In the autumn of 2008 Iceland’s apparently booming financial sector collapsed spectacularly, exposing incredible mismanagement and even criminal behavior, not only on part of the banks and investment companies, but also on the political level, where oversight had been cut and laissez-faire policies had allowed the country’s banks to grow to the point that they dwarfed the actual economy. The International Monetary Fund was called in and the winter of 2008–2009 saw large protests on the streets of Reykjavík, eventually forcing the government to resign.
2008 was also the year Steinunn Gunnlaugsdóttir graduated from the Icelandic Academy of the Arts. Already active in the environmental movement and in work against the Israeli occupation of Palestine, Gunnlaugsdóttir joined the protests. Working with filmmaker Ólafur Páll Sigurðsson under the name Angeli Novi, she has now produced a hard-hitting political exhibition in response to these events, extending the Icelandic experience of the crisis into a general critique of global capitalism.
The exhibition You Can‘t Stand in the Way of Progress is at the Living Art Museum, an artist-run institution founded in 1978, and includes both sculptural installations and a 20-minute film that dramatically illustrates the ways in which international capital fuels a cycle of boom and bust, leaving common people crippled by debt and economic uncertainty. The film is shot in Iceland and Greece – two of the countries hardest hit by the current depression.
Many Icelandic artists have struggled with their response to the crisis. This is by no means the first exhibition to tackle the issue, but perhaps the most successful attempt to come to terms with it – not least because Gunnlaugsdóttir and Sigurðsson approach their subject primarily through metaphor and highlight the personal experience of life under capitalism, rather than abstract political or economic concepts. The film that forms the centerpiece of the exhibition shows people in the foreground, buried in the ground up to their necks, slowly chewing up ribbons printed with various political slogans and clichés: «Class With Class», «Anarchy is the Worst Sin», and the one that lends the exhibition its title, «You Can’t Stand in the Way of Progress».
Some thirty people of various nationalities appear in the film, all reduced to immobility, able only to continually swallow the same demagogic slogans. In the background, more dramatic scenes unfold with images of structures and large-scale construction projects being built and destroyed in turn, set to a disturbing soundtrack of music and noise created by the artists in collaboration with Örn Karlsson. These simple metaphors reveal the cyclical nature of capitalist economies and the way in which they effectively render the citizenry powerless to intervene or even to take control of their own lives.
Although visitors to the exhibition are greeted by a brightly lit installation of ribbons with slogans and effigies of two people, buried in sand, the mood inside is distinctly somber and unsettling. The film presents a darkly surreal, repetitive vision of destruction and oppression, and a side room houses an installation that drives the point home in an even more macabre way: a conveyor belt strewn with clipped bird wings, symbolizing the brutal curtailment of liberties and economic independence that the artists see as an integral part of the global system they wish to oppose.
Gunnlaugsdóttir has herself felt the consequences of trying to protest against the system, as she was one of nine people charged and tried for invading the House of Parliament in connection with the protests of 2008. The trial was highly controversial and the group was finally cleared of the main charge in 2011, but convicted of various smaller offenses. Her exhibition with Sigurðsson is important not least because of their attempt to integrate activism within their artistic process. In recent decades, with important exceptions, few Icelandic artists have tried to address political themes head-on, preferring more oblique approaches and focusing primarily on environmental issues and the associated politics of international industrial conglomerates. In Iceland, as in many other countries, the last four years have seen the development of a much more direct political activism, coupled to a critique of global capitalism, the widening gap between rich and poor, and the perceived inability of current political structures to effectively address the issues. This critique is now finding an expression in art and, most importantly, in a new, politicized aesthetic. Gunnlaugsdóttir and Sigurðsson’s exhibition doesn’t pull its political punches, nor does it compromise its artistic credentials. Far from diluting their statement, this makes it all the more profound, disturbing, and effective.