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Review: Hreinn Fridfinnsson

Exhibition: Hreinn Fridfinnsson
Serpentine Gallery
17 July – 2 September

A friend came with me to the Serpentine in the rain today. He’s a gardener and he had an unexpected day off either because of the rain or despite it, I’m not sure which. They asked him to take off his wellingtons at the door and walk around in his socks which were also muddy.

Thorsteinn Surtr dreamed he was awake but everyone else was asleep; then he dreamed he fell asleep and everyone else woke up,” it says on the wall on the way in and on the way out.

He padded around the walls looking at the pictures to start with: documentary photographs of rural Icelandic landscapes coupled with written anecdotes of local rumours and folkloric myths that no-one has had cause or opportunity to witness or test. The cliffs will fall if three grey cows are ever taken to water at once, but three grey cows never are. Five gates were built in the hills to open only for the South Wind, but the artist built them during a northerly wind and hasn’t returned to them since. An isolated house was built with its wallpaper on the outside for passers-by to enjoy, but nobody knows it’s there so passers-by are few and far between.

It seems like an unusually homely context for the rest of the objects in the space around us, which at a glance look minimal and cleanly formal. But up close it’s clear that the work has a lot of contact with the day-to-day stuff of the world, and that their clinical impression is a casualty of the white ‘jewel-box’ gallery space, which isn’t a natural place for the work. The punched-in door leaning against the wall like an afterthought – and the multi-coloured stirring sticks spaced over an end wall like musical notes – are clues that this isn’t an installation show at all: it’s a group of works suspended in an empty space, and I’d like to see the work where it started off, in the artist’s Amsterdam studio, or out in the air of the Icelandic hills. Perhaps I’m being too generous to concede that this once-removed relationship with the work might just have been imposed on us intentionally, to make the work start and stop just outside our reach like Thorsteinn Surtr’s dreams? Either way, there’s a strong feeling that what we’re looking at here is research, as though the Serpentine is playing host to a temporary tumbling-out of Fridfinnsson’s sketchbooks of the past three or four decades.

Hreinn Fridfinnsson, Jars (2002)

Jars (above) is one of those pieces that spring up midway through an exhibition to re-align the rest of the work around it. A pair of glass jars balance one on top of the other, mouth to mouth, as though separated by a line of symmetry. Sliced between them at their join is an upturned mirror that replaces the obscured lower jar with its counterpart in mirror form. At the edge of the mirror a slight ripple marks the barely distinguishable junction between the reflected image of the jar above and the sight of the jar below. The mirror might almost have been transparent glass, with no reflection at all.

And so it’s the ripple of the everyday that Fridfinnsson nudges into effect with his work: the changeover space between image and reality, memory and fiction, dreaming and waking. The exhibition represents a concerted and unfinished thesis on the friction of the in-between, a careful friction that permits the unapologetic softening of the world, and its ways, and the stuff in it. Perhaps the whole world is a slow, inevitable, continuous double take, turned inside out at the weather-torn edges of his wallpapered House Project, a home that he says ‘harbors the whole world except itself’.

(My friend forgot to collect his boots on the way out and made it as far as the bricks outside before he realized he was still in socks.)

Tamarin Norwood

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