“Borrowed Time: Icelandic Artists Look Forward” is a small exhibition on view at Scandinavia House—housed in two small rooms on the third floor of the Nordic cultural center, presided over by a single guard. But tucked in the far left corner, behind a wall, is an artwork that has the capacity to bring you to tears. Titled You Must Carry Me Now, the piece is a video displayed on a flat-screen television. On the right side of the screen is a rotating set of images of deceased birds; on the left are notes on the cause of their deaths. Although the notes are clinical and scientific in nature, they include details about the way each bird lived its life. One was recently released into the wild. Another swallowed a coin, thinking it was food that would aid her in the laying of an egg; she left this egg in a nest in the ruins of a former home. This is the life of birds in a world dominated by humans. You Must Carry Me Now is one of many featured works that challenges its viewers to engage in a conversation about sustainability and the environment.
The exhibition, which was curated by Ásthildur B. Jónsdóttir, an assistant professor in the faculty of art education at the Iceland Academy of the Arts, features the work of contemporary Icelandic artists. The topic they are dealing with is the changing world they can observe with their own eyes, living as they do in a country of melting glaciers.
The pieces are full of quiet details that can wound and move at the same time. One installation documents the work of a retired farmhand, who makes iron peace crosses that he distributes to people throughout Iceland whom he believes have the capability to do good. His labor is captured in a video; a wall of pictures shows his handiwork in the simple and quiet homes of those deemed worthy of his blessings. Evolution, by the Icelandic Love Corporation, features a woman wrapped in panty hose and seems to mimic the evolution of humans from walking on all fours to standing upright. The piece is meant to symbolize the amount of time it will take for items like panty hose to disintegrate in landfills—more time than humans have been human, in other words.
Photographs speak volumes of the place they represent. Slight Sea is a series of
images by Kristín Bogadóttir that captures the different moods of the ocean; one can imagine the weather on the shore from looking at the color of the waves. Iceland Specimen Collection, Skoffin by Ólöf Nordal shows a stuffed doglike creature standing in the valley of a mountain range; the dog is extinct and has likely been replaced by human tourists.
Scandinavia House is one of New York’s many hidden gems. Dedicated to preserving the history of the Scandinavian and Nordic countries (Denmark, Norway, and Sweden) in the United States, it was opened to the public in 2000. Its location on Park Avenue between 37th and 38th Streets suggest a fanciness that the center does not exude. In fact, it is a great venue to catch cultural programming from a place—Scandinavia—that has increasingly captured the world’s cultural imagination, whether from the books of Karl Ove Knausgaard or the artworks of Olafur Eliasson. And the café in the lobby is a lovely spot to have lunch, especially if you’re a fan of New Nordic cuisine.
“Borrowed Time” may be slight, but it’s indicative of the sort of exhibitions that might not make it to one of the city’s larger institutions, which are necessarily concerned with preserving a cultural heritage more specific to the United States. Being able to concentrate on a small collection of works is surprisingly cathartic; you leave remembering everything you have seen and feeling as though you must mourn the passing of birds.