The National Gallery of Iceland’s ‘Hello Universe’ Proffers a Cultural View of Our Obsession w/ Space

Through all the misery of the Trump presidency, there were at least several unforgettable moments of comic absurdity, which we can now look back on with a good chuckle or two. None, certainly, rose to the level of ridiculousness of 45’s “launch” of the US…Space Force. It was “headed” by a man, Mike Pence, who roundly rejects science – and it even has a website now. And yet we are unaware of even a solitary bit of accomplishment since its formation in December of 2019.

However, the grownups over at NASA managed to land the Mars Rover Perseverance on the Red Planet last week, whilst working under pandemic conditions on Earth. But three weeks earlier, a SpaceX test launch ended in a horrifying explosion, another major setback within the context of a recently revived cultural interest in space travel (which would seem to date back about 7 – 8 years, roughly). And considering our planet’s recent brushes with assorted apocalyptica, it’s hardly a wonder we are all suddenly looking skyward again.

And so The National Gallery of Iceland’s new exhibition Hello Universe is certainly a timely one, which seeks to reimagine how we view the various celestial phenomena by looking at them through the eyes of 23 venerable Icelandic artists, living and deceased. And let’s face it, artists are much more likely to be gazing at the stars for inspiration than most of the rest of us. Currently opened and running through early January, it also beckons spaceheads to Reykjavik for that first post-pandemic visit, at least if you consider that we may see the lifting of the European travel restrictions by end of summer.

No surprise, the late avant-gardist Finnur Jónsson is notably featured, as he was one of the first modern artists (back in the early 20th Century) to explore outer space in his work. The mysteries of the Milky Way influenced works included in the show by Hildigunnur Birgisdóttir and Svavar Guðnason – the former known for her large scale installations, the later a key figure in the postwar avant-garde CoBRa movement.

Icelanders, of course, are deeply and viscerally connected to their mythology. And the works included by artists Ásgrímur Jónsson and Guðmundur Thorsteinsson (Muggur), also dating to the first half of the 20th Century, seek to examine the role of heavenly bodies in Icelandic tales and folklore. But the 1960s and ’70s are also well represented in the exhibition – which makes for a fascinating look back at our recent past, a past that had been looking decisively to the future…and was doing so while real human beings (astronauts, of course) were actually landing on other planets.

The show has been co-curated by Guðrún Jóna Halldórsdóttir and Ragnheiður Vignisdóttir, with scientific consultation by Sævar Helgi Bragason. So yes, it carries the heft of science. Yet still, it’s meant to edify in a way that also reminds us that learning about space has always allowed us the unique opportunity to reconnect with our adolescent sense of enthusiasm and wonder about those things existing beyond the reach of Earth’s gravitational pull.

“Space and art share the common qualities of being interesting and mutable,” observes Halldórsdóttir. “They are in constant motion, and new discoveries are always being made when one looks at [space and] art.”

And in allowing ourselves to travel far above the clouds for a little while – even if it is just by looking at a painting – we can at least experience a brief respite from the terrible mess we’ve made, and continue to make down here.

Hello Universe will be on view at The National Gallery of Iceland, Fríkirkjuvegur 7, 101 Reykjavík, through January 9, 2021.

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