A HOME FOR OUR THOUGHTS:
NEW WORK BY GUÐJÓN KETILSSON
2014, by Jón Proppé
In Icelandic and English
We are born into a world that already has a certain aspect, appearance, texture and meaning. We learn to find our way around this world and to use the things in it, to talk on the phone instead of trying to eat it, to hoard money rather than throw it away, to make ourselves at home in the houses we live in with the furniture that fills them. This is how we learn to be human beings. Our environment raises us though, of course, we also contribute a great deal with our eccentricities, inventiveness and sheer stubbornness. As we gradually learn to work with and shape our environment we become, to some degree, masters of our fate: We create our own style of being, shaping our surroundings as we reinvent ourselves. All of this takes place, of course, in the presence of other people. We all find ourselves pursuing the same project: Trying to invent ourselves and find our place. New things are being made all the time and the world fills up with pre-made constructions. We are born and grow up among things that previous generations have created or collected: Houses, furniture and all manner of tools and objects. For Guðjón Ketilsson’s generation, growing up in Iceland, this horizon of pre-made things was a strange collection of old-fashioned Icelandic artefacts, stuff left behind by the British and American occupation during World War II, and high modernism, variously tempered by romantic nostalgia.
Guðjón Ketilsson’s new work turns inward. The meticulous craft with which they are executed directs our attention to the material and our material surroundings. The old pieces of furniture that he has altered and worked become metaphors for our lives. He cuts small windows out of old cabinets and cupboards so that they resemble buildings, but in some sense they can already be seen as dwellings – in them dwells our sense of ourselves and they are densely populated by stories, emotions and memories. The buildings in his drawings, conversely, look new and uninhabitable. They are boxy and windowless, built, so it seems, from the same pre-fabricated units. They are mysterious and impenetrable. They tell no stories, evoke no memories. The Landscape in which they stand, however, is familiar: Icelandic mountains with their steep ravines and sheer cliffs, all rendered in remarkable detail. In this landscape, the buildings become even more ambiguous and out of context. They merely sit there, silent and stubborn. Perhaps they are waiting for inhabitants to come and fill them with life and give them context and meaning. Perhaps, on the other hand, they belong to some other dimension that has incongruously mingled with the Icelandic landscape but will never truly belong to it.
We can interpret the whole exhibition as a grand allegory about people and their environment, about how the environment becomes meaningful when we dwell in it, make it our own and fill it with stories and memories. But the metaphor is unclear, even mixed. Ketilsson raises questions but does not provide the answers. We may choose to see the exhibition as an account of our time, of ourselves, or of the fantasy world we inhabited as children. He does not exclude such interpretations but does not exactly encourage them either. As in almost all his earlier work, he remains resolutely neutral. He patiently carves in wood, draws, casts metals or shapes in plaster, but the objects he recreates are often so familiar that becomes hard to grasp their meaning: A folded shirt sitting on a chair, a pair of shoes on a shelf, tools that have no discernible use, furniture and miscellaneous household objects stacked as if they were in storage, or half-built houses in the suburbs. To some degree these things are too close for us to be able to decipher them, too intimately involved in our everyday life for us to be able to separate them from our own lives in order to assess them objectively. In Ketilsson’s treatment, however, these everyday objects become mysterious, as though imbued with an inner glow. The craft and the time and care he spends on them raises these unremarkable objects to new heights, transforming them into something else. When we see them in the exhibition it is as if we are seeing ourselves in the mirror for the first time.