About Erla Thórarinsdottir´s work
Austerity and the Body of the Sacred
Austerity and the Body of the Sacred
Contemporaneous East and West
Jon Proppé Art Critic
Erla Þórarinsdóttir’s art stands apart from most of what her contemporaries are doing. Its intense forms and deep spirituality are far removed from the cynical presentation and facile eclecticism of much of what we see in museums and galleries these days where the artists sometimes seem most concerned to distance themselves from whatever symbolism and meaning their works may carry. That attitude can be interesting in a analytical or rhetorical sense but it also severely limits the ways in which we, the viewers, can approach and appreciate what is being done. All too often we find that the most we can get out a work of art is sharing in the joke or else feeling left out. Built into the rhetoric is a kind of defense mechanism which allows the artist to sidestep any attempt at interpretation, allowing all but confirming none. In the absence of such devices, Erla’s works can seem almost vulnerable and fragile, despite their clear and uncompromising formalism, but this is also why they can also be so profoundly unsettling.
Erla Þórarinsdóttir was born in Iceland but grew up in Sweden and received her art education there and in Amsterdam in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In the mid 1980s she lived in New York before returning to settle in Iceland. While her early work reflects to some degree the heady anarchy and freedom of the time, there is a remarkable constancy to her output, an almost stubborn attachment to the same explorations of forms and colours and gradually evolving shapes. Best known in recent years for her paintings, she has also worked continuously on three-dimensional pieces, some sculptural, such as her recent work in granite, some more ephemeral like her installations of light and coloured shapes. Already in the 1980s she had started to use metallic paints and the use of silver leaf was to become perhaps the most easily recognizable feature of her paintings from the 1990s and up to today. She does not apply the silver as ornamentation or for accents but uses it on large shapes, sometimes broken up into complex surfaces, and has harnessed the natural process of oxidation to lend these metallic surfaces a remarkable depth on the canvas, often in combination with a single rich and deep colour.
Erla’s most comprehensive exhibition of this technique was in 2004 in the Reykjavík Art Museum, titled Corpus Lucis Sensitivus or the Light-Sensitive Body. The title refers to the process by which Erla has allowed the silver leaf in her paintings to be transformed by daylight and oxidation but also to a deeper reading of the work which associates them with a more mystical or spiritual aspect of the world. The paintings highlighted not only the painstaking precision and detail of Erla’s method, but also the urgency and depth of her symbols. Emphasising the corporeal, some canvases appeared to be drenched in blood and the depth of her surfaces – silver and oil paint – seemed to evoke much more than form and fields of colour, something like a mystical body, not mere symbols but a living transcendental body born of light and shapes. Silver is perhaps the most appropriate material for such an evocation with its rich and ancient mystical associations, secret alchemical history and varied use in magic and rituals around the world. Yet, Erla does not refer back to this history in her work, or only very obliquely. She does not work with symbols and their readings based on some arcanum or ready interpretation. Rather, she always seeks to exploit the symbolic properties of the materials and forms themselves, not merely referring to them or evoking their associations but seeking to recreate the experience that must have given rise to them in the first place. In Erla’s art, this finds expression in highly-crafted paintings and sculpture, but also in her more loosely assembled works of photographs and installations that often have a reference to personal history.
This is why one feels somewhat uncomfortable speaking of the mystical aspects of Erla’s work, though not to do so would be to ignore the very thing from which they derive their impact. Part of the problem here is the cynical way we tend to treat our symbols nowadays, piling them up casually but without any real commitment, as a rhetorical exercise or merely as ornaments, denying them any metaphysical content and thus any real relevance to our lives. In this way, we have ‘tamed’ the metaphysical realm and no longer feel either its pull or its dangers. In her paintings, however, Erla seeks to rediscover the primordial, the sublime and always dangerous experience of something inexhaustible and sacred that has no name and no cipher but nonetheless belongs to our world and is, indeed, its very essence.
It is inevitable – if perhaps a little obvious – that one should see parallels between Erla Þórarinsdóttir’s art and the later works of Anna-Eva Bergman (1909–1987), if only because both use metal leaf in their paintings. But the connection runs deeper than mere technique for Erla also shares Bergman’s attachment to the spirituality of forms and her paintings are to some extent rooted in the development of abstraction in Scandinavian art in the post-war era that applied the lessons of the Parisian school to a more intense expression of nature and a more personal aesthetic that surprisingly often could be seen to border on the mystical. Born in Stockholm and raised and educated in Norway, Bergman came to Paris in the 1930s like so many young artists form the north and, like so many others, had her life and career interrupted by World War II. Searching for a new way forward in her art in the years after the war she wrote in her diary in 1949: ‘Eternal art has always been a sacred art, and as such an allegorical art. If modern art is to have an important place it also has to become sacred – but sacred in a modern sense, i.e. being an (allegorical) synthesis of the cosmic – religious – philosophical and scientific image of our world …’ Bergman’s conviction was that art could salvage an experience of the sacred, even in a world so dramatically disrupted by war and political strife, but the art she envisioned had nothing to do with the spiritualism and late-symbolist art of the pre-war era. Her art would not merely draw on or refer to spiritual interpretations of the world but would itself reveal its sacred synthesis through the sheer working of its materials – line, field, and colour.
Nowadays, more than half a century after Bergman wrote in her diary, artists again – or still – face a world disrupted and fragmented. The task of bringing meaning to one’s art has certainly not become any easier and the proliferation of art in recent years has accelerated the process of obsolescence by which every idea, once put, becomes a reference for something new and is therefore already unusable as an earnest statement of position. Developing a coherent aesthetic approach is, by now, almost beyond us and involves a great deal of determination and a very delicate balancing act with the abyss of over-interpretation on one side and the arid plains of triviality on the other.
Erla Þórarinsdóttir is nothing if not determined and she is also well aware of the risks involved in her metaphysical investigations and the need to place her work in the context of contemporary art practice. Though highly individual and often aggressively formalistic, her works are open to cultural influences and, as she is proving more and more often, can be expressed in a variety of media. Recent visits to China, for example, have allowed her to undertake more ambitious sculptural projects, working with local materials and learning from local craftsmen. These visits have also allowed her to widen the cultural references of her works, bringing about a kind of fusion of Nordic austerity and oriental abundance in colourful installations and photographic series. Gradually working these elements into her art, she proves the consistency of her ideas and her ability to carry them forward in new materials and present them in new contexts.
Ólafur Gíslason Art Historian
Catalogue ASÍ Art Museum, Reykjavík 2010
Contemporaneous is the title of Erla Þórarinsdóttir’s tripartite exhibition at the ASÍ Art Museum. In the “pit” gallery we see a series of slides projected on the wall, snapshots from the artist’s travels in the great cities of India and China, with shots of Western cities mingled in. On the ground floor we see photographs of geometric forms from Indian sacred architecture. In the upper gallery abstract paintings on canvas keep company with a photograph depicting the Indian Lord Lakulish, an avatar of Shiva and originator of Indian yogic practice.
In essence this exhibition is an encounter between the enduring and abstract on the one hand and the ephemeral and objective on the other; it is also testimony to the encounter between Erla Þórarinsdóttir and her Western background and the East and its culture. It provides an occasion to ponder the difference between the cultural currents and what their mingling can produce.
Perhaps the exhibition can be seen as an expression of two visions, described in Indian philosophy as dharma (the realm of phenomena, of the singular, bound to order and time and also instability ) and Brahman-Nirvana, a concept encompassing the eternal and universal in which singularity and demarcation disappear. Italian philosopher Umberto Galimberti says, “Every dharma rests in Brahman; xlets dharma emerge but does not lose its identity to it. To the extent that Brahman is not dharma it is Nirvana.” Nirvana literally means “what is beyond dharma, what extinguishes every dharma with a single breath.” Brahman-Nirvana means ‘the transcendent Being that pervades and encompasses every dharma’ (Brahman) but also that which supersedes and destroys it with a single breath.
The slide show in the “pit” gallery thus leads us through dharma, down the road of our preoccupation with the singular, concrete, orderly, and unstable, which we classify, analyze, grasp, and command through language and technology. The photographs on the ground floor depict abstract geometric forms from the sacred geometry on which Indian sacred architecture is based. These point on toward the abstract paintings shown in the upper storey, which renounce the world and objectivity. In them the geometric forms seem to have an autonomous life independent of temporal problems, power struggles, or passions, just like Lord Lakulish, who is shown here in his proper context, as the teacher of meditation that exalts the temporal, directing our minds to the Being that came before, is now, and ever will be, independent of the unstable manifestations of the world that the slides displayed. These are paintings that choose silence over discourse, images that invoke being itself rather than its definition or semblance. They point toward Nirvana, the impalpable emptiness of Being.
Is it possible to generalize about the different worldviews and value systems of East and West in an historical context? Umberto Galimberti does so in his Il tramonto dell’Occidente (The Sunset of the Occident), arguing that Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism alike guide our minds away from the singular, temporal, and concrete (dharma), with the idea of renouncing the world and materiality in favour of the Being that transcends material and transitory things, whether one calls it Tao or Brahman-Nirvana. Western thought on the other hand appears to pursue an opposite direction: it displays a tendency toward ever-increasing materialism, in which holistic thought yields to demarcation, classification, and analysis of the singular, concrete, and temporal in a struggle for dominion grounded in the “will to power” that Friedrich Nietzsche said was the driving force behind Western history. In this schema Eastern thought points away from the material world and transient passions, toward that Being which is “beyond good and evil,” while Western thought is characterized by a continuous striving for power, possession, and dominance over the world, to subserviate it to a force that is primarily self-seeking and in our era sees Being as yet one more instrument in the struggle to control objects.
The idea of transcendence integral to Nirvana and the Tao differs fundamentally from the transcendent realm of ideas that Plato developed and that was later redefined in the Christian transcendent heavenly realm: The Eastern transcendent is as immanent in the here and now as it is impalpable. Therein lies a paradox of Eastern thought that has perplexed Western logic and traditional philosophy. Galimberti says that Hinduism’s distinction between the mind of the enlightened, the Bodhisattva, and the unenlightened is comparable to the Greeks’ distinction between persons bound up in the outward appearance of objects (doxa) and philosophers who seek to unveil the truth (aletheia). Both groups are presented with the realm of phenomena (dharma) but the former “conceive objects in their isolated manifestations (doxa) without recognizing them as apparition, as the veil of delusion that Maya, mother of Buddha, spreads over all things. The philosophers, by contrast, suffused with being (bodhisattva), conceive dharma as evidence of Brahman-Nirvana, the power that lets dharma occur but also erases it in an instant: Thus the enlightened are not subordinate to things, do not know things by appearance or semblance, nor assign them linguistic names that classify and distinguish through definition. Instead of speech they choose silence; they follow that which avoids all forms of possession, including the possession inherent in the name of a thing.”
This crystallizes, Galimberti says, into a rift between East and West, with the former preoccupied with being and the latter in the grips of a will to power that promotes impetuous and violent domination over objects and the world. In Galimberti’s view the East-West rift dates back to Plato and the subsequent emergence of Christianity, in which the ultimate goal of history is realized on Judgment Day, in a transcendence beyond the present world, not in the here and now.
In Eastern thought consciousness of the eternal is so overpowering that it scarcely leaves room for history as the West later conceived it, as a road to salvation. History is governed by Brahman-Nirvana. Buddha travels through the world without preaching any improvements to it for the benefit of the masses; like Parmenides, Buddha preaches that men should liberate themselves from, not transform, the world. He says, “As the lovely lotus flower is never wetted by water, so shall I never be soiled by the world.”
We can also trace the East-West rift, Galimberti says, through another idea common to both before the rift: people recognized not only the existential distinction between the thing and its being, between dharma and Brahman-Nirvana, but also the immanence of being in the object. The distinction never precluded immanence, as would the Platonic dualism that later became central to Western thought. The transcendent never receded to the point of ceasing to pervade the obvious reality that Being consistently evokes in things. Karl Jaspers, in discussing this indwelling transcendent in his Great Philosophers, finds that the Tao expresses it best: “The Tao, ‘born before heaven and earth’ (25) and older than the heavenly father (4), is not something “other,” absolute, and impalpable but rather present here and now. Although it is impossible to perceive it with our senses, we can grasp the true being that pervades every object.”
Our organs of sense are thus incapable of grasping the Tao, just as science cannot measure ‘nothingness’. As the Tao Te Ching says, “Shape clay into a vessel. It is the space within that makes it useful. Cut doors and windows for a room; it is the holes which make it useful. Therefore profit comes from what is there; usefulness from what is not there” (11). The Taoist understanding of emptiness is thus the non-being that pervades every being. The difference is realized in unity. Transcendence does not preclude immanence. Nothing is impervious to emptiness in its simplicity and fragility: “small as it is in its unformed state, it cannot be grasped” (32). It saturates every object and endures every perishing.
Thus the idea of the Tao seems akin to the idea of life concealing death within itself until life is extinguished and death no longer threatens it.
l In Karl Jaspers’s words, “Dharma is what exists, dharma is a thing, possession, state, content, knowledge of import, subject matter, rule, formation, order, and theorem.” Die Grossen Philosophen,1957.
II Galimberti, Il tramonto dell’Occidente—nella lettura di Heidegger e Jaspers, Opere I-III, Milan, 2005, p. 163
lll Ibid., pp. 164-5.
lV Karl Jaspers, op cit. Lao Tsu, Tao Te Ching, translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, New York, 1972.
V Translation by Feng and English, ibid.
Þýðing/ translation by Sarah Brownsberger
Corpus lucis sensitivus
Corpus lucis sensitivus er sá ljósnæmi líkami sem hefur orðið til úr litardufti, olíu, silfri og tíma. Uppruni hans er í sameiginlegri undirvitund og í óefniskenndum þáttum þess sem gerist innra með okkur. Hann tilheyrir tilveru málverksins og er abstrakt og konkret og vill vera þjóðernislaus. Ég hef leyft honum að koma í ljós með viðveru, treyst á tilveru hans, ýmist þjappað og þétt eða fylgt honum eftir. Líkaminn er viðkvæmur, hann umbreytist í ljósi í tíma og ótíma. Við áhorf bregst hann við.
Þórunn Erlu-Valdimarsdóttir Sagnfræðingur og rithöfundur
Corpus lucis sensitivus Listasafn Reykjavíkur Kjarvalsstaðir 2004
Erla Þórarinsdóttir hefur þróað með sér eigin stíl í málverki, bæði að formi og áferð. Í stað þess að láta sér liti nægja fór hún að stunda gullgerðarlist á striga - breyta silfri í gull. Eins og gullgerðarmenn endureisnarinnar hvarf hún fyrir nokkrum árum inn í "fornöld" hinna kyrru, stóru og einföldu forma í verkum sínum. Verk hennar mynda því sterka andstæðu við raunveruleika samtímans með öllu því framboði á skjámyndum, helgimyndum, ruslahaugum, skurðgoðum, táknum, fréttamyndum og varningi.
Eftir að hafa dýft mér ofan í myndir Erlu eins og hrafn fram af bjargi og fallið í heilmikinn trans vil ég gera tilraun til að miðla því sem ég sé - bjóða ykkur að bera mína túlkun saman við ykkar. Auðvelt er að greina frá staðreyndum eins og þeirri að Erla hefur síðustu misserin af einhverjum ástæðum málað rautt á veturna, en blátt og hvítt á sumrin. Er út í hött að leita hér skýringa? Myrkrið sé rautt og víddin blá? Auðvelt er að týna sér í orðaflóði þegar myndlist er annars vegar: Hjá Erlu fer vönduð nákvæmnisvinna saman við stóra sýn, úr myndunum má lesa samhygð, æsta kyrrð, konunglegan ofsa, gull og purpura ... en ég vil ekki sjá myndirnar hennar eins og hópur af störrum þegar hægt er að fljúga inn í þær og heyra í þeim sjávarföllin.
List Erlu er að því er ég fæ best séð djúpsæ og alvarleg. Hún afneitar flóknum formum æðri menningar og lífsögu, en heldur sig samt við hinn gamla striga. Hún heldur örlitlu einföldu myndmáli eftir sem nægir þó til að geta sagt skýra sögu, sem verður að stærri sögu þegar myndirnar tala saman. Með því að búa til svo einfalt myndmál hefur Erlu á sinn persónulega hátt tekist að afhugsa áhrif árþúsunda menningar. Í heimi Erlu hafa fáir litir og málmar verið fundir upp, og aðeins einföldustu form. Samt tala myndirnar algjörlega úr samtímanum. Eftir standa listgripir eða himintungl, corpus lucis sensitivus - ljósnæmar “skepnur” sem kalla fram sterk minni úr heimi samvitundar.
Tímabilið er silfuröld, því að á myndunum er silfur sem gengið hefur í samband við ljós og súrefni. Silfur sett á striga á sér eins og lífvera vissan líftíma áður en sortnar að. Loftið gyllir silfrið hægt og rólega, en gangi ferlið alla leið fær það að lokum blakkan lit – eins og silfurskeið. En listamaðurinn hefur vald þess sem skapar og frystir tímann. Þegar hann telur ljósnæmt silfrið hafa náð réttu birtustigi lokar hann myndinni með lakkhimnu. Þetta heitir að fernisera. Þetta hefur einstök áhrif á silfrið en er gert við allar olíumyndir, loftið hættir þá að sleikja þær svo þær ná að lifa í nokkur hundruð ár, þar til ... en þessi sýning er ekki um eyðileggingu eða dvala, heldur lífskraft, kynorku, spennu, fegurð og sköpun.
Á sýningu Erlu í Gerðasafni í Kópavogi 2001 ríkti algerlega hófstillt kyrrð eins og í egypsku grafhýsi, bæði í formum og litum, enda hafði hún þá misst sína nánustu. Sú sýning var sem nótt en þessi sýning er sem dagur, því sterkir litir ríkja nú, líf, sköpun og átök. Erla leitar enn samnefnara sem er einfaldur og miðlægur. Leiðin liggur "út úr almanakinu", ekki aftur til þeirrar eilífðar sem ríkir í grafhýsum Egyptalands, heldur út og inn í eilífð sköpunarinnar. Erla beinir okkur í tvær gagnstæðar áttir sem ríma saman, út í kosmískar víddir og inn í blóðheim okkar sjálfra. Á sýningunni vaknar stjarnfræðileg vitund eins og ferðast sé meðal himintungla. Hér er fengist við hjartslátt sköpunar, jafnt jarðarinnar og lífverunnar, einskonar kjarna allrar tilveru. Hér gefur það að líta sem fleiri "geimverur" en mennirnir kannast við ... Er blóð dýra ekki rautt eins og óstorknað hraun um heima alla? Er ekki silfur að finna um alheiminn þar sem líf hefur kviknað, rétt eins og ljós, hita, loft, kulda, liti og hin ýmsu efnasambönd eðlisfræðinnar?
Í stóru formunum í myndum Erlu er enn viss festa, en flæði mikilla efnaferla brjótast um innra með þeim og springa út úr sumum myndunum. Goðin hafa vaknað og tekið til starfa. Sé þetta okkar jörð erum við komin billjónir ára aftur í tímann, jörðin er svo heit að kvikuflóðið er ekki enn bundið í æðum neðanjarðar. Málmur og eldur búa innra með okkur sjálfum sem í himintunglunum, enda er af þessum sömu myndum blóðlykt svo að “blóðveruleikinn” innra með oss vaknar með sinn ofsa. Blóðið hefur runnið úr farvegi sínum og mikil slátrun átt sér stað. Samt er þessi magnaða birta í myndunum og gljáandi fegurð. Blóð vísar ekki bara til sára og dauða - það fylgir sköpum konunnar og öðru viðhaldi svo sem fæðingu, kjötáti, trúarbrögðum. Ekkert líf er án sársauka og fegurðar, þetta tvennt helst í hendur, við erum rækilega minnt á það í rauðu myndunum. Sýningin stillist síðan niður og róast - sem betur fer - við tvö blá málverk sem mynda andstæðu við rauðu myndirnar. Þau sitja í einskonar englalíki á ystu mörkum sólkerfisins og minna á kulda, jafnvægi og fjarlægð. Lognið í myndunum Gabríel og Faðmur lofar hvíld og friði eftir þá blóðsúthellingu sem lífið er, eða í hléum á meðan það stendur yfir.
Ég hef sokkið svo djúpt inn í tímaleysi mynda Erlu í tilraun minni til að skýra þær, að þegar ég ranka við mér er tilvistin með allt sitt tímatal ekki lengur eins þrúgandi. List eins og þessi sem afhugsar of flókna tilvist og leitar að nýjum samnefnara vekur von. Það sama er verið að gera í tækni, fræðum og listum ... að leita framtíðar. Ávinningar mannkyns í samskiptum vekja upp tilfinningu fyrir núinu sem fornöld framtíðarinnar: Mannkyn sem var klofið niður í ótal menningarkima er að læra að tala saman upp á nýtt. Kvikmyndir, tónlist og myndlist leika hér stór hlutverk. Það sem virkar best er djúpt og sterkt í einfaldleika sínum, eins og myndir Erlu, því það týnist svo margt í þýðingu og veröldin er víst fyrir alla.
Heimurinn horfir þessa dagana á blóðfórn síðustu tvö þúsund ára á hvíta tjaldinu í útfærslu Mel Gibbsons. Erla setur hér í sýningunni upp sitt eigið tilbrigði við páskastef hins eilífa lífs sem er eins og rauð sprengja. Allt hreinsast í "blóðflóði" og verður nýtt að vori. Sjálft vorið heitir "sprengja" á ensku, þessi orð eru af sama stofni, fyrir okkur blóðverurnar hefur vorið óralengi verið trúarlegt tilefni fórnar og blóðs. Með því að bera saman þessi tvö páskastef - það gamla hans Gibbsons og Erlu - verður ljóst hvað menningin er orðin óræð. Í útfærslu Erlu felst frelsi og táknmál sem hentar öllum, hér eru engir flóknir menningarbundir táknlyklar. Þó lesa megi úr sýningunni trúarstef sem minna á passíu - leiðina frá blóði til engils - er það eina sem hún nefnir eldra en kristni, svo sem engillinn, hvað þá blóð ...
Hugleiðing hennar ber djúpan boðskap ef grannt er skoðað, og er þægilega laus við allt "tvö þúsund og ...". Við þurfum að geta skynjað og túlkað það sem skiptir öllu máli á nýjan hátt.
Segja má mikið þótt sparlega sé farið með myndmálið.
Bara fara inn í myndirnar krakkar ...
Halldór Björn Runolfsson director of the National Gallery in Iceland
When looking at Erla Thorarinsdottir´s sumptuous works one is immediately struck by their Tantric aspect, intense pigmented colour and silvery ground. They emanate a strong ritualistic radiance with their simple, yet very precise shapes which recall the outlines of emblems grounded in spiritual mysticism. As she has pointed out her paintings are rooted in the ambivalent cross-current of space and time. This means that she regards her two-dimensional works as potential representations of three-dimensional space akin to isometric designs of architectural models.
Erla´s use of such transient and sensitive material as leaves of silver is based on astrological and temporal premise in relation to planetary and spatial measurements. Therefore seasonal preparation is an essential part of her practice. Her use of silver is perfectly related to the course of earth’s argentine satellite, which explains the strobic effect produced by her series when lined on the wall. What looks emblematic could also be perceived as the successive flash of lunar trajectory. When concentrated the silvery discs and crescents form a united body held together by soft female-like contours.
Hence Erla´s paintings can be seen as an attempt to break out of the two-dimensional impasse to which painting has been confined ever since Duchamp revealed his dissatisfaction with its limits. But instead of discarding the canvas as obsolete she tries to reinvigorate it by reminding us that painting - as Philip Guston put it two years before his death - "...painting is not on a surface, but on a plane which is imagined...There is Leonardo da Vinci´s famous statement that painting is the thing of the mind. It is not there physically at all." It is this anti-literal position which makes Erla´s works so curious and interesting.