Venice Biennale: How Icelandic artist hands over pavilion to trolls

The Venice Biennale has a rich and diverse history. As a long-serving and cynical art writer I could say I have seen it all, but even I admit that this may well be a first: an artist winning the prestigious commission of the Icelandic Pavilion only to then give it away to two trolls. But this is made more credible by being the Icelandic pavilion; the Icelandic Art Centre has a history of anarchism, matching the country’s ‘plow your own furrow’ attitude. In 2015 Swiss artist Christoph Büchel (now based in Iceland) presented a fully working mosque, the first in Venice, in a formerly abandoned Catholic church. It was closed down shortly after it opened with what seems now like spurious excuses of security.

Egill Sæbjörnsson’s momentous announcement was flagged in the art press and the local Icelandic press. I went to his studio in the Friedrichshain area of Berlin to meet him and the trolls. He works here with a team consisting of some affable German artist assistants, two Icelandic interns and of course two trolls. Going to an artist’s studio is always interesting – it is best to do your homework and then to have few preconceptions – and it is a first for me to meet some trolls. I only hoped they were not too hungry.

Sæbjörnsson was born in Reykjavik, Iceland in 1973. He attended the Icelandic College of Art and Crafts, and vowed to himself that he would leave Iceland to study abroad. Which he did, landing at the Université Paris and St Denis to study for a year before returning to Iceland to complete his studies. He stresses that the year in Paris was important to him. “I did not speak French so I spent a lot of time learning it, but I also attended circus classes taught by an old clown and we would communicate through the universal language – sign language.” The skills of physical movement and clowning have entered his practice. “I also studied at the ‘School of Pompidou’. Seeing the work of Paul McCarthy, Dan Graham, Mike Kelly, contemporary dance and Picasso, were all really important to me”.

Portrait of Egill, Ügh & Boõögâr (Egill Sæbjörnsson)

Sæbjörnsson reminds me first of his Celtic roots, which are obvious when looking at him: with his large, high forehead he could easily be cast in Hollywood as a Viking warrior. He knew he wanted to be an artist from a young age. He remembers having few friends in kindergarten but that his facility in drawing and winning drawing prizes made him happy and gave him a position. As well as his art, writing music and performing were important too. He points to a wall of guitars in the studio: “I learned on that one; it is my mother’s”. I ask why he has not given it back and he says, “she has not asked for it.” So I remark that it must be nice to have a little of her in Berlin when you feel homesick. He describes music as a way to find a parallel reality. “When I hold a record cover I project myself into it and I could fall into the music.”…

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