living! And how could I bear to die now!’[6]

These are dreamlike images and riddles, which Zarathustra asks the reader to solve. Readers have searched for solutions ever since, as Nietzsche himself speaks only in metaphors.

Eternal recurrence was a nightmarish discovery for Zarathustra and it serves a vital purpose throughout Nietzsche’s philosophy, where it is inseparably related to the concepts of ‘Nihilism’, ‘Death of God’ and ‘Will to power’. Time that runs in a circle has no aim and therefore has no historical purpose. It is in fact the image of nihilism, which Neitzsche explains thus: ‘What does Nihilism mean? That the highest values devaluate themselves. The aim is lacking; “Why?” finds no answer.’[7] Eternal recurrence is the recurrence of the void and it horrifies Zarathustra. What the story of the shepherd reveals, however, is the way out of the nightmare that Zarathustra discovers: the snake stuck in the shepherd’s throat is a metaphor for time consuming itself, and the biting off of its head becomes a liberating act of the free will. Confronting the enemy, the eternal recurrence of the void, becomes an act of transformation that awakens superhuman laughter.

Nietzsche’s concept of the superman has nothing to do with the domination of others, as is often maintained, but rather concerns the man who, through his voluntary act, manages to rise above his existential state in the hellish circle of repetition, thus achieving a superior existence that belongs to the Earth and human society, and not to heaven and the dominating power of the Godhead. What Nietzsche is preaching in this story is not the elimination of nihilism, but rather its transferrence to a new setting where it acquires a positive value. This perhaps is the essence of the paradox that Nietzsche continually struggled with; the story of the human soul, which existed first in the submission of the camel towards its master, then rose up to the spirit of the lion in the barren desert, before transforming itself into the forgetfulness and innocence of the child, reclaiming the laughter and joyfulness of the shepherd that bit off the head of the snake.

With an incredible resilience that comes close to obsession, Gretar Reynisson faces the existential conundrum that we sense simmering beneath all of Nietzsche’s writing. His work not only tackles the void with relentless realism and honesty, not only challenges the nihilism of the black snake, but also challenges all aesthetics that seek to conceal or shut down uncomfortable thoughts of how ‘the highest values devaluate themselves’ in contemporary life, to use Nietzsche’s definition of nihilism. His works surpass traditional aesthetics, at the same time opening our eyes to the existential contradictions in contemporary life, where ‘the Gate of the Moment’ greets us anew each day, and the snake is beheaded through this artistic performance in its eternal recurrence.

Ólafur Gíslason

English translation: Sarah Brownsberger


[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, The Portable Neitzsche (Penguin, 1982), 329-330

[2] Ibid. 139

[3] Ibid. 270

[4] Ibid. 269-270

[5] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, The Portable Neitzsche (Penguin, 1982), 270.

[6] Ibid. 272

[7] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will To Power (Kaufmann, Vintage Giant edition)

Gretar Reynisson 52 towels 1/1-31/12/2000Gretar Reynisson: 52 towels, 1/1-31/12/2000.

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