The Icelandic artist is a curiosity apparently needing special pleading, an explanation; a portrait of the artist as an Arctic phenomenon. The art of Kristján Gudmundsson is not obviously Icelandic: in fact, his work has received most attention in the other Nordic countries, Germany and The Netherlands. Kristján's work (in Iceland one refers to people by Christian name) first became known around 1967, when he joined a group of artists who called themselves SM, establishing their own exhibition space in the centre of Reykjavik. They were united in their antipathy to the predominant abstract painting of the Icelandic 'Paris School', and directed their attention instead towards Fluxus, Conceptual art, and Arte Povera. The result was a mixed brew, spiced by the presence of the Swiss artist Dieter Roth who lived in Reykjavik for a period in the early 60s. Others in the group include Kristján's brother, Sigurdur Gudmund-sson, and Hreinn Fridfinnsson, who both settled in Holland.
The conceptual movement in Icelandic art was always more poetic than analytic (although Kristján has been more rigorous in his approach to conceptual and mathematical themes than most). It didn't have the intellectual rigour of classic Conceptual art, and was closer to the irrationality of the Fluxus movement and its taste for paradox. This frequently meant playing around with idiomatic figures of speech (which saturate the Icelandic language), ambiguities of meaning and silly rhymes. These artists abhorred anything that smacked of long-winded pedantry. An economy of expression and the belief that fewer words carry more weight is highly visible in Kristján's work. Its underlying theme, embodied not only in works on paper, but also in book art and sculptural assemblages, is the very idea of drawing. It is what might be called the 'metaphysics' of drawing: the first principles of paper and lead, of lines of all variety - material, formal and temporal - stretching toward infinity.
For Kristján, even a pencil lying on a piece of paper, or the point of a pencil touching its surface, is a drawing. In Drawing 4 (1990), two rolls of paper sit on a slab of solid graphite. The materials are there, graphite and paper, and once the graphite touches the sheet, anything can happen. It only takes a few grams of graphite to open up infinite possibilities. Four graphite slabs lie on the ground, supporting two rolls of paper 70cm in diameter - enough material to last a lifetime. These are the kinds of 'drawings' Kristján Gudmundsson makes.
One of the artist's strategies is to present work on an enlarged scale. He does this not by constructing colossal works of art, but by giving a sense of extreme dimensions. It is as if he were trying to make us aware of what lies beyond our capacity to perceive - quantities and multiplicities that we think and talk about but could never actually hold in our hands. We can represent the idea of infinity with a symbol, but might it be possible to draw an image of the limitless that resembles it in some way, that represents it formally rather than by an abstract concept?
In 1975 Kristján published a book entitled Once Around the Sun (reissued by Ottenhausen Verlag in 1982). A bulky publication, it consists of two volumes. In the first volume each page is covered in dots, in total as many dots as there are seconds in a year: 31,556,926 dots in all. The pages of the second volume are densely covered with horizontal lines. Joined together, the lines would measure the distance the earth travels in one second, that is 29,771 metres, or about 18 miles. Imagine sitting in a comfortable chair holding volume two in one's lap, while the clock gently ticks away the seconds in the background. With each tick of the clock the earth and everything on it has raced the entire length of the book from start to finish (a distance, of course, relative to the position of the sun and the solar system within the Milky Way, and the Milky Way's movement in the universe). The two volumes together make up a neat equation: every single dot in the first volume multiplied by the total length of the lines in the second volume equals the distance the earth travels around the sun in one year.
Presenting this information in book form plays games with our notions of acquiring knowledge by looking things up and learning from books. This book cannot be read in any ordinary manner: one cannot possibly comprehend the contents in any other way than to flip casually through the pages, and weighing the volumes in one's hand, all five kilos of them, to get a vague feeling for the scales involved. To compare the distance the earth travels around the sun with two puny little books is a comparison so out of proportion as to seem completely ridiculous. But by presenting a tiny fraction of the genuinely immense, Kristján gives us an effective sense of the limitations of our perception of the world.
A feeling for the mathematically sublime is also present in an earlier work, Supersonic Drawing (1972), made by shooting a bullet from a rifle across the face of a sheet of paper. It took the bullet 1/1500 of a second to cross the sheet from one edge to another leaving a thin trace of singed paper and gunpowder, in what Kristján has called 'an unspeakably beautiful, brief period of time.' Never in the history of art has a drawing been completed in less time.
Kristján's later work may not appear to be as preoccupied with extreme dimensions, but one can experience, in the great slabs of graphite and the interminable strips of paper coiled up in rolls, a presentiment of infinity. More recently he has turned to a material which has almost disappeared in this digital age - carbon paper. The diametrically opposite of pristine white paper, carbon paper is completely saturated with ink so that it cannot receive, only give. 'Material banks', Kristján has called these dense chunks of raw material, charged with pent-up static energy waiting to be released.
Much of Kristján's later work may appeal, in formal terms, to those accustomed to inhaling the thin ether of a rarefied minimal aesthetic: a predominance of austere forms, readymade materials and objects, sequential repetition, symmetry, colourlessness - all the signs of a formalism obeying the less-is-more imperative. Drawings 20 and 21 (1991) consist of thinly drawn rectangles on bare walls. Do they represent a glorification of nothingness? The white wall of self-imposed asceticism in art? What unsettles the predictable approach is a curious feature of these austere looking pieces. The thin lines that at first sight appear to be drawn straight onto the wall are made from slender pieces of lead (as used in propelling pencils) attached to the wall, one by one.
Kristján's earlier, more conceptually-based work casts a welcome perspective on these recent pieces. For his 1973 exhibition at Amsterdam's Stedeljik museum, Kristján produced a small book, Circles. The book consists of a few pages of coloured paper of various thicknesses on which are photographic images of ripples of water. Each page is approximately as heavy as the stone that created the ripple printed on it, illustrating a recurrent aspect of Kristján's art - a correlation between the representation and its material embodiment. What is depicted is, in some sense, already present in the physical properties of the work. Earth Painting (1972-3) is another example of this crossover. It is one of the few paintings Kristján has ever made, a black painting of the specific gravity of the earth, where the specific gravity of the painting approximately matches its subject. Every single particle of the painting is equally important, whether in the front or the back, visible or invisible. The image on its surface is of no consequence, while what usually goes unnoticed, the physical properties of the support, are the most important features of the painting - its content.
In the wall drawings the pencil lead isn't used to create a drawing but the picture plane itself. From far away we see a white rectangle demarcated by a borderline, an inside and an outside, the picture plane and what surrounds it. An edge only exists as an outer boundary, but here the edge takes on a solid cylindrical concreteness and all division between different planes disappears. In the same vein, a recent series of work used the humble spirit level. Again, the line is not actually present but implied: each level corrects and confirms the horizontality of the other, an absolute horizontality.
The edge as a line. We can think of the edge of the paper in the paper roll as the material representation of a line of infinite extension and zero width. In the mid-80s Kristján made a series of drawings from laminated cardboard, where the end of the cardboard was blackened by lead. More often than not, paper is presented in stacks or rolls where the paper's edge is the only visible part. In an exhibition at the Nordic Arts Centre in 1988, on the island of Sveaborg, just outside Helsinki harbour, five 600 kilogram rolls of paper were lined up in a row on their sides. Above the two end rolls hung a bottle of ink that slowly dripped onto the rolls, gradually giving the end of the roll a blue tint. If the paper were unrolled, a blue line on the edge of the paper would appear - a line 35 hours long (the time it took for the bottles to empty). One can imagine the ink stain unravelling to become a line, in much the same way as the slab of graphite contains a line of indeterminate length. This edge-as-line, is a line on the edge between the visible and the conceivable.
The line is the genesis of every drawing. As soon as the pencil touches the sheet of paper there is a point, but wherever the pencil goes from there, there is a line. Kristján has found more than enough to occupy himself in the line and its various material, spatial, and temporal manifestations: the line as an object, an extended strip of material; the straight line, the circle, the
rectangle and even the knotted line; and the line as trajectory, arrow, direction, record of events and duration. And yet he is still at the beginning, still dealing with the raw elements of drawing, finding the limits of what can be represented by marks on paper, revealing the constantly shifting boundary between perception and thought, making us aware of how entwined our concepts are with the visible world.