the icelandic artist mixing autobiography with bizarre found photographs

As she opens a solo exhibition at Reykjavík Museum of Photography, Icelandic innovator Auður Ómarsdóttir talks censorship, Björk’s breakup album, and looking for dead bodies.

by Benoit Loiseau
28 March 2017, 3:00pm

It's hard to miss Auður Ómarsdóttir. Tall and slim, she has delicate facial features often adorned by bright red lipstick, and sports a nonchalant-chic kind of look that seems inherent to Icelanders. The 28-year-old graduate from the Iceland Academy of the Arts is known for her offbeat, humorous, and sometimes morbid photography, films, and installations as well as her exuberant collaborations with performance artist Snorri Ásmundsson (notably the "Death Dance" at the 2013 La Calaca Festival in Mexico, for the Day of the Dead). On the day of our interview, she storms into the lobby of my hotel, by Reykjavik's harbour, where she'd kindly offered to pick me up. "We only do one kiss here, we're cold people!" she jokes. We get into her old-fashioned beige jeep and drive alongside Mount Esja, the mountain that dominates the skyline of the Smoky City, towards the East Side, where she shares a studio space with a few other artists. A couple of old hearses are parked on the street outside. "There's also a funeral home in this building," she explains casually. Over strong, black coffee — served on a large toolbox — Auður and I look at some pictures, from her new solo show SITUATIONS and throughout her career.

Are you more of an artist or a photographer?
I find it hard to label myself, in a way. To me, art and photography are just tools for the same narrative, but expressed differently. I've always been all over the place with mediums! But I've taken pictures since I was a kid.

What themes are you most interested in?
I'm interested in situations and surroundings, moments of life. That's why I like to mix my own photography with found photography, to create a dialogue. That's where the magic happens. I was always interested in finding stuff, too. I used to go to charity shops with my grandad, looking for treasures.

There's often a comic element in your work. How do you use humor?
Relying on a feeling can be so much fun! When you're creating something that makes you feel alive, that can come out in humor. But I like to have a contrast, I like a dialogue between the morbid and the funny.

Can you tell me about your show SITUATIONS, opening at the Reykjavik Photography Museum. I think a lot of the pictures were taken in Berlin?
I was doing this collaboration with Egill Sæbjörnsson (who is representing Iceland at the Venice Biennale 2017) over the summer. I was there for two months, and I ended up having a romance with a German artist who I met there, so I decided to stay longer.

Sounds like a journey!
It changed my life. The Germans have such a different way of thinking — very practical and determined! I got an injection of it, it gave me more focus. I'm very chaotic. I considered moving there, but we broke up and I had to come back for my baby anyway.

So, is it a breakup show?
It's not about me. It's about you, and me, and them, and those situations… I don't want to tell my story, it's part of other stories. It's strangely the first time that I've been censored in an exhibition, too. I found a picture that the museum didn't want to show. It's of a funeral, shot in the 90s, somewhere in the countryside. You can vaguely see a name on the coffin. Because Iceland is such a small society, you could easily find out who the person is. The museum wasn't comfortable with it.

It seems quite serene, though.
There's nothing wrong about this picture, it's beautiful. It's so normal, everyone has been in that situation, but at the same time it's so intimate. To me it gathers the whole concept of the show, and it's weird to think that it's not in the exhibition.

What do you think that says about Icelandic society?
Things get under our skin very easily, we're old school. We're vulnerable.

What's happening in this one?
This is my son. He woke up with a bloody nose and I just couldn't stop taking pictures! He's with his dad right now, while I work on the show. He's a professional martial artist. And I'm a single mom and artist. Our lives are pretty weird.

You've collaborated with performance artist Snorri Ásmundsson. What was that like?
He's a very interesting person. He was looking for a dead body a few years ago, to make a video. He wanted to dance with a dead body. He put up an ad in the papers for someone to donate their body.

Did it happen?
Not yet! It fell through. He put me in his video once, and had me dance pregnant in a burka to an Israeli song.

Which other artists have had the most impact on you?
Agnes Martin is one of my favorite artists. It's funny because she's talked about music as being a highest form of art, and music probably has had a greater impact on me than art.

How about Björk? How has she impacted the creative community here?
She's an offspring of Icelandic energy and nature — she's just like Iceland, how it is. But it's her latest album that made the greatest impression on me, actually. I was going through a breakup myself, and kept listening to it over and over again. But actually, Matthew Barney (her ex-partner) had a much greater impact on me — after Michael Jackson. I used to download all his videos on Napster, when I was a teenage.

Do you have any other projects coming up?
I'd like to make a short film. Being an artist in the studio is not quite enough for me. The Icelandic film industry needs more diversity, and more women. I work freelance in films, making props etc. It's the perfect job for me — looking for treasures! But it's also very male-dominated, they always tell me how I'm "so tough!'" So you feel like you need to prove yourself or something, but it's a good challenge. There are more and more women making great films, or making great art here. I love Elin Hansdottir.

The collective Kling & Bang just launched a new space on the harbor. That seems to be a big deal for the art community?
Totally. We really need artist-run spaces for the scene here. This new space feels like a shift for art history here.The situation with rent in Reykjavik is horrible. Tourism is driving prices up, and there are so few apartments on the market that young people can't even afford to move out of their parents' houses. It's really hard if you're a single mother, or want to continue education.

"SITUATIONS" runs until May 30 at the Reykjavík Museum of Photography.


Text Benoit Loiseau

photography interviews
auður Ómarsdóttir