Nestled within the bustling discourse of global capitalism, Reykjavik-born artist Hildigunnur Birgisdóttir navigates the intricacies of modern production and consumption. Her work transcends conventional boundaries, delving into the essence of material culture, while challenging viewers to reassess the values and meanings ingrained in everyday objects.
This badge manifests in a blunt, literal yet non-obvious way in the 60th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia 2024. There, at the Icelandic Pavilion, Birgisdóttir’s presents That’s a Very Large Number – A Commerzbau, a captivating exploration of commerce, critique, and creativity.
Drawing inspiration from the Merzbau tradition pioneered by dadaist Kurt Schwitters, she reintroduces the concept with her Commerzbau, a captivating collage of commercial fabrications and discarded remnants of commerce.
By stepping into the pavilion, visitors are confronted by a thought-provoking landscape, where the mundane is transformed into the extraordinary, beckoning observers to reconsider the overlooked artefacts of modern life. A large wall installation, made from a recycled floor panel from the Biennale Architettura 2023, is adorned with the logos of the firms, foundations, corporations, and vendors whose products and services made the pavilion possible, making visible the hidden systems behind exhibiting at a global art event. The surface of the large-scale wall installation features holograms, produced by a firm that specialises in holographic printing for banknotes. In between the glitter and the twinkle of over 70 logos, Hildigunnur and I talked about it.
Your work delves into the critique of global systems of production and distribution. How do you navigate the complexities of this vast subject matter within your artistic practice?
That's a good question. I think I always have to start with myself as a human being and in a system because I am within the system. It took me a long time to come to terms with that; that I was and that I am a person of produce. I do produce things when I do art. And I also consume. So, I’m trying to be, on a personal level, a respectful consumer and I'm trying to be respectful to planet Earth. But at the same time I am aware that I cannot have an advantage point that is outside the system. So I am inside within this huge whale, that we call capitalism and production. And I'm aiming to report my findings; my findings of ridicule, my findings of beauty and my findings of horror and try to kind of merge it into a thing that I feel is important for others to see and that's what I want my shows to emanate.
How do you transform mundane, disposable objects into thought-provoking pieces of art that challenge conventional notions of value and meaning?
I think there were people before me who opened up this possibility of everything being a material. And I do take it to the extreme. Even a YouTube channel can be material for me or just a production line can be so. It excites me because I find beauty there, where people do not necessarily. And for me, is a little bit like being a gold digger. Everybody is seeing mulch, but I can see some gems in there. And I feel there's like this urgency of  emitting or exposing those gold nuggets to the world. And that's what I'm trying to do. And that's how I do it.
How did the concept of the Merzbau by Kurt Schwitters inspire your presentation for the Icelandic Pavilion, and how did you adapt it to create your Commerzbau?
That's a nice one! So, Merzbau and this term Commerzbau that I now point [to], kind of came to me when I was looking at the model I had at my studio and I was like: “I'm making some sort of a collage, like a capitalistic collage”. And then, I was just taken back to a moment when I was around fifteen, sixteen and I had an amazing art history teacher. Her name was Sigridur Candi and she was so passionate. She sadly passed away. In one of her classes, she was talking about constructors and she told us about Merz from Kurt Schwitters. Merz was a word taken from a cut up magazine. It was so profound to see how he took text from magazines and composed with them. He really used them as material and he made beauty with them. It’s something that of course Duchamp did. And I find that very inspiring. And it's very inspiring for the whole show. It's components from this commercial culture that I am making a composition with. So it's truly a collage. Actually Kurt put the term Merz in all his work. He decided that his collages would all be called the Merz. It's what he invented. Then, later on, growing into space and making the first installations in the world really, he came up with Merzbau, which is Merz, a random word plus Bau, which is room. So, there I was, looking at my model in the studio when I remembered when this teacher told me that the word Merz was actually the later part of the German world Kommerce. I had this epiphany. So, I reintroduced the word Komme into Commerce. And I made Commerzbau.
Growing up on a tiny island in the Atlantic, you've mentioned experiencing extreme changes due to the sudden arrival of capitalism. How has this background influenced the themes and perspectives in your artwork?
It's not something I have always been aware of, but I grew up in a fairly modern society. I had my Game Boy and I wasn't witness to this intense overflow of capitalism to the island, but I had these notions like, my grandma was kind of born when people were living in turf houses. And then I am on my Game Boy. So, when people talked about the golden years, it really seems centuries ago. And that has always stayed with me in some sense. And also, we are a sort of newcomer to trade, but we're also at the fringe of commerce of this capitalism because it doesn't really work in such a small society. We have to subside or pay people to grow food because they can't compete with the the really cheap food that we can import. So there's a system that really doesn't work for them. This free market really doesn't work. I've always been interested in the fact that when you go to the action of something, you can see what it is made of, the component. You can see how man made it and how easily it could be changed. But because we are such complex, egocentric and maniac, it just can't be changed. I am not only critical but also fascinated with our system. I find that when you have a personal moment through my art, maybe or through looking at some of these systems that we have made, we can make a personal change, at least to appreciate the situation we are in. And hopefully drive for an upright route.
Do you believe there is like an alternative or do you hope it's possible or would happen someday? Or is it a utopia?
I mean, I have to be optimistic. I think it's a better way to to just wake up in the morning. But there is some nihilism within me that has lived with me for many years before I woke up to the fact that I love people and I do not want people to suffer on the other side of the globe because I want an iPhone. I just can't accept that. I just can't. But there was a part of me for many years that was inspired by another good physicist teacher of mine who said: No worries. Global warming, that's a thing! We have gone through worse things. We, as in Earth, life will prevail. And I thought it was a nice notion. Three months passed and I understood that he was talking about bacteria. We are kind of the worst thing that happened to planet Earth and bacteria will prevail.
I would like to ask you about your definition of art.
That’s a good one, I don't think it can be defined. The next thing in art is always something that you have never seen before and that makes it exciting. So I would never be able to say to you that's not art, and that makes me happy. That makes me want to teach. It's amazing. So it's hard to define. It’s probably something that you have to define for yourself personally. In sociology or in a social spectrum, art is defined by many things; because people pointed out and say it's art because it's hung in museums and galleries. It's art because of somebody appreciating it. Can art be appreciated by someone alone that just recently made it? These are all kind of definitions, I think they are almost personal. I had a revelation some time ago when I read a book by one of my favourite artists in Iceland, Birgir Andrésson, whom I knew and sadly passed away. He wrote a book about his friend Helgi frá Grund who was a blind man, a child at heart really. He lost his eyesight as an adult and they got to know each other. There's this story when Birgir is being cooked a meal by Helgi, who was an experimental soul. One day, after school Helgi asked Birgir if he was hungry and he said yes. Helgi started stirring something white and weird and a casserole. Then they got to eat and Birgir asked what was it. Helgi said: a bit of cake, a crust of a cake, a piece of sausage, water and ice cream. It's by me. So it was a composition. It was a recipe by him. And they shared this composition together. And it just opened up like where art happens and for whom. So that might be a definition of art.
Thats a Very Large Number – A Commerzbau can be visited until 20th November 2024 and will tour to the National Gallery of Iceland at the beginning of 2025.