The Nordic Heritage Museum in Ballard has served as a quiet cultural center, not so much a dynamic venue for visual art. This may change in years to come. In the lower floor of the converted former school schoolhouse, one can view plans for a large capital project that will move the center into a large, modern space to be constructed right on Market Street. Upstairs, through November 9, the Odin’s Eye exhibition provides a diverse glimpse of the more contemporary work we might see in the new space.
This group exhibition is part of a month-long celebration of Icelandic culture in October, including the Taste of Iceland dinners at Dahlia Lounge and the Reykjavic Calling concert, which paired local and Icelandic groups in a unique three-act program at Neumos. As the title suggests, Odin’s Eye focuses specifically on Nordic mythology. Artists from America and Iceland participated, curated by Brooklyn-based sculptor Lulu Yee, who fell in love with the volcanic country when she visited years ago, later marrying an Icelandic man.
Curating a group show in which new work must be made is a recipe for trouble. Doing it remotely while one is also creating work for the show is a recipe for unmitigated disaster. One’s fate is in the hands of the artists. Fortunately, the artists delivered for the most part, and there are a few truly masterful pieces of sculpture. The layout is cramped and the lighting is not ideal, but taken as a whole the show is a lovely cross-section of generations and styles. It could be a time-capsule, to be opened a century from now to represent our utterly dispersive view of myth at the turn of the millennium. With a little perspective, we can appreciate the time-capsule now, too.
A folksy approach is exemplified in the work of Gunnella: paintings dominated by jocund, rotund people and livestock in flat, quaint scenes, the sort one finds on greeting cards and jigsaw puzzles. It is not intellectual or visionary, and it will repel those who dislike nostalgia. These are hyperborean idylls, an escape, a reminder of warmth and play and bounty to last through colder, lonelier, leaner periods. (They also play into ancient assumptions in central and southern Europe that the hyperborean lands existed beyond the north wind, and were therefore warm places of plenty.) It was an anomaly among the other styles and perspectives, but it still had its place.
Michael Linton Simpson
Perhaps on the other end of the spectrum are Michael Linton Simpson’s pen-and-ink drawings. The compositions are dynamic and his splashes of color are appealing. The drawings are some of the more sparsely minimal works on display, but were successful as contemporary illustration of the myths.
Sindri Mar Sigfusson
Musician Sindri Mar Sigfusson contributed three small paintings in a flat, naive style that has a child-like charm. They are youthful, of-the-moment. Like Gunnella’s work, it is playful, and similarly it is not inventive, so one tends to pass over it. Sigfusson grasps hipster aesthetics and he is a talented musician, so people will pay attention. Its worthy of the time-capsule, even if it isn’t the grandest gesture.
Simpson, Sigfusson and Gunnella offered work that was not extraordinary, but for the most pure-hearted art lovers, the mere chance of seeing these distinct personalities emerge around a common concept is a pleasure.
The three pieces I might omit from the capsule are from Ingibjörg Birgisdottir, who is by accounts a fine artist and in demand for album covers and the like. She showed skill in her illustrations, depicting the elements used to create the rope, chain and ribbon that bound the monstrous wolf Fenrir in Norse mythology. However, it was a miscalculation doing them on canvas wall-hangings, which look like they came from Ikea or Muji…and perhaps did. The literal depictions become more conspicuously boring presented this way. The objects look like a pale shadow of embroidery and tapestries, industrial and homely in all the wrong ways. It was all around an unimaginative endeavor.
Perhaps one might glance at the patinated singing bowls of Pandora Andre-Beatty and think the same, but for the theme of the show they are a clever fusion of forms and ideas. For one, they are shaped as orbs and have the appearance of eyes, but the association of singing bowls with meditation and vision and the third eye in eastern spiritual practice marries nicely with the myth of Odin’s eye that inspired the show. For those who don’t know it: Odin, the chief god of Norse mythology, made several sacrifices for wisdom, including hanging wounded from a tree for nine days to learn the runes (written language), and removing an eye and dropping it into a mystical spring to gain vision of the ages. In these attractive standing bells, Andre-Beatty marries several traditions through a common pursuit of wisdom, though the eastern vision originates within and wisdom in the Norse legend originates externally.
Kristin Ragna Gunnarsdottir
One of the most complete gestures of the show and the one that most brings the Norse myths to life in a relatable way is unfortunately shown only in part, in facsimile, tucked into an cramped corner. The tarot of Kristin Ragna Gunnarsdottir represents in the 78 cards the full arc of the Norse myths from creation to the destruction of the world at Ragnarok. Gunnarsdottir’s images are sadly quite small in this facsimile, but one can clearly see the skill and imagination that were used in her striking creation. I am conflicted: It is a tad tacky to present them this way, but I’m glad to have seen them all the same.
The tarot are associated with ancient wisdom, and cartomancy is an ancient practice, but the tarot as we know it is a modern invention that was refined in the 19th century, especially by theosophical thinkers and artists who tried to marry many world myths and religions in one cohesive symbolic system. Various interpretations of the tarot have worked from that tradition. As one small but relevant example, in the Thoth Tarot, the Hanged Man fuses symbols of crucifixion and sacrifice from Egyptian, Christian and Norse legend.
The tarot of Gunnarsdottir uses the symbolic path of the 78 cards to extract moral kernels from the strange and sensational stories of the Eddas. If there is such a thing as tarot purists (and I’m sure there are) they might object to some of the liberties taken. The aforementioned monster Fenrir allowed himself to be bound on the condition that the war god Tyr would keep his hand in his jaws; if Fenrir could not break free and was not released, he would chomp off Tyr’s hand. That’s exactly what happens, and this incident is depicted in the Strength card, which is typically represented by a young woman (virtue) prying open the jaws of a lion, holding it in submission.
The reversal of genders and outcomes and the reliance on cunning in the Norse myth is an example of how Gunnarsdottir’s translations are not literal, yet fitting. Fenrir breaks the rope and chain, but is trapped the by the feminine symbol, the ribbon Gleipnir, which was forged of the most subtle elements, including the beard of a woman and the sound of a cat’s footfall. It’s a fluid translation and symbolic system that at once hones in on one narrative while marrying it to broader archetypes, all in a striking style that itself marries medieval and modern aesthetics.
In some ways, Odin is a perfectly modern, western creature: He makes consistent sacrifices for knowledge, wandering and mastering what he can, but he is also frequently wrathful and irrational. He effectively asserts his will on others, but he has a hard time controlling himself. He has traded one eye for timeless vision that yet can’t prevent the inevitable, and—cyclopean, lacking the perception of depth—has flattened the moment.
In that light, Derek Weisberg’s ceramic bust of Odin is the most fascinating object in the room. The chief God, looks dazed, staring out with his one weary eye. He has no body; a massive beard supports a head adorned with wings and crowned with the Odal rune. This initial letter of Odin’s name is etymologically associated with legacy and lineage, and was thus taken as a symbol of the Germanic, neopagan Odinist movement. It is sometimes depicted with serifs at the feet of the rune, but this has more controversial—though not exclusive—associations with Nazism. (Clothing company Topman learned that lesson the hard way earlier this year.)
Weisberg’s “Odin” is distinctly modern, expressionist. Stylistically, it could have existed in the fin-de-siecle, but the traumatized gaze of the god puts it beyond the middle of the century, after the nationalism behind the various national aesthetic movements in Europe came to a cataclysmic head. By then, many of those craft aesthetics had been abandoned for more streamlined forms that tried to domesticate and fix modernity in a way that made sense to increasingly displaced societies, clinging to tradition via manipulated historical identities. Iceland was not a player in these earlier aesthetic movements, but it still figured large in the collective imagination of other continental Scandinavian styles, which often referenced pre-Christian folk traditions.
The palette of Weisberg’s sculpture, its winged form, the turn of the century associations and its anachronistic gaze evoked for me Klee’s “Angelus Novus” and Walter Benjamin’s interpretation of it. (It was fresh in my mind, as just a few weeks prior I saw Intiman Theatre’s Angels in America, which similarly evokes Benjamin’s prose.) Benjamin wrote of the Klee’s print:
His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet… The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
Odin, the storm god: Though he may have been marginalized in preceding centuries Christian missionaries, he remains the rightful patriarch of Northern Europe and its aggressive imperialism—not the concupiscent Zeus or Jove, nor the abstracted, arid Yahweh, but the wandering, yearning warrior who really makes a mess of everything despite his knowledge. It is no coincidence that the Nazis appropriated Nordic folk symbols to establish a cohesive identity, even as they subjugated northern neighbors under a new tribal religion of “the master race.” Among the more delirious myths assumed by the Nazi inner circle was that Iceland was the fabled Ultima Thule, the site were the Aryan race had been deposited by the impact of a comet or ice planet with earth, which was already inhabited by lower, darker humans that deserved to be expunged—interplanetary imperialism, in short. (Incidentally, Iceland was neutral, and was invaded not by Germany but by Britain during WWII.) It all seems absolutely insane in hindsight, but people believe strange things, behave even more strangely, and still worship strange gods, after all.
Weisberg’s “Odin” is a compelling historical object. It might be overlooked in another context, in a place without the national focus that allows for this deeper scrutiny. In the Odin’s Eye exhibition, it is the center of gravity, linking the work to a tradition that is still relevant and that figured large in the trauma of the last century, though it sometimes vanishes amidst more sensational propaganda. To the curators: It might have been a better choice to curate around this piece, as technically and symbolically I think it is the linchpin to having a deeper understanding of the rest.
The remote, inhospitable purity of Iceland has captured the imagination of Europeans for centuries. That gem-like island embodies the cold and crystalline, the volatile and volcanic, and the lush and earthy, deep in the northern sea. Within this show, curator Lulu Yee’s playful but complicated sculptures are perhaps the finest example of these contradictions. Her gods and goddesses are deformed children, swarming with animals and symbols, motley and pathetic.
The beauteous goddess Freya had associations with love and fertility, beauty and gold, war and death, and also the shamanism that faded from practice as Scandinavia was Christianized. Lulu’s “Freya” is a garish gnome, a composite of her associations that makes them more immediately understood than a more classically beautiful, straightforward sculpture would. The modern age has a morbid obsession with beauty divorced from virtue, so it is in some ways fitting that Freya should appear unbeautiful…just as Gunnarsdottir’s Strength card replaces the virtuous maiden with the maimed god of war.
Despite how unexpected it is in such a humble space, Odin’s Eye looks forward and back at a specific tradition and the trajectory of its representations—as the authentic practice is all but dissolved—in a modern world. One leaves reminded that there is so much more to unpack in this tradition, and therefore in so many others. It is encouraging to think that the Nordic Heritage Museum will in the future become a venue for more complete explorations of northern European cultures that have figured heavily in the Northwest, but are now taken for granted. It will help us make better sense of the present, past and future…and hopefully no one will lose an eye in the process.