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Sculptor Steinunn Thórarinsdóttir’s work is the first to greet you and the last to wave you good-bye on your visit to Iceland.


hey are everywhere,” says sculptor Steinunn Thórarinsdóttir, 55, and laughs as she weaves around her studio, tucked away in the backyard of a 101 street in Reykjavík. The large space is crammed full of life-size human figures. They peek out of the walls, lie on the stairs and sit on the two chairs that would otherwise be perfect for an interview. Feet, arms and other body parts stick out from behind the corners. Outside, they line a bench against the studio wall; a gang of four hunched, amidst the patchwork of flower pads, garden fences and colorful corrugated iron walls. Thórarinsdóttir’s studio is particularly packed right now on account of the exhibition BORDERS set to open March 24 in Dag Hammarskjöld’s Plaza in New York, which her sculptures will inhabit for the next six months. The inspiration for the project comes from the United Nations headquarters, located near the square. Thórarinsdóttir commemorates the global meeting place for people from around the world through 13 symmetrically arranged pairs of human-sized figures on opposite sides of an invisible, imaginative border that crosses through the center of the plaza. Made of iron and aluminum, “They are the same but they are different, on each side of the border, while the passers-by can go back and forth across it freely,” she explains. Thórarinsdóttir is particularly excited by the encounters and interactions between the inanimate and the flesh-and-blood. Her 2004 summer exhibition by the Hallgrímskirkja church in the center of Reykjavík became so hands-on that the exhibition was extended to last for an entire year. “It was an amazing experience to see how people interacted with them. SomeICELAND REVIEW

times, especially in art, people say popular as if it were a bad word, but I like popular. I think it makes people care and I want the work to be generous in that way. Not that I am making my work solely to please people, but I think it is a really nice part of creating, that there is giving too. My main purpose in making my work is to form a dialogue between the viewer and the work. To engage people and make them stop and wonder,” she says. And that is a goal that she has been successful in achieving. Since Thórarinsdóttir started to explore the human figure through sculpture in 1977, her bodies of work have conquered the home base—from the tourist office corner to the

Borders 2009-2011. Cast iron and aluminum. An installation of 26 figures. Pictured is a selection of two. Photo Arnaldur Halldórsson



HUMAN WOMAN main street slope to the departure hall of the Keflavík airport, she is impossible to avoid when in Iceland—and traveled the world. Her already successful international career got a further boost in 2007, when The Katonah Museum in New York exhibited her Horizons; 12 cast iron and glass figures lurking about a forest garden. The show is still touring in the US, currently setting up shop in its sixth successive location at the Georgia Museum of Art. With works in collections anywhere from Brazil to Ireland to Istanbul, and galleries representing her in Copenhagen, London, Australia, Canada and USA, the upcoming New York show is just one more success in a long series of achievements. “It is daunting but at the same time exciting, you feel fortunate to be able to do it. I am so grateful for my career,” says Thórarinsdóttir. But what is it that makes her work so universally adored? “The human figure makes it possible to relate to my work very directly, but at the same time the character of my figures is pretty reserved— they don’t force themselves on the viewer,” she says. Life-size human figures (the model is Thórarinsdóttir’s older son), the pieces are screaming symbols of humanity, yet with the

details and characteristics brushed away and simplified, they whisper rather than shout. “I often think that my works are frozen moments in time, just before an event takes place or something happens.” The pieces exist in their own silent world; they are solitary, definitely Northern in their silent introversion. “My Icelandic background interests people,” she says. For her, both the explosive, ever-changing and organic side of the Icelandic nature and the vast skies and the sense of space are present in her work, but so too amidst the untouched nature is the urban, modern society, and in its center the vagaries of human behavior. “My works reflect on life, death and what happens between those two fundamentals of human existence. How society works and how we as human beings relate to each other. I consider myself a student of the human condition and it is a constant source of inspiration to me.” Thórarinsdóttir’s work is modern, yet the human figure is a typically classical motif. The balancing act can be traced back to her studies, first in Portsmouth, England, where the emphasis was upon the contemporary movement, then to Bologna, Italy, at the traditional, classical Accademia di Belle Arti. With her dark hair, beautiful traits, perfectly fitting Prada glasses and elegant manner, Thórarinsdóttir carries the air of Italy with her—yet it is a rare Italian signora, who boasts a studio wall of sturdy saws. Thórarinsdóttir starts her work by taking a plaster cast of her live model, which she peels

Voyage 2006 The City of Hull, England. Bronze and basalt stone. A two part memorial in Vík, Iceland and Hull, England


Essence 2009. Cast iron and glass Photographed in Raudhólar, Iceland by Arnaldur Halldórsson

1 Catholic Church 2 Tourist Office, Vesturgata 3 Bankastraeti 4 1919 Radisson SAS Hotel 5 101 Hotel 6 Suðurströnd 7 Aegissída 8 Commercial College 9 Kópavogur Church Altar Piece 10 Departure Hall, Keflavík Airport 2 3 1


6 7

9 10


Lights 2009 Cast iron and glass. Installation of five figures. Photo: Bragi Þór




off, to enhance, form and shape at her studio. Finally, the foundry takes a sand mold and casts the piece. “Opening the mold is like a birth,” she says with a warm smile. In the beginning of her career, Thórarinsdóttir worked a lot with clay, making Raku pieces (a Japanese method of firing clay black). “That was very connected to lava and the Icelandic landscape,” she says. But the fragility of clay limited her work to small pieces; hence motivating a switch to metal casts—not so far from the Icelandic roots either. “The metal is heated into a glowing liquid, like a lava flow,” she says. In her works, the various materials have meaning beyond their practicality: Iron is often connected to earth, aluminum to sky. Glass in the iron figures’ hearts gives them life, as the light filters through the works from different angles throughout the course of the day. The surroundings of the works, often outdoors in nature or urban spaces, play an important role too. “One would think it is confining but it almost always inspires me,” she says. For Horizons, she asked the museum to send her samples of the bark of the Norwegian Spruce in their sculpture garden to allow her to match the texture perfectly. Voyage (2006), commemorating both British and Icelandic fishermen who perished at sea, has one figure standing on the sea shore in Vík on Iceland’s southern

coast, the other in Hull, England, the vast sea connecting the two. The memorial for fishermen in Grundarfjördur village took its shape from the mountains in its background. “Often, I get an idea almost immediately, then think more, more and more about it, only to return to the original idea eventually,” she explains. After a 35-year-long career, she dares to trust the gut feeling. “Sometimes, I only know afterwards why I had to make a certain piece.” Instinct and feeling are not enough on their own. Thórarinsdóttir arrives at the studio at 8 a.m. most mornings and works for a solid 10 hours if not around the clock. “To take it as a job has always been important to me, I take it seriously. And the routine is good. I think part of creation is some kind of rhythm. When you’re making work, you make that piece and it starts another piece and from that you go to the next one. It is like weaving, like a textile, it is like some kind of a rhythmic practice.” BORDERS in Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza, New York City, March 24 – September 30



art from Iceland

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