Rósa Gísladóttir, Displacement – Rome/Reykjavík, Harpa, 2013

Ólafur Gíslason,
Art Historian

What would an archaeologist of the future say? If in 2000 years a researcher would start investigating our epoch through our daily artefacts, what would his judgment be about our world of plastic, cellophane and concrete?

The exhibition “Come l‘acqua, come l‘oro...”, installed by Rósa  Gísladóttir in the ruins of Trajan’s Market at the historic site of the Roman Imperial Fora in the summer of 2012, was a dialogue between the present and the past, where the surroundings themselves mattered just as much as the works on display. The dialogue focused on the history of the forms and how their content and meaning has undergone changes in the past two thousand years, in particular since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The architecture and the art works which have been preserved in the Imperial Fora were the source of the forms developed in oversize by Rósa, but the content of her works had nevertheless been separated from their origin: the architects and the artists who shaped the Imperial Fora in Rome made use of a highly advanced geometry, where each piece was a part of the general idea which regarded the City and the Empire as a reflection of a complex rule on the structure of the universe; an all-comprising rule which not only shaped the appearance and the form of the city, but also the community which had built it and the Empire as a whole.

In the ruins of the Imperial Fora we find the roots of the classical tradition: the idea of the center, the symmetry, the circle, the vault, the right-angled point of view and the perspective – all fundamental factors reflecting eternal values and an unbreakable rule. Rósa Gísladóttir has shown us how the forms of the classical tradition live in the present like ancient remnants of a lost religion, while simultaneously being recycled in a new function as wrappings of the new and universal laws of consumerism and the philosophy of economic growth characteristic of our times.

When the idea was born to set up the exhibition in Iceland, it in fact demanded the converse of the classical and historical frame of Trajan’s Market. As a comparable frame does not exist in Iceland, we sought the complete opposite as a counterbalance to Rósa’s works in order to continue the dialogue on the history and the content of the forms, although this time from a reverse premise. We could not imagine a better venue for this enterprise than precisely the magnificent exhibition area of Harpa – Reykjavík Concert Hall and Conference Center, which in its forms and spatial construction is as far from the classical tradition as one can imagine.

The classical tradition of Western formation of space which we can trace back to the Ancient Greeks is founded on the general idea that the building and the urban space is a permanent shelter for man which reflects universal rules of mathematics and geometry and the unshakeable structure of the Universe. The urban space was a shelter for man in the existential turmoil, while also forming a frame around the relatively firm structure of society, be it the Greek city-state, the Roman Empire or the Judeo-Christian notion of Holy Jerusalem as the ideal of an earthly Paradise. In this respect there is no basic distinction between the Greek temple, the Roman basilica, the medieval cathedrals and the secular palaces of the Renaissance and the Baroque era. All these traditions are founded on a single invariable religious and epistemological truth, which not only gave meaning to the space, but also formed a social frame around those aspects of existence that are permanent and safe.

In the wake of the Industrial Revolution and Modernity the idea emerged that space should not be transformed on the basis of universal aesthetic laws about proportions and dimensions; rather, space should function as a venue for the development of new technology and for new types of democracy: the form was supposed to be intertwined with its function, and all the ornaments which had earlier emphasized the eternal values of every building were now written off as characteristics of reaction and suppression, or decadence. Even beauty was no longer the main objective of formation of space, but rather its function and practicality. Mobility and movement take over from the stability of the fixed frame. This history is familiar to us in the modernist architecture which, for example, distinguishes the largest part of 20th century Reykjavík.

In this entire history Harpa marks a certain watershed, reflecting an idea that surpasses the utilitarian program of Functionalism as we know it. It is not the classical rock in the cityscape which we see for example in The Culture House – National Centre for Cultural Heritage, nor is it the fixed frame of reference of the utilitarianism manifested in the University of Iceland Main Building.

Harpa reflects a new idea of the cityscape, where the glass veil plays a pivotal role, but besides being an art work it forms new and transparent division between the outer and the inner space, where the inner space does not only incorporate the urban image but almost becomes the substitute for public space as a square for everyone where various trends come together in the diverse selection of shops and restaurants, alongside the concert rooms forming the core of the building.

Simultaneously, the veil of the building shifts from the traditional fixed point to an ever-changing flow of light and colors, intensified by the irregular fishing-net pattern without any fixed point or center and no clear or finite lines. Harpa signals a new understanding of the urban space where the closed city gives way to the multi-cultural flow of information and ideas dominating our times and ways of communication. A society where the walls fall and power becomes invisible, at the same time as it becomes an all-encompassing surveillance machine.

Into this space Rósa Gísladóttir places her formal sculptures, which are founded on the classical geometry of the Platonic polyhedron, on the symmetry, the circle and the ellipsis; the forms of these sculptures refer to the fixed and the unshakeable. However, it is the texture of the material which transposes us from the classical space to the contemporary techno-society: instead of marble and granite found in the ruins of the Imperial Fora in Rome we encounter the industrial material Jesmonite, with an alabaster texture or a golden cosmetics, leaving us up in the air vis-à-vis the fixed and the unshakeable norms.

The ambiguous meaning of Rósa’s works is further emphasized by her sculptures of light, made from plastic bottles of the industrial society and filled with colored water. The light sculptures also refer to the classical form of the column, the amphora and the plate; moreover, one of the light sculptures depicts the mirror image of Medusa’s mask, the sign of the imminent death in classical mythology, which is here given a metaphorical meaning in the guise of the wrapping society. 

The wall photographs of the colorful light sculptures bring us even closer to the ephemeral volatility of contemporary advertizing imagery, but on the top floor of Harpa the Panopticon dominates, a mirror reflecting the transient world, which the surroundings of Harpa and the cityscape gather into its fugitive core, with the reflection of the viewer as its moveable center.

Rósa Gísladóttir’s exhibition invites us to consider our environment and our spatial experience. The cityscape is a reflection of our ideas and thoughts, it is never neutral and never self-evident. With the displacement of her exhibition from Trajan’s Market in Rome to Harpa in Reykjavík, Rósa has created a new work which relates to the former and connects the unshakeable and firm background of the classical tradition to the liquid flow of the information society, beyond all boundaries.

English translation: Thórhallur Eythórsson