ABYSS by Hildur Bjarnadóttir

An essay written on the occasion of opening of exhibition of textile works by Hildur Bjarnadóttir in Hverfisgalleri, Hverfisgötu 4, Reykjavík, the 19th of June 2021


Rhythm, mimetic art, and the cadence of the world in the weaving of Hildur Bjarnadóttir.

When Hildur Bjarnadóttir began homesteading at Þúfugarður in the uncultivated marshlands of the Flói district, some five years ago, the surrounding native plants and level expanse of land and sea were the fuel of her art. That metabolic exchange of light, soil, and water is vividly apparent in her work, or “woven paintings” as she calls them: wool and linen weaving in which earth’s juices are the wellspring of the colour while the form arises from the rigid network of the loom, through a craft based on age-old tradition. Tradition is not, however, the only thing that Hildur means to show us through these rigid specifications; here tradition brings about an encounter with the present, as nature and culture meet in a surprising dialogue with contemporary digital, networked visual culture, a dialogue concerning, among other things, what it means to show and to be. Hildur’s works are “paintings” in which the canvas is not a hidden platform for paint but a densely-woven web of linen or wool threads drenched in colour; the colour has been purged of all reference to anything other than the materiality of the weave itself, a network that echoes the contemporary screen image’s pixel meshwork in a provocative way. Thus Hildur’s work has opened up a new understanding of painting as a medium of mind and hand, culture and nature.

Though the impetus for pioneering in Flói was for Hildur to commune with the local environment, the prospect changed abruptly when she and her partner Ólafur S. Gíslason had the good fortune of welcoming twin daughters, Urður and Salka: Life in Flóinn no longer revolved around communing with earth colours but around constant, demanding care for these new Þúfugarðar settlers, who relentlessly demanded breastmilk, bodily contact, company, and conversation. What’s more, the newborns’ staggered shifts of sleep and waking disrupted the whole cadence of time, in what had otherwise seemed a timeless coexistence of day and night in the rural peace of Flói. The newborns’ onerous task of mastering the world upended life in Þúfugarðar and called for a new rhythm of existence. New work shifts and job rotations were inevitable, and to simplify matters Hildur drafted a new pattern in her journals: Urður and Salka’s sleeping hours became an Excel sheet, and as Hildur slowly began to find hours to sit at her loom, earth colours no longer occupied her mind as before; now time did, the lull between battles and calm before the storm occasioned by Urður and Salka’s common or staggered nap times. In short, the Excel sheet of the twins’ naps became a new framework, not just for family work shifts but also for the loom, as a new rhythm emerged in the weave: While the ground of the weave remains, as before, vertical yellow woollen threads drawing their colour from local flora, now it contends with a dark-blue horizontal linen weft thread, painted with acrylic paint; the sisters’ nap times determine whether this shuttle thread hides the background or vanishes into the tight wool-and-linen weave.

This new programme for the loom, based on a fixed, quantifiable rule, revealed new patterns inscribed in the weave, patterns that also acquired a rhythmic quality. Each day has its rhythm, its pattern, and the weave as a whole becomes a sort of calendar of time-based variations on a musical theme. When we view this rhythm, the sisters’ sleep is far off; we neither see nor hear it. Rather, we perceive it through this rhythm, which is rooted in nature no less than the natural dyes are. What is it that we see? We see the rhythm as extent, not sleep.

What is rhythm? Rhythm is a time-based phenomenon having to do with repetition. First something happens; then it is repeated: 1+1+1… Therefore rhythm has to do with memory: Repetition entails recognizing that which is repeated, such as sunrise and sunset. Thus rhythm also has to do with knowledge: We can never know the beginning buried in the origins of space and time; lacking any perceivable precedent, it is both invisible and inexpressible. Repetition is the prerequisite of all knowledge. The black hole of the “Big Bang” is also a paradoxical metaphor, within the established figurative language of science, for something that existed before everything existed. There is no established model, within time, for the Big Bang; therefore it is a metaphysical, mythic metaphor.

Rhythm is innate to humankind, just as it is to so many natural phenomena: People are made with two feet and walk in rhythm; they are made with two hands and move them in tandem. They have two eyes and blink them in tandem, and moreover have a heartbeat and rhythmic breathing. Humans have all this in common with most vertebrates, with the tail-strokes of salmon as well as the wingbeats of birds. Yet there is one difference: Hens may cluck rhythmically, but they don’t know Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. What is the difference?

A honeybee’s rhythm is entirely within itself and the flower. The rhythm of art, by contrast, points beyond itself. It has to do with memory and meaning: a repetition of that which is gone forever. It is our image of time, the past that is forever gone and the future that is always yet to come. A fabricated rhythm conveys both mourning and anticipation; it is an occurrence that makes us aware of the past, allowing us to grasp it in its intangible absence. The rhythm of art happens on the boundary between what has been and what will be. It ultimately contains the consciousness of death.

The rhythm in Hildur’s weaving is not confined to the variations of sleep and waking in her pattern. It is also inherent in the physical exertion at the loom itself: In a way the loom’s treadle and shuttle recall a pipe organ, in coordinating hand and foot to create a weave that, like the pattern itself, indicates the cadence of the world that envelops our lives and existence. All peoples’ languages are rooted in the world’s rhythmicity, which goes back to the beginning that lies beyond human understanding. Just as written language is rooted in song, song is rooted in the primal cry that is beyond human understanding and which we can trace not only to our ancestors in the animal kingdom but all the way to the above-mentioned Big Bang that science tells us, in its metaphor, marks the beginning of the world. Mime and dance are rooted not only in the ritual invocations, of weather gods or gods of the hunt, of humankind’s effort to gain power over nature; they are rooted in the beginning that can only be grasped through repetition, in the mythic image of the origin of the world.

We cannot look toward myths of the world’s origins otherwise than through the rhythm of nature; likewise, we cannot look toward our own origins otherwise than through the miracle that happens in the womb when consciousness of rhythm arrives through the foetus’s perception of the mother’s heartbeat. The first beat is in darkness, then it happens again; with that, the world’s rhythm becomes part of our lives through the knowledge of what has come before and what is imminent. Human civilization arises when humanity learns to cultivate the imitation of rhythm to imbue human life with meaning, a meaning not restricted to conceptual definitions but inextricably bound up in our intertwined bodily sensations – of the world’s cadence as reflected in, for example, our breath and heartbeat – and in our various intertwined modes of bodily expression, sound and word, image and gesture, being asleep and awake. We see not with our eyes or brain but with our whole body. Our perception of the world’s cadence is inextricably entwined with our bodies and our life, apart from all the analytical sciences’ worthy attempts to reduce the world to its subatomic particles.

It was Urður, Hildur and Ólafur’s daughter, who gave the sleep pieces their name: The word ‘abyss’ was among her first attempts to connect sounds and language with objects through imitation. She heard her father use the word appelsína when handling oranges, that desirable fruit known in many languages as a China apple, or appel-Sina with the pertinent tonal variations. Urður knew nothing of these associations; rather, she learned through her own insight that this strange sound had a mysterious connection to this sun-yellow fruit, not just once but every time it came into view. Her control of her vocal cords was imperfect, to be sure, as she was not yet 12 months old, but she perceived that these sounds pertained not only to one particular object but to all the fruits that bore this desirable scent and texture, this clear yellow sun-colour, and these sour-sweet delectations of the gustatory sense. She said, “Abyss!” and her parents unhesitatingly knew it was the moment to break open the juicy flesh of the fruit. Urður, for her part, had yet to master the English tongue and thus had no idea of the profundity this sound would have conveyed, had she been situated in an English-speaking society. Yet the abyss in question here confronts us all: namely, the abyss between words and objects, the abyss that separates language from objective reality, not just in imitative sounds but in all bodily mimicry, signals, and imagery. This is also the abyss between sleep and waking, the abyss between the world´s cadence and our image of that cadence. It is this abyss that gives Hildur Bjarnadóttir’s woven works the noble quality of humanity’s doomed striving toward the universal, a striving that makes our imitative arts tragic and, at the same time, delightful.

English translation: Sarah Brownsberger



Writing on Art as it happens

Writing on Art as it happens


A short address for a conference on art criticism, held in the Living Art Museum in March 2010, published in “6thVolume, part 3”, catalogue edited by Katrin I Jónsdóttir Hjördísardóttir Hirt and Gunnhildur Hauksdóttir, August 2013

Writing about art is writing about one’s self and one’s own thoughts and to mirror them in others. I use art as such a mirror and as a motivator in my search for words which are meant to sort out my chaotic thoughts.

Through art, I have discovered thoughts that have lingered on in my mind, but in order for me to gather vocabulary and methods to reach those thoughts and organize them I have found myself compelled to utilize the vocabulary and concepts of philosophy.
The questions I have pondered and discovered through art have developed over the years and taken on a clearer form.

I think they can be simplified into a few rudimentary points that essentially pertain to an exploration of the limits between opposite systems.

I went to study in Rome at a fairly young age and that experience had a lasting effect on me. Living in Rome is like living in an art museum. At the same time Rome is the city of the pope and the church, and the majority of the art which can be found there is of a religious nature.

I was in Rome when the student revolt was starting in the sixties. It was a general revolt against all traditions and included desacralizing of all theorems of old beliefs, whether they were related to the spiritual or the secular political system. It was in fact a kind of fundamental change or escalation of the secularisation which had characterized modernism in art from the first half of the 20th century. I found out that desacralizing couldn’t take place unless something existed which was sacred and thus needed to be desacralized. The idea of desacralizing therefore leads directly to the question of the boundaries between the sacred and its opposite and what they may contain. This could be material for a long conversation…

These boundaries between the sacred and the sacrilegious can appear in different ways that could for instance revolve around the boundaries between the rational and delirium or dreams. I have found these boundaries in nearly all art that has sparked my interest, and that too would be material for a long discussion if it were to be explored here.

Another idea which grabbed my attention in my student years and  has occupied my mind ever since, is the relationship between the soul and the body. Namely the paradox that exists within Christian art and I experienced all over Rome. Having „The sacred“ as its subject matter Christian art is nonetheless utterly obsessed by the body, flesh and blood in its purest form. This mysterious boundary between the spiritual and physical has been on my mind, and when I find works of contemporary art that I feel touch these boundaries it immediately catches my interests.

This question about the body became ever more intense as time went by and I understood its connection to visual perception and the magic that takes place when a new visibility is created through our senses in the rendezvous between the living body and its environment, and the world.

New visibility can never be created from that which is already known, understood and defined. I realized that one of the big questions concerns the boundaries between the body as a living being and the environment. The art which covers or sheds light on this mysterious relationship between the living body as a being and the environment has been an endless
mystery to me, and I always become grateful when I find art which can shed new light on this phenomenon, art which forces me to discover new words and sentences to understand this mystery.

The vocabulary which I have accumulated through the reading of philosophers has proven necessary for me to organize my thoughts and also to understand myself. But, since my path went from art to philosophy, I have had a fairly strict rule of testing philosophical terms against art wherever possible. It is art which has called for the terms and the concepts but not vice versa. For me art has been both a starting point and a benchmark. Philosophy which avoids paradoxes and symbols has not caught my interest any more than the multiplication table, a census, or the phonebook.

Examples of terms that I have acquired through philosophy and pondered in this field are terms such as immanence and transcendence, terms that probably draw their origins from theology where they are used to describe the presence and transcendence of the godhead, for example.

These are however terms that concern a much more casual and earthly experience.
For example, the living body which is standing here in front of you in all its immanence is at the same time transcending itself. Being here I am at the same time transcending into your thoughts on an endless journey through art, places, words and concepts. Our living being as a body is first and foremost a transcendent being. It is fundamental to the being that it reaches beyond the outer boundaries of the body, which science would classify as a limited object.

Likewise, it is a fundamental factor of our perception that we can neither perceive nor understand what we open ourselves to in a total and universal way in all its immanence and nature. The phenomena always maintain a furtive shelter behind their perceivable surface and their perceivable form. Therefore we experience both affinity and distance towards that which we perceive. This distance is what I believe theology calls a transcendent being. It is a term which applies to the perceivable world as a whole and need not be limited to religion or wishful thinking of another life for example.

All powerful perception of reality contains immanence and transcendence at the same time. This boundary is a mystery that I have a tendency to be drawn towards when I experience it in a work of art, no matter if it has the facade of religion or atheism.

Our visual perception is in itself a paradox that contains these two opposite terms in one and the same event, where visibility is created on the boundaries between imminence and transcendence. All works of art that approach this paradox in a new or interesting manner compel me to find and come up with words and concepts to figure out this paradox that the artist displays with his work.

In closing, I must mention one term which has been a mystery to me, the term ‘truth’. It was a revelation to me when I discovered Martin Heidegger’s idea that truth had nothing to do with so-called ‘facts’, but that it revolved around being or not being. Truth is an event but not a fact said Heidegger, and we experience truth when we see it happen. When I read this I sensed how often I had experienced truth as an event whilst looking at a work of art, an event related to being, its activation and opening towards the world. Truth is like a volcanic eruption; creation without an end, and its transcendence or non-being follows us all the way to the final paradox of life and death.

Ólafur Gíslason

English translation Pétur Már Sigurjónsson