The Council of Things

Reflections on the Work and Practice og Guðjón Ketilsson

By Aðalheiður Lilja Guðmundsdóttir

JÆJA, Kjarvalsstaðir, 2022

Published by Reykjavik Art Museum, 2022

Guðjón Ketilsson’s studio is full of found objects from here and there, along with works in progress and fully executed pieces. Everything has its place but is subject to constant reorganisation, adroitly arranged again and again to shape the ambience and the working atmosphere. Inconsequential scraps of materials and boxes of found objects are ordered precisely so that each one can receive something from the others while waiting to serve its own purpose in an artwork. Each item found on Ketilsson’s walks to and from the studio has its own contextual world and its own time, connected to ours by the artist’s continual records of when and where he took each object into his hands and even what he was thinking upon finding it. In the window are three shelves with bottles, containers, and knick-knacks, all found, used, or handmade by the artist. The arrangement of these things is exacting and testifies to an aesthetic sensibility, but at the same time to the autonomy of the objects. Despite their differences, they minister to one another in their togetherness, and the quiet whisper of their conversation can be heard: they are convening. On the winter and summer solstices, the artist photographs his studio windows from inside and out, then rearranges them; the whisper continues as indistinctly as before (Council of Things, 2019–2021). Its presence lies beyond words, but is contained within the artwork.

The studio reverberates with a murmur, the whispers of countless objects. A non-representational piece stands out (Monologues I–VIII, 2010): handwritten and delicate, it is filled with fragments of thoughts and sensations in the workspace. The artist’s act of recording his stream of consciousness and the objects’ whisperings is what determines this process, not the clarity of the script or the thoughts and perceptions. Although completely illegible, the writing shows traces not of chaos or carelessness but rather the flow of consciousness, the feeling of the everyday, which we all know ourselves from the many words passing through our minds. Text-based drawings based on the murmur of age-old words can also be found on the studio walls, carrying with them the nation’s literary memory of the world’s creation, end, and re-creation (Völuspá, 2017) and of hymns of the glory of God (Hymns of the Passion, 2016–2018). The trace of the artist’s hand in these written drawings grounds the works and envelops them in human time, in contrast to the time of ideas or the objects and materials that dominate the space. A poem made from blackened stems of garden dock (Dock Poem, 2020) is found on one wall and on the pages of a book of the same name. The eye reads, and meaning is taken in; this exceedingly familiar visual experience is etched in bodily memory, but here it is alien, other. Sitting on an old set of shelves, a stack of books made from used pieces of wood tells a similar story, as does a fired clay mountain and its reflection below the horizon (Calm Sea, 2019). Just as these works are affecting in a specific way, they open to the inscrutable and poetic that lies beyond words, substance, and space, yet thrives in the atmosphere of the studio.

More often than not, Ketilsson’s creative process occurs as he strolls around town, whether on his way to the studio and home again or simply wandering aimlessly with his senses wide open in search of material. Each street, each area has a certain ambience that differs from the one around the corner or in the next neighbourhood. It gives an overall impression of its residents’ experiences without them necessarily being aware of it, rather like the air we breathe. In northern latitudes, there are fewer people out and about, so material objects create the mood: the materials and shapes of buildings, the layout of streets, the trees and plants in gardens. Ketilsson is sensitive to the feelings objects create in their own unique way, something that is difficult to analyse or put into words but that everyone experiences as they move through the urban landscape. In Norðurmýri(2011), Ketilsson captures the mood of the material world in his own neighbourhood. The work consists of eight concrete-grey sculptures modelled after the quirky houses of Norðurmýri; while they seem almost identical from a distance, they do have slight variations.[1]The models are made from the same material as the houses—concrete—and although spaces for balconies and entrances are visible, there are no windows or doors. Together they form a lifeless neighbourhood, one where the material world reigns. Next to them are ten pencil drawings, as naturalistic as photographs, of similar houses in Norðurmýri; here the setting of the streets can be seen, as well as branches of unruly trees, clearly in the springtime.[2]The houses are windowless and have no doors, the people have vanished, and the word “Sunday” and a different date have been lettered on each one. This quiet memory of the Sunday atmosphere in the everyday urban landscape, an experiment and a game, reveals the artist’s sensitivity to the material world.

Philosopher Gernot Böhme draws on Walter Benjamin’s concept of the ‘aura’ to develop the notion of ‘atmosphere’ as a basic concept in New Aesthetics. The aura of a work of art emerges from the materiality of the object, which bears historical witness and is distinguished by the respect it commands; the aura makes the artwork unique, enduring, and authentic.[3]The physical presence—here and now—of the work of art is a precondition to experiencing its aura, which Benjamin calls “the unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be”.[4]By this he means something inscrutable and distant that the viewer feels or perceives in the presence of a work of art—something ‘more’.[5]The concept of the aura allowed Benjamin to distinguish between an original work of art and its mechanical reproduction, as he believed that with technologies of mass production, the aura of the artwork would be overridden or would disappear.[6]Avant-garde artists tried to dislodge the aura from the artwork by bringing art into everyday life.[7]An example is French artist Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel(1913), which is nothing more than a mass-produced found object. But these attempts did not succeed, because as soon as artists designated something as a work of art, they gave it an aura; these ready-mades now engender as much respect in museums as a work like The Thinker(1904) by Auguste Rodin. According to Böhme, avant-garde artists failed to step out of the sacred realm of art and into life. However, they succeeded in making the artwork’s aura a subject of their work and its associated discourse—this intangible atmosphere, a mood that fills the room, that surrounds an object because what makes an artwork an artwork cannot be determined by its objective properties alone. But this ‘more’, the ‘aura’, remained undefined.[8]

The aura of a work of art expands to fill a space, almost like breath or mist—like an atmosphere. Its inscrutable emotional impact envelops both observer and observed. Benjamin also claims the viewer breathes in the aura. Such an act of breathing means one internalises the aura corporeally, allowing it to touch one’s own being; the work of art and the body intertwine in an invisible, intangible way, becoming part of the same space, the same world. This applies not only to works of art, but also to other objects, people, living creatures, nature, and spaces. Humans are embodied, spatial beings who perceive themselves and their environment in a given place,[9]who sense how things in space make their presence felt. The aura or atmosphere of things thus opens up other ways of relating to the world besides those characterised by the ontological dichotomy of subjective versus objective reality. An atmosphere between people and things is charged. It is neither subjective nor objective; the perceiver and the perceived share the same reality, the same space.[10]It fills the space with a discernible feeling, like a haze between body and object, which belongs to neither but both. For Böhme, it is therefore possible to use the term ‘atmosphere’ to support an aesthetic theory that applies to art and aesthetics of all forms. An artist’s intention is not to confer any specific properties to the object, but to allow it to step outside of itself in a certain way, and thus to allow the presence of something in the object andthe space to become perceptible to the viewer.[11]

Through their work, artists give the art object something “more” and create its atmosphere, whichaccording to Böhme can be compared to theatrical staging.[12]An exceptionally precise, finely tuned atmosphere can be observed in Ketilsson’sMelancholy(2013), a series of one hundred small terracotta figures distributed around the shelves, tables, and floor of a locked but illuminated shed that can only be viewed through a window, preferably at dusk. Handmade, rough-hewn, the bodies assembled in the space comprise a bittersweet scene loaded with the beauty of melancholy that many of us know first-hand—“a deep, alluring reservoir on the border of light and darkness”.[13]In the creation of an atmosphere, some material aspects are linked with certain cultural values ​​or judgements due to their enduring presence in human society, and they emanate a certain material sensibility.[14]In this way, the clay has an air of certain histories, even memories, of a certain landscape and expertise. The same can be said about works made from textiles and wood, although their atmospheres are different, and they have their own “semi-objective” material qualities. Some found objects in Ketilsson’s collection, such as wooden furniture, articles of clothing, and books, carry an atmosphere associated with life in a society defined by its mass-produced objects; others give a sense of picking up a small branch in the quiet of nature. Objects and their materials whisper before they are staged, and Ketilsson’s practice seems to be defined by how he studies these whispers and atmospheres before undertaking the creation of an artwork or the staging of objects—and by his concern that the whispers live on in the final result, the work of art, which has “more” to say.

A material’s everyday effect on us in modern society is generally caused by its superficial atmosphere, rather than our knowledge or experience ofhandling it or studying its properties.[15]Ketilsson’s series Landmarks(2011–2020) consists of forty-eight delicate pencil drawings, made over a long period but identical in size, all depicting surfaces of things—from folds of skin, palms, navels, ears, nipples, fingers, and scalps to the surface of water and a piece of knitting. Each drawing tells its own story about the body, the object, the material. Also apparent in Ketilsson’s work is a materiality that is not only limited to the surface of things. The used clothing in Stories(2018) emanates a familiar material quality but also gives rise to feelings of the act of dressing oneself, of touch, and of events and memories, our own and those of others. Clothes as material objects have spatial atmospheres, but they involve a synaesthesia of many different elements and indicate certain habits and reciprocal exchanges; Böhme believes these elements characterise both the bodily sensation of atmosphere and its creation through staging in art.[16]Many artists cultivate the practical skill and sensitivity necessary to distinguish the atmosphere of the material world, and they are thereby able to display material qualities in their works and stagings that viewers discern before fully evaluating or conceptualising the work. But material properties are usually ignored by traditional aesthetic theory because they are formless, amorphic, as such.[17]Aesthetic judgment and art criticism have focused more on form and context than material or the artist’s bodily sensations and experiences when creating a work of art, or to viewers when they experience art. In his carefully crafted series Tools(2004), Ketilsson evokes the feeling of tool use that we store, without words, in our muscle memory. It is not until an analytical question—albeit a question related to the body—arises about how exactly a certain tool is used that a break forms in the mist surrounding the piece: it becomes apparent the tool is, and will remain, useless. The tools emanate an empty utility; what they say is something entirely different, something “more”.

In art education, craft has been marginalised as much as material, at least since avant-garde artists began to use found objects in their work. “An artist hardly has hands anymore. He is just a head: thoughts and feelings, nothing more… [Art] has freed itself from craft” and “has become more philosophical than ever before,”[18]writes Magnús Pálsson, Ketilsson’s instructor in the contemporary art department of the Icelandic College of Art and Crafts (now the Iceland University of the Arts). According to Pálsson, expertise of craft as an artist is anachronistic.[19]The clearer the demand became for the unification of life and art, the clearer the focus of aesthetics became on sharpening the distinction between “real” art and mere craft.[20]Theodor Adorno writes, for example, that a “constructed, strictly objective artwork” is “the sworn enemy of everything artisanal”.[21]He rejects anything that appears in the handcrafting of an artwork that could be associated with the atmosphere of everyday life or material. For Adorno, handicraft represents the superficial, meaningless, empty “beautification” of life.[22]He still believes a good command of craftsmanship is necessary for the creation of an autonomous work of art, but it should not be at the core of the executed work.[23]Good craftsmanship does not call attention to itself; it can be ignored, allowing other qualities to emerge. Craft is secondary, transparent, not part of the content of the final result. It does not involve questions or reflexivity like art does.[24]In order to retain its autonomy, freedom, and its premises, art must remain engaged in a struggle for existence against other products of culture. But Böhme as a theorist of New Aesthetics suggests such ideas about art’s autonomy are limiting when it comes to understanding works of art—alongside the general aestheticisation of objects and our lifeworld—and their status within politics and other arenas of society.[25]It is time for art to join daily life rather than remain above it, because there is no need to deny that craftsmanship can be part of the essence of a work of art, or that the artwork derives something from it as such. Craft, like material and other marginalised elements, can disrupt and threaten the status of an autonomous work of art and even art’s concept as a whole, whose purpose could possibly evaporate.[26]Within New Aesthetics, the art object is on equal footing with the everyday object. Its role is to allow this vast realm of everyday aesthetic reality to become a clear and accessible language,[27]while simultaneously liberating aesthetics so it can approach works of art no longer as outcasts from daily life but rather as another human endeavour, as part of the world, albeit wrapped in a certain atmosphere and zeitgeist. Daily life and the material world are thus given an atmosphere, like in Ketilsson’s work, and craft loses its empty value: it is allowed to survive, to communicate its long, unspoken history in partnership with people, expertise, and experience, in an art object that says “more”.

In his essay “Unpacking My Library”, Walter Benjamin sheds light on the feelings artefacts stir in the hearts of collectors. Offering insight into the relationship of a book collector with his or her artefacts—insight into the obsession with the act of collecting rather than the collection itself—Benjamin compares it to “the spring tide of memories which surges toward any collector as he contemplates his possessions.”[28]“The period, the region, the craftsmanship, the former ownership—for a true collector the whole background of an item adds up to a magic encyclopaedia whose quintessence is the fate of his object” and therefore “it may be surmised how the great physiognomists—and collectors are the physiognomists of the world of objects—turn into interpreters of fate.” But the collector is tied “to a relationship to objects which does not emphasize their functional, utilitarian value—that is, their usefulness—but studies and loves them as the scene, the stage, of their fate.”[29]The act of collecting, and even Ketilsson’s own compulsion to collect, creeps into the staging of his works. The artist’s Wood Collection(October 2010–October 2011) resembles a library, a private collection acquired over many years. A bookshelf over two metres high is tightly packed with blocks of wood, equal in height but of varying width and hue, labelled like books in a library. Each piece is marked with a number and the place where it was found, such as “LHÍ” (the Iceland University of the Arts) or “Bergþ.” (the street Bergþórugata), or words such as “chunk”, “hole”, “cleaning”, “smile”, “rotten”, etc. Next to the woodblock shelf hangs a long index with information from the artist: “109. Rough woodblock. Was once light blue. Has now been painted black. Not done very skilfully. 112. Piece of fence. Found it on Bárugata. Red-brown (rust?) stripes, very interesting. 119. Yellow plywood with red edge (paperback). 121. Panel from a house on Fjólugata. Probably from a well-to-do family.” The woodblocks number in the hundreds. They have been lined up with the same careful sensibility as that of a librarian, “for inside him there are spirits, or at least little genii, which have seen to it that for a collector—and I mean a real collector, a collector as he ought to be—ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them.”[30]The woodblocks have an ambience of the artist’s memory, but they also have a general appeal: about the joy of finding, about the picking up, about the act of reading—because the material itself is loaded with meaning and with a narrative that longs to be read and deciphered.

            Ketilsson has established a highly personal system for preserving found objects, a kind of research and experiment station for creative processes and inspiration. He collects used, obsolete, and worthless items from the street or junkyards and flea markets: furniture, books, articles of clothing, pieces of wood, and anything else that catches his eye. It is impossible to determine the rationale guiding the collector, unless the objects’ attractiveness lies in their atmosphere or their memory of a narrative, and therefore that they have something to say independently of the artist—or that they could serve a purpose in his art, suit his inner vision in a work that does not yet exist but that could be made. Ketilsson makes the object his own by positioning it within his collection of artefacts, affixing a note stating when and where it came into his possession along with reflections upon its discovery. As he registers the item and makes it part of his collection, he captures the time of the object, the story it tells him. Benjamin’s words come to mind: “Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories.”[31]When the object becomes a possession, it could be said to obtain another, more human, dimension. However, Ketilsson is careful for it to maintain its autonomy as a thing with its own atmosphere, its own narrative.

The compulsion to collect seems to feed the compulsion to arrange: to examine things with foregone usefulness, to listen to their whispers—be they blocks of wood, strips of paper, floorboards, or books—and then line them up side by side, casting light on their differences as well as their similarities—be they coarse or fine, large or small; their positioning expresses their close conversation, even their discord. These things assemble together both in artworks and in dark corners of the studio. The Icelandic word þingcan denote a legislative assembly, a parliament, or a site of a parliament, the coming together of different, independent individuals in order to come up with solutions for their concerns; it can mean a gathering, meeting, council, or even a tryst; but it also means ‘object’ or ‘artefact’.[32]Þingis related to thingin English and Dingin German. Martin Heidegger points out that in Old High German, the word means ‘issue’ or ‘that which is pertinent’, but also ‘gathering’; that is to say, “a gathering to deliberate on a matter under discussion, a contested matter”.[33]This analysis has had a considerable impact on the reassessment of the object’s position in contemporary philosophy, especially within New Materialism or object-oriented ontology. When we think of an object, its utility, and its manifestations disconnected from human beings, then according to Heidegger we can approach its autonomy, its thingness. He takes the example of a jug: it “gathers itself” and it “things”. The presence, or nearness, of an independent thing is determined by its “bringing-near” in its act of “thinging”; however, it is unclear whether all can perceive the “conversation” that takes place in the “gathering”.[34]But the main proponents of object-oriented ontology believe that aesthetic perception of works of art affords insight into the independence of objects and the material world in general, because artworks alone are capable of emanating a “vision” of the reality of the thing-in-itself that inevitably lies beyond our possible knowledge.[35]Different theories take different approaches to objects, things, and materials through aesthetic experience, but they are united in rethinking the traditional distinction between subjective and objective reality. The slogan “back to the things themselves” has thus recently assumed diverse meanings within philosophy.[36]Jane Bennett, for instance, discusses the agency or force of things, the “thing power”, and asks what a thing can do rather than what it is.[37]

Buildings, homes, and the furniture adorning them—the framework of everyday life—appear repeatedly in Ketilsson’s works. His buildings are sometimes variations on a theme, almost a play on the idea of a house (Village, 1994–1996). But it is undoubtedly a play on the memoryof a house, even the memory of one’s first childhood attempts to draw a house or, in a whirlwind of playfulness, to build a fort. True pleasure is forgetting oneself in a game, being carried away in the flow and magic of play when things come to life. Such play can be compared to the dialogical process that occurs when different people come together to discuss a certain topic. Entering the flow opens up something new that neither participant could have foreseen and, by the end of the conversation, allows both parties to reach a previously unknown understanding.[38]This seems to be Ketilsson’s relationship with things: he does not play with them, but they rather play together. He listens to them, converses with them, and thus gains a new understanding of them—and of his art—which is then reflected in his work. Apartment buildings of various shapes and sizes, all made from furniture similar to what would have been in the artist’s childhood home in the 1950s and ’60s, are arranged on the floor in Untitled Wood Sculptures(2013). The furniture itself is ordinary, but as if by magic, Ketilsson’s exquisite craftsmanship brings it to life as dwellings and multi-family homes with carefully carved windows, a smooth finish, and precise spatial arrangement. The realism of the absurd is reminiscent of the two dustbins on stage in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame (1955), bins in which characters live and express themselves without ever leaving. Ketilsson’s apartment buildings are more a matter of staging than of installation in the artistic sense. It is the staging of an atmosphere—of people’s everyday lives and memories—of the feeling of narratives of those who live sincerely in the world of absurdity. Next to these buildings are drawings of single-family houses (Untitled Pencil Drawings on Paper, 2013), concrete shells ready to be covered with timber; many such houses stood half-finished for years during Iceland’s economic crisis earlier in the century.[39]Windows and doors have been obliterated from the houses in the drawings, and the people have vanished, but the mountains in the background dwell in their calm and constancy. The stately concrete houses become pitiable, even ludicrous.

Ketilsson’s work stirs our visual memory, awakening it from its slumber through a certain mood or atmosphere. It evokes localised embodied experiences and the thoughts that follow, whether following a route through a residential neighbourhood or half-finished houses on the edges of the suburbs, or remaining at home or out in nature. The examples Benjamin offers of lived experience of aura concern, on the one hand, a unique atmosphere in nature and, on the other, a unique atmosphere in the body of the observer. The aura can appear to us in nature while in a state of relaxed contemplation, whether in a distant mountain range or a tree branch casting its shadow on us.[40]New Aesthetics has emerged from the aesthetics of nature, or from the urgent demand within environmental aesthetics to rethink nature; according to New Aesthetics, the fundamental quality of nature is to show itself, “to step out of [itself] and appear.”[41]Ketilsson’sNorthern and Southern Hemisphere(2020), drawings of familiar and fanciful constellations over Iceland and Australia, reveals the immensity of the universe. Like Celestial Bodies(2002), a series of bowls finely polished with layer upon layer of paint after years of use by the artist, these drawings ground the vastness of the cosmos, enveloping it in human time. The act of gazing out to the horizon where the sky meets the sea on a calm day is evoked in the series Calm Sea(2019), where black fired-clay mountains rise above the shoreline and are reflected in still waters. The atmosphere of the work opens up a sense of expansion in the heart of the observer who perceives, remembers, and reflects, for when the inhabitants of a geographically isolated island look out at the horizon from the shore, they do so with hopes of what is yet to come, distant and promising. They forget themselves and become ready to embrace and accept the unexpected, the universe’s gifts. There is a distinctive atmosphere along Iceland’s seemingly endless coastline, and in one place it is home to Ketilsson’s Thinking South(2021), a pair of black wooden boots—a proxy for a human figure—that point to the farthest place one could travel to on the Earth’s surface; they bear the copper inscription “Memoria Australis”. Along the Australian coast, another similar pair of boots, Thinking North (2021), have the inscription “Memoria Borealis”. On a beach in Denmark stand two large concrete bags (Untitled, 2012), moulded in plastic bags which were removed when the concrete hardened. The sculptures retain the bags’ texture and bring to mind all the plastic polluting the oceans, the sky, the soil, and the living world. While the work calls attention to the properties of a material that is extremely useful to humans, it does not include an explicit reminder to attend to the environment or the material world. But Ketilsson’s work makes us aware of the material world through small poetic triggers for reflection, wrapped in playfulness. On the same beach lies a large concrete roller with embossed words in Danish reading “OG SÅ VIDERE” (And So On, 2015); rolling it along the sandybeach leaves imprints of the words, meaning and so on, circling and circling towards infinity. Similarly, the sculptures C’est la vieEt cetera, and Jæja(2007) are carefully constructed tools whose wooden shafts are attached to rollers embossed with the respective inscriptions. They can be rolled along the sand anywhere, at any time, imprinting the phrases as reminders of the eternal, the endless, and the ephemeral.

Covers and bindings of books appear again and again in Ketilsson’s works, but the artist is also concerned with their interiors. In the piece Columns(2018), small branches are installed on a large wall in lines resembling text columns in an encyclopaedia; columns (from the Old French colombe) in the sense of pillars or pedestals have long supported buildings and works of art. The presence of thetext formed by the branches is powerful, its atmosphere charged, and we have an embodied sense of how to conduct ourselves respectfully in its company, aware of our eyes scanning its “letters” from left to right, feeling a certain mood we know well from reading similar columns in scholarly books. It evokes the synaesthesia of different elements related not to the meaning of a text, but rather to our experience of works of art, reading, and our relationships with books. The branches form a typeface, but the illegibility of the font and its organic texture are crucial. In Dock Poems I & II(2020), black-painted stems of garden dock are arranged on the wall to create the appearance of handwritten poems. The form is familiar to anyone who has read much poetry, but at the same time, its three-dimensionality makes it seem remote. However, this does not prevent the viewer from reading it and even searching for metre, as the form is traditional; it is unrelated to concrete poetry, where the limits of layout and meaning are tested. The story the work tells is rather an awakening of the visual memory of a body that has read and sat with poetry for many long hours and knows first-hand the power of verse. At the same time that the “handwriting” seems absurd due to the nature of the plants covered in black ink, it is exquisitely refined, as the words have been selected, trimmed, and arranged. The meaning of the poems is inscrutable; it lies beyond words, or amongst them all. However, the writer Sjón took on the task of translatingPoems(2018–2019), blue tree branches arranged into several poems, for the exhibition Teiknat the Reykjanes Art Museum. He states that before he was shown the poems, much work had already been done in deciphering them: “The artist’s choice of twigs, his decisions about which way round to place them, how to combine them, how many to include on each line and in the artwork as a whole, the colour he painted them—all these factors channelled the interpretation in a particular direction, which inevitably set limits for me.”[42]With his translation, however, Sjón achieves surprising results and renders possible the impossible, expressing the inexpressible in the branch poetry.

Ketilsson is preoccupied by cultural heritage and worldviews, especially as preserved in books. His work Genesis(2019) is an extensive wall drawing in which the first chapter of the Book of Genesis is written in a pattern reminiscent of text but with its letters interwoven. It thus connects the word text(from the Latin textum) to its etymological origins in textiles, meaning ‘something woven’, and the Icelandic verb að lesa, ‘to read’, with its ancient meanings ‘weave in’, ‘attach to’, ‘climb up’, even ‘pick up and gather’.[43]The woven ink drawing is precise: each word, each letter, acquires its place, its own shape in the flow of the act—the facture—of drawing, writing, reading, thinking, weaving. “The way in which something has been produced shows itself in the finished product. The way it shows itself is what we call ‘facture’.”[44]This work’s story lies to some extent in the weaving together of time and space and the thoughtful action, both by Ketilsson and by all those who have dwelled on the Book of Genesis over the centuries and have copied and composed—by mind and hand over the course of time—the creation of the world. “Up, up, my soul and all my flesh! / Up, up, my heart, and sing afresh. / My thought and tongue help me find words / To preach the passion of our Lord”[45]is a call to contemplate Christ’s martyrdom with the entire body, as Ketilsson did when he used the words of Hallgrímur Pétursson’s Passion Hymns(1666) to slowly make drawings day after day while in Rome during Lent in 2016. But Lent itself was not enough, and it took the artist two years to finish his drawings of all the psalms in his workHymns of the Passion(2016–2018), each of thefifty psalms on its own sheet. A meditative presence emerges from the rectangular drawings formed by tightly woven letters: it is the lived experience of people reading and listening to Pétursson’s hymns, the cultural heritage of the nation. Ketilsson’sHymns of the Passionwere also published as a bookwork that can stand on the shelf next to Pétursson’s. Such multifaceted literary, art historical, and religious memory is also expressed in the bas-relief series Fragments(2000), where Ketilsson has painstakingly carved Christ’s loincloth as it appears in canonical paintings from the 15th and 16th centuries. The pieces bear titles such as Fragment of the Baptism of Christ (1475) by Andrea del Verrocchio and Leonardo da Vinciand Fragment of the Crucifixion (1505) by Giovanni Bellini; in the same vein, Mary’s Mantleis a carving of the robe in Jan van Eyck’s painting of the Madonna from 1431. The reliefs share the colours and exacting craftsmanship of the paintings, but together they take on amore general meaning—beyond that of Christian faith and art historical knowledge—concerning visual memory. Even as they refer to sacred stories and the history of artistic craft, the separation of contemporary art from a long tradition is apparent in these works. And yet, the separation of art from a particular tradition or consciousness is undoubtedly a prerequisite for new aesthetic experiences.[46]

In Walter Benjamin’s exploration of the relationship between tradition and innovation, his “concern with the past appears not least in his interest in memory and memories—in the aptitude, or the creative nature, of memory, insofar as recollection reshapes the past just as quickly as it retrieves it from the depths.”[47]He regards text and memory alike as material, as a woven fabric, thus binding their respective function together in an image of craftsmanship. As Ketilsson weaves familiar words and phrases together, the result reshapes the nation’s memory—something new emerges on the surface. In the essay “The Storyteller”, Benjamin also relates past oral narrative traditions to craft: “this craftsmanship, storytelling, was actually regarded as a craft”[48]and “after all, storytelling, in this sensory aspect, is by no means a job for the voice alone”, as we find coordination of craftsmanship where the art of storytelling thrives—soul, eye, and hand are in harmony.[49]The Old Norse poem Völuspá, in which a seeress recounts the history of the world from its creation to Ragnarök, the prophecy of the gods’ destruction, is printed on twenty sheets in the series Völuspá I–XX(2017). The words of each stanza merge together on the picture plane to form tightly woven rectangles, each one similar to the next. While the lettering is precise, it is completely illegible, and the work reflects a sense of thoughtful craftsmanship and dwelling on the poem over time to commit it to oral memory. In the work Ragnarök(2017), all the stanzas are printed together, resulting in a dark rectangle reminiscent of Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square(1915) which first appeared as part of a theatrical set in 1913. Destruction, erasure; but at the same time, the vitality of life, new beginnings, creation. Black Squarewiped out the history of the painting, or its assumptions that it must involve an object-oriented representation of reality, but it was also intended to emanate “pure feeling”, a spiritual perception in the realm of esoterism. Rejection of the representation of reality was not focused on the notion of ​​form for form’s sake, but rather that “it is from zero, in the zero, that the true movement of being begins.”[50]Black Squarewas meant to exude something unspoken, a “pure feeling” for the observer. Literary and visual memory merge into one in Ketilsson’s work; they raise questions about the end of what has already been created, but also about new beginnings for art and the world.

InLiquid Diary(begun 2013), painted circular forms emerge from layer upon layer of beverages the artist drinks, day after day in the studio or elsewhere, comprising a series that functions like a diary with no beginning and no end except for life itself. Each painting is a contemplative, poetic mandala that includes a record of the beverage type, a brief description, and the date. With its memories and vignettes, the work is linked to the artist’s embodied, everyday life. But it also reflects a mental preoccupation and the contemplative act of painting, as in many of Ketilsson’s works, which requires his tireless presence—his soul, eyes, and hands. The pieces in the series suggests the artist’s movement and physical proximity to the time and place where he works, but also the movement of his spirit in the calm of contemplation that weaves together mind and body, space and time, in life itself. They manage to step into life and merge with it as they hang as individual artworks, conveying Benjamin’s “unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be”.[51]They do not shy away from being works of art connected to the everyday, to life itself, and although they test art’s boundaries, they contain no criticism of art or the art world. “Because art is what it has become, its concept refers to what it does not contain,”[52]writes Adorno in his Aesthetic Theory, pointing to the continuous expansion of the notion of art. The autonomy of an artwork, and the freedom of art in general from other cultural products—from craft, utility, consumption, and politics, to name a few—comes at a high price. For Adorno, art is contradictory at its core. No matter how avant-garde a work of art may be, it cannot exist outside the structures that made its creation possible. However, art cannot exist in a meaningful way unless it attempts to criticise these very structures. Therein lies its fight for its own autonomy and freedom.[53]This sound counsel is hard to deny. But it should be said that people, surrounded by nature and the beautification of the built environment, have not lost their autonomy, rather than works of art, but have greater awareness of how unique each person is in their lives and actions. That a work of art steps into life, joins the everyday, and is on equal footing with other objects should not raise the alarm about art’s loss of freedom; it should rather serve as an acknowledgment of what already exists in and arises from works of art. An object as a “thing that things” also opens up a new vision, expands the range of our senses, and gives us an opportunity to trust what we perceive and distinguish, even if it is sometimes an inscrutable and intangible aspect of the atmosphere around us. But Ketilsson seems to discern the atmosphere and the whispers of things when they gather together, and with his ingenuity, expertise, and aesthetic sensibility, he manages to let these whispers reach us through his works, which also say “more” than that.

Together, the whispers and atmosphere of these works create a resonance in the exhibition space that is difficult to put into words. The work Genesis(2019) alongside constellations in Southern Hemisphere(2020), Right Palm(2020), Moon – Völuspá XXI–XL(2020), and a steel structure densely packed with paperbacks (Untitled, 2020), together with a mind map of Ketilsson’s trips to and from the studio or through the urban landscape (Paths, 2010) andDock Poems (2020) in book form, gives only a limited sense of the resonance of his exhibitions.[54]Ketilsson always succeeds in creating an atmosphere in his shows, tuning it like many instruments to find the right harmony. Each work has its own character and gives rise to various feelings. They all carry their own narrative or memory thereof, which we learn and accept with understanding. The works’ conversation in space, their precise arrangement and staging, constantly creates something new for the viewer who moves amongst them in the gallery and studies their effects. While the nuances of the artworks’ vibrations as they gather together vary, they are always finely tuned by the artist’s trained aesthetic sensibilities, as he sets the theatrical stage for his artefacts’ fate.

[1]The houses in Norðurmýri were designed by different architects—in fact, by most of the architects working in Iceland in the 1940s. The neighbourhood planning was overseen by Einar Sveinsson, city architect of Reykjavík, and Valgeir Björnsson, the city’s municipal engineer. Kristófersdóttir, “Norðurmýrin: Íslenskur hversdagsfunkis” [Norðurmýri: everyday Icelandic quirkiness], 10.

[2]Guðjón Ketilsson and Hildur Bjarnadóttir, Coherence, Hafnarborg – the Hafnarfjörður Centre of Culture and Fine Art, 2011.

[3]Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, 215–217.

[4]Benjamin, “Work of Art”, 216.

[5]This is a play on Adorno’s ‘more’: “Artworks are something made that has become more than something simply made.” Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, 179.

[6]Benjamin, “Work of Art”, 215.

[7]Böhme, “Atmosphere, a Basic Concept of a New Aesthetic”, 17.

[8]Böhme, “Atmosphere”, 17.

[9]Böhme, “Atmosphere”, 21. See also in the same volume: “The Presence of Living Bodies in Space”.

[10]Böhme, “Atmosphere”, 18, 22–23. See also in the same volume: “The Ecstasies of Things: Ontology and Aesthetics of Thingness”.

[11]Böhme, “Atmosphere”, 23.

[12]Böhme, “Atmosphere”, 24–25. See also in the same volume: “The Art of Staging as a Paradigm for an Aesthetics of Atmospheres”.

[13]Ketilsson says the inspiration for this piece was the Wim Wenders film Wings of Desire(1987). Guðjón Ketilsson, Melancholy, Skúrinn, 2012. Helgi Snær Sigurðsson, “Djúpur og aðlaðandi hylur á mörkum ljóss og myrkurs: Guðjón Ketilsson sýnir fyrstur í menningarhúsinu Skúrnum við Grenimel” [Deep, alluring reservoir on the border of light and darkness: Guðjón Ketilsson first to show in the cultural centre Skúrinn on Grenimelur], 34.

[14]Böhme, “Material Splendour: A Contribution to the Critique of Aesthetic Economy”, 60–62.

[15]Böhme, “Material Splendour”, 60.

[16]Böhme, “The Art of Staging”, 158–160.

[17]Böhme, “Material Splendour”, 59. See also: Didi-Huberman, “The Order of Material: Plasticities, Malaises, Survivals”, 209.

[18]Pálsson, “List og kennsluList” [Art and the art of teaching], 20.

[19]Pálsson, “List og kennsluList”, 20.

[20]Böhme, “Atmosphere”, 29. The only group to seriously question this division between art and craft were certain feminist artists and art historians from the 1960s onwards who fearlessly dared to embrace the practically ostracised field of craft within the world of “real” art.

[21]Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, 58.

[22]Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, 257–258. See also Böhme, “Atmosphere”, 29.

[23]Adorno, “Functionalism Today”, 36.

[24]Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, 2.

[25]Böhme, “Atmosphere”, 16.

[26]But it is interesting to explore what is involved in the marginalisation of craft, rather than attempting to define and distinguish craft and art, as Adamson does in Thinking Through Craft.

[27]Böhme, “Atmosphere”, 35.

[28]Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library: A Talk about Book Collecting”, 61.

[29]Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library”, 62–63.

[30]Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library”, 68–69.

[31]Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library”, 61–62.

[32]Magnússon, Íslensk orðsifjabók[Icelandic etymology], “Þing”.

[33]Heidegger, “The Thing”, 174–177.

[34]It should be noted that Bruno Latour relies on Heidegger’s analysis to present his ideas about object-oriented democracy, which aims to rethink the nature of objects: “For too long, objects have been wrongly portrayed as matters-of-fact. This is unfair to them, unfair to science, unfair to objectivity, unfair to experience. They are much more interesting, variegated, uncertain, complicated, far reaching, heterogeneous, risky, historical, local, material and networky than the pathetic version offered for too long by philosophers.” Latour, “From Realpolitik to Dingpolitik, or How to Make Things Public”, 9–10.

[35]Harman, “Aesthetics Is the Root of All Philosophy”. According to Kant, the object is a thing-in-itself (noumena), beyond human understanding. We can, however, come to understand its manifestations (its phenomena) through our sensory experience. Object-oriented ontology is based on Kant’s argument about the thing-in-itself. See Kant, Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics That Will Be Able to Present Itself as Science.

[36]The slogan “back to the things themselves” was first introduced by Edmund Husserl, often called the father of phenomenology. He aimed to bypass Kant’s noumenaand examined in detail how phenomena appear to our embodied consciousness. See Husserl, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology.

[37]Bennett, “The Force of Things”, 1–19.

[38]Gadamer, “Man and Language”, 66.

[39]Guðjón Ketilsson, New Works, Hverfisgallerí, 2014.

[40]Benjamin, “Work of Art”, 216.

[41]Böhme, “Atmosphere”, 30.

[42]Sjón, “Five Translations from the Literature of Trees”.

[43]Magnússon, Íslensk orðsifjabók, “Texti” and “Lesa”.

[44]A paraphrasing of Lázló Moholy-Nagy’s words in Phillips, Photography in the Modern Era, 101.

[45]Pétursson, Hymns of the Passion: Passíusálmar by Hallgrímur Pétursson, 22.

[46]According to Ólafur Gísason, the self-contradicting artwork is a recurrent theme in Ketilsson’s work. Among other things, this includes an opposition to and separation from what the classical tradition includes within the category of art, while at the same time a demand for the right to exist based on the grounds of “craft for craft’s sake, and a visual language that is valid in and of itself, without representing or proselytising any belief, political opinion, or message, nothing but its own being.” Gíslason, Guðjón Ketilsson 1990–2010, 112.

[47]Eysteinsson, “Á miðils fundi: Um verk og tækni Walters Benjamins” [Meeting with a medium: on the work of Walter Benjamin], 15.

[48]We can add: “Thus traces of the storyteller cling to the story the way the handprints of the potter cling to the clay vessel.” Benjamin, “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov”, 91.

[49]Benjamin, “The Storyteller”, 107.

[50]Malevich, “Suprematism Manifesto (1916)”, 106.

[51]Benjamin, “Work of Art”, 216.

[52]Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, 3.

[53]Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, 6.

[54]Guðjón Ketilsson, Murmur, Listamenn Gallery, 2022.


Adamson, Glenn. Thinking Through Craft. London: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2018. 

Adorno, Theodor W. Aesthetic Theory. Translated by Robert Hullot-Kentor, edited by Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann. London: Athlone, 1997. 

Adorno, Theodor W. “Functionalism Today.” Oppositions 17 (Summer1979): 30–41. 

Benjamin, Walter. “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov.” In Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt, translated by Harry Zohn, 83–107. London: Fontana Press, 1992.

––– “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In Illuminations, 211–44.

–––“Unpacking My Library: A Talk about Book Collecting.” In Illuminations, 61–69. 

Bennett, Jane. “The Force of Things.” In Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, 1–19. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.

Böhme, Gernot. “The Art of Staging as a Paradigm for an Aesthetics of Atmospheres.” In Atmospheric Architectures: The Aesthetics of Felt Spaces, edited and translated by Anna Christina Engels-Schwarzpaul, 157−66. London: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2018. 

––– “Atmosphere, a Basic Concept of a New Aesthetic.” In Atmospheric Architectures:13−35.

––– “The Ecstasies of Things: Ontology and Aesthetics of Thingness.” In Atmospheric Architectures, 37−54. 

––– “Material Splendour: A Contribution to the Critique of Aesthetic Economy.” In Atmospheric Architectures, 55−67.

––– “The Presence of Living Bodies in Space.” In Atmospheric Architectures, 81–95.

Didi-Huberman, George. “The Order of Material: Plasticities, Malaises, Survivals.” In Sculpture and Psychoanalysis, translated by Jann Matlock, edited by Brandon Taylor, 195−204. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006. 

Eysteinsson, Ástráður. “Á miðils fundi: Um verk og tækni Walters Benjamins” [Meeting with a medium: on the work of Walter Benjamin]. In Fagurfræði og miðlun: Úrval greina og bókakafla [Walter Benjamin: aesthetics and mediation],edited by Ástráður Eysteinsson, 11−39.Reykjavík: University of Iceland Press, 2008.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. “Man and Language.” In Philosophical Hermeneutics,edited and translated by David Linge, 59−69. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.

Gíslason, Ólafur. Guðjón Ketilsson 1990–2010. Reykjavík: Crymogea, 2010.

Harman, Graham. “Aesthetics Is the Root of All Philosophy.” In Object-Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything, 61−102. London: Penguin, 2018.

Heidegger, Martin. “The Thing.” In Poetry, Language, Thought, translated by Albert Hofstadter, 163‒86. New York: Harper & Row, 1975. 

Husserl, Edmund. The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology. Translated by David Carr. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1970. 

Kant, Immanuel. Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics That Will Be Able to Present Itself as Science. Edited byGünter Zöller, translated by James W. Ellington. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1988.

Ketilsson, Guðjón, and Hildur Bjarnadóttir. Coherence. Group exhibition, curated by Ólöf K. Sigurðardóttir. Hafnarborg, the Hafnarfjörður Centre of Culture and Fine Art, October–December 2011.

Ketilsson, Guðjón. Melancholy. Solo exhibition. Skúrinn, Reykjavík, October 25–November 25, 2012.

Ketilsson, Guðjón. Murmur. Solo exhibition. Listamenn Gallery, Reykjavík, February 20–March 20, 2022.

Ketilsson, Guðjón. New Works. Solo exhibition. Hverfisgallerí, Reykjavík, April 10–May 17, 2014.

Kristófersdóttir, Ágústa. “Norðurmýrin: Íslenskur hversdagsfunkis” [Norðurmýri: everyday Icelandic quirkiness]. Morgunblaðið, February 24, 2001.

Latour, Bruno. “From Realpolitik to Dingpolitik or How to Make Things Public.” In Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy, edited by Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel, 5–31. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005.

Malevich, Kazimir. “Suprematism Manifesto (1916).” In 100 Artists’ Manifestos: From the Futurists to the Stuckists, edited by Alex Danchev, 105−125. London: Penguin, 2011. 

Magnússon, Ásgeir Blöndal. Íslensk orðsifjabók [Icelandic etymology]. Reykjavík: Orðabók Háskóla Íslands, 1989.

Pálsson, Magnús. “List og kennsluList” [Art and the art of teaching]. Teningur: Vettvangur fyrir listir og bókmenntir[Cube: a platform for arts and literature] 3 (January 1987): 19–21.

Pétursson, Hallgrímur. Hymns of the Passion: Passíusálmar by Hallgrímur Pétursson. Translated by Gracia Grindal. Reykjavík: Hallgrímskirkja and Skálholt Publishing, 2019.

Phillips, Christopher. Photography in the Modern Era: European Documents and Critical Writings1913–1940. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1989. 

Sigurðsson, Helgi Snær. “Djúpur og aðlaðandi hylur á mörkum ljóss og myrkurs: Guðjón Ketilsson sýnir fyrstur í menningarhúsinu Skúrnum við Grenimel” [Deep, alluring reservoir on the border of light and darkness: Guðjón Ketilsson first to show in the cultural centre Skúrinn on Grenimelur].Morgunblaðið,October 25, 2012.

Sjón(Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson).“Five Translations from the Literature of Trees.”In Guðjón Ketilsson:Teikn. Reykjanes Art Museum, Keflavík, February–April 2019.

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