Hreinn Fridfinnsson


Hans Ulrich Obrist interview with Hreinn Fridfinnsson.

HUO: I thought it would be good to start with your piece of 1974 about secrets, which has become a legendary work; it's influenced so many artists all over the world. Could you tell me how the piece came about?

HF: It exists only as an advertisement in a periodical. In the 1970s, when a group of us were running a small exhibition space in Amsterdam called the In-Out Centre, there was a little publication with a limited print-run called Fandangos that was run by a young artist couple in Maastricht. I contributed to it on two or three occasions and one of these was this advertisement. I announced that I was a collector of secrets and asked people to contact me and give me their secrets. But perhaps understandably, I didn't get a single one.

HUO: So it didn't lead to an archive of secrets. Was the idea of the archive behind it?

HF: Yes, or the notion of collecting and collectables. I was hoping that somebody would make contact, but I knew it was highly unlikely. People don't normally entrust a stranger with their secrets. The work was playing with the nature of the secret- I, as a collector of secrets, would not want to trade or pass them around since then they would cease to exist.

HUO: Somebody could still call you today with their secret.

HF: Absolutely. It isn't a dead thing at all. I could still present it.

HUO: In the 1960s and 70s, there was a tendency towards what Lucy Lippard called "the materialisation of the object", and most of these dematerialised artworks were related to documents. Your project about secrets seems to have pushed that one step further: so many people have told me about this work that it almost functions like a rumour.

HF: Yes, that's what people have told me. I don't remember being conscious of that aspect at the time.

HUO: Another of your works that has been talked about a lot by young artists is your ‘inside-out house', House Project, of 1974. Can you tell me about the genesis of this piece?

HF: Again, it's mainly a text work: it's presented as the documentation of the event, as evidence that the house was built, and it belongs to a museum in Stockholm. The idea originated in an old Icelandic book from the early 20th century. A certain gentleman in a village-he was considered to be quite an eccentric- decided to build a new house for himself. He started in the traditional manner with a shell constructed from wood and corrugated iron. But instead, because he wanted to use wallpaper, which was a novelty, and he thought it would make sense to put it one the outside where more people could enjoy it. This was for me just a fantastic thing: a house turned inside-out. Then I realised that it had a meaning. You could claim that such a house turns the world inside-out. So that was the drive to build a similar little house. I stumbled across an ideal site in a lava area not far from Reykjavik and we built it quickly. One of the basis factors of the project was that the building itself wasn't a sculpture for people to visit. The piece was presented as documentation.

HUO: So it was more about the story-telling than about the actual experience.

HF: Yes. It was never intended as a sculptural piece. And then it was just left where we built it. But an important part of it is that once in a while ramblers walking around in this area came across it. Little by little, I started hearing stories from people who'd come across this funny house in this area. That was the intention: that it shouldn't be advertised that there was an art piece there. This was exactly what I was after.

HUO: Again, it's almost like a secret.

HF: In a way, yes. And then the rumour spreads. It stayed there, heard, in quite a reasonable condition for 20years, and it's only in the last 10years that it's deteriorated; there's nothing left of it now except some stuff lying around.

HUO: You had discussions with Jessica Morgan at the Icelandic Festival about rebuilding it, didn't you?

HF: She suggested I should rebuild it. At first I agreed, but then I realised that this was an exhibition project, and the duration would be only three or four months. To rebuild this house and then to take it down would turn it into a theatre set of sorts. And there's something about it that you can't exactly repeat. So I don't think it will happen. But I would like to realise something on that same site one day.

HUO: So you made something else for the Icelandic Art Festival. You did an installation in the north of Iceland.

HF: I made an alternative suggestion that's based on the original house project and it's meant, in a way, as a kind of taking leave of it. Gallery Slunkariki where Jessica finally decided to put my work, is a small gallery in the village of Isafjördur, which has been run very successfully for a great number of years. The feature of the Gallery that stuck in my mind was that in the floor is a trapdoor, which opened on a stairway to the basement. I wanted to lift this lid or do something with it. Last spring, the lid was opened and three more sides with mirrored surfaces were added, so that there was a mirror box with a stairway instead of a bottom. It opened the space up; it made it quite large. You could see into every corner of the basement, just from walking around this mirrored box. The opening of the stairway turned into a field or grid, which extended in all directions. On the walls of the gallery space upstairs I had some frottage drawings, I placed drawing paper directly on the wall and I rubbed over it with a pencil so that all the remains of whatever had been done to this wall come through. So upstairs it's very clean, classical sort of a gallery space, but in the middle you have a basement that contains all kinds of stuff with all kinds of histories.
Of course, it also has a kind or architectural dimension to it. And another strand of the house project is that when I had a retrospective show at Domaine de Kerguéhennec centre d'art contemporain, I was invited to do something in the sculpture park. Again, what I put forward was based in this house, but it proposes another way to deal with it, but it would be a closed house that you couldn't enter, you could only peep through the windows. That project is now in progress, and if all goes well it will be realised this year. And then I think the House Project will be finished.

To read more, the book is available at Meessen De Clercq Gallery.

(Hreinn Fridfinnsson, Serpentine Gallery, London (UK), pp. 51-69)



An Interview between, JH Martin and Hreinn Fridfinnsson

JH.M : In your work in the 70s there were always images. Now you have evolved towards pieces where what is important are the geometric forms and the material used. How do these two kinds of work relate ?

H.F. : I have certainly always been interested in a kind of structure. In the early work in which I used photography it was the subject in itself, or elements like tile or more conceptual ideas that mattered. Photos tend to lead you more into playing with the intangible. If all you want to do is present an idea or refer to something outside the piece, then the most natural way to do is with a photo or a text.
After about ten years, I decided I'd had enough. It wasn't a conscious decision, just that I felt the need to construct more physically with some materials. It is the presence of these pieces and what they may provoke in the spectator which I find fascinating.

JH.M. : My question was concerned above all with constant factors in your work. The word "intangible" is probably a good way of approaching it. But I find it strange when you say your photographic works were never more intangible, because one could qualify them as being more tangible since they contained a reference to the material world outside; even if the photos were strange or mysterious. Whereas what you are doing now are constructions made out of shapes, colours and materials, which seem to me a further away from exterior reality.

H.F. : Yes, but that is simply because you take a photo or write something you are referring to a familiar, recognizable reality which you already know. But when you really create a piece, you distance yourself from the visual reality you already know. Everything opens up, and that is what interests me.

JH.M.: Would you agree if I called it metaphorical?

H.F.: Why not? If that is how you see it, it is just as legitimate as anything I could say about i. And I don't have to name or qualify it.

JH.M.: The different materials and the way they are combined seems to be important in your recent work.

H.F.: The material itself is not important. The only important thing is that there are one or more materials and that this transmits a sort of sensation. I don't have any preferencer. It is by chance that wood has recently become the principal material.

JH.M.: I find the same refinement in the presentation of the work based on photos and texts as I do in the choice of materials for these recent pieces.

H.F.: It is impossible for me to talk about these choices and decisions. When I see a work again after a certain time, I feel more like a spectator and I notice things I didn't know were there before and that I certainly wasn't thinking about I was doing it.

JH.M.: I know you are very reticent about speaking about your intentions and ideas at the moment when you create the pieces. Anyone would think you were only interested in the formal aspect of your work. I don't believe that. I see a contradiction, for example, between the beauty of the materials and their paradoxical diversity. That can't be wholly innocent on your part.

H.F.: What I would like to see happening within my pieces is a kind of dialogue, either a correspondence or a distance. The elements have to correspond with each other either by contrast or because they are complementary, in order to communicate within the piece itself. That is why there are different methods and different materials. But you could arrive at exactly the same result with just one material and very simple means. Those are just tricks, not the content.

JH.M.: You are the one who mentioned content.

H.F.: The content is the fact the piece exists. The medium must be at one with the content.

JH.M.: You don't like talking about it.

H.F.: That's simply because I don't know what it is.

JH.M.: I remember about twelve years ago you put a small ad in a magazine called Fandango, I think, asking readers to send you their secrets. You were crazy about secrets then. Do you see any relation between that and your work?

H.F.: It was one of those ideas I had at the time, it was like a game. The main idea was to collect something which was impossible to collect. It was a good idea, but I didn't get many secrets.

JH.M.: How many?

H.F.: I don't remember any.

JH.M.: You asked people to send you in their secrets and promised not to tell them to anybody. One might deduce from this that your work harbours a certain amount of mystery, like "From time to time" for example.

H.F.: I'm sure it does. When I do a piece I am not conscious of any kind of symbolism. But them I hear people talking about my work and talking about the symbol of death, for example. In fact all I care about are the old artistic values like balance, composition and other things like that.

JH.M.: When you notice the sheet which seems to cover a body, your attention is bound to be attracted by what is being hidden.

H.F.: Yes, but I was more interested in the form itself. The fact there is someone under the sheet who you don't see immediately gives a certain sensation which is not exactly mystical. It may be attractive, but ideas like that are not my starting point.

JH.M.: When I look at "Folded Star" I get the impression you have gone through a whole series of stages before arriving at this visual solution. It is an image which doesn't seem obvious the first time you look at it.

H.F.: No, I began with the idea of a star which folded like a flower, which opened and closed. It was supposed to be part of a larger work made up of several different elements, but I didn't get round to it.

JH.M.: In a case like that, do you try out a lot of different materials?

H.F.: No, I think about it a bit and do a few sketches. Once I start working on it, I have a very precise image of it in my mind.

JH.M.: What strikes me about this piece is an extraordinary sense of the material. As far as I know this is the only piece in which you have used cloth, and you make wonderful use of the frayed white bits at the edge of this grey cloth to make the outline of the star. It shows a very good knowledge of the material.

H.F.: I know the kind of visual effect I want to obtain and I choose the material in consequence.

JH.M.: That means you are extremely observant in everyday life.

H.F.: On the contrary, I am not very observant at all. I don't notice things around me; it is a handicap.

JH.M.: I am trying to establish a contact with underlying forces which I can't define. They link everything in a way which obliterates the frontiers between nature outside-the countryside-and the nature of the psyche, what goes on inside your heads. The work suddenly becomes part of something which is bigger than itself. I know that contradicts what I said earlier.
It is when the work is in contact with spectators that the most interesting things happen. I hear interpretations which are very different but still legitimate. These are open works.

JH.M.: Can you imagine getting interpretations you would categorically reject?

H.F.: Of course. All interpretations can be valuable, but there could be some I didn't like.

JH.M.: Do the things people say teach you anything about your work? Do they open up new horizons?

H.F.: Yes, what they provide is confirmation. If you have doubts, it helps clarify your ideas. I always find them interesting, as long as they are sincere and display a certain innocence.

JH.M.: Do you always take a long time to do a piece? You seem to have been more productive recently.

H.F.: Yes, I must say I have produced more in the last few years. It is a result of the pressure of exhibitions and is a good thing, because I am lazy. I love thinking and dreaming. I always tend to put off getting down to work.

JH.M.: You are interested in the intangible, but at the same time your recent work seems more formal to me, closer to a certain aesthetic tradition.

HF.: I think one's life is made up of several periods and that you have to live them and take responsibility for them. I can't take short cuts. What I do is not something I have learned to do. I hope there are going to be a lot more stages that are as numerous and diverse as possible. The only reason all these pieces are hung together is because they come from the same source. They may appear very different. All that is a question of ethics and also very unconscious.

JH.M.: After what you were saying earlier, I get the impression you felt your work in the 70s was enormously dependent on the dominant current of the time that you called conceptual art. You seem to be saying your present work is far more independent, more free and personal.

H.F.: Yes, in the 70s I did feel I was participating in an atmosphere and an approach which people generally call conceptual, but which had a great many ramifications and different methods. I felt very much at home with what was being done then. There are some really good artists from that period who I like very much.

JH.M.: Are you in contact with young artists in Amsterdam?

H.F.: Very little. Most of all I see a few old friends.

JH.M.: It's strange because I find your work is becoming more and more independent and personal but, at the same time, it has something very up to date about it; in particular what certain critics would call its "baroque" aspect.

H.F.: It's hard for me to tell. I must admit I haven't been following the artistic scene must recently. I can't manage to see the relationship between my work and what is happening around me.
We have to try to understand how similar tendencies appear simultaneously in lots of difference places at the same time. The only way I can describe it is symbolically. It is like something which is in the air, you are either in contact with it or not. There is no point in running after it in any case. That never works.

English translation by Jeffrey Kime.

(Hreinn Fridfinnsson, Centre National d'Art contemporain, Grenobe (France) p.p. 11-15)