The Icelandic Love Corporation Disarms Brooklyn

In March 2004, the Icelandic Love Corporation staged a performance at Brooklyn’s Jack the Pelican Presents, which turned out to be a memorable night of love, kitsch and champagne. The cute, crafty and fun attitude of ILC is an effective smoke screen, which serves to disguise their engagement with a question fundamental to performance art : that of the artist’s relationship to their audience.

By Amoreen Armetta

For their first trick, Icelandic Love Corporation––the three-member Reykjavíc-based collective who performed “Intimacy Circus” in March at Brooklyn’s Jack the Pelican Presents––managed to persuade a substantial and increasingly restless crowd to put down their beers in order to follow the group out of the gallery and into the chilly dusk. ILC appeared, fashionably late, wearing lacy chiffon dresses whose skirts had been hastily shortened with a pair of scissors and low heels which had small creamy colored plastic bubbles glued onto them. Each had a pair of pinkish wings––the kind that school kids or crafty housewives make out of panty hose and wire––taped to her back, and each was covered in a healthy amount of glitter. As instructed by the gallerists, the crowd followed them––and several flashing cameras––two blocks to McCarren Park.

For their second trick, ILC managed to make an all-girl, three-way kiss feel as practiced and informational as a CPR demonstration. This is nearly an act of resistance in the U.S. where same-sex kisses, regardless of their intent, cause flurries of outrage and titillation. Their kisses seemed like a warm-up, careful and attentive as if they were spotting each other at the gym.

The next act, amputation of the wings, was far more intimate for both the performers and the audience. The white tape attaching the wings served to cover blood packs that when poked with scissors––kitschy as it was––repeatedly elicited a sympathetic wince from the crowd, followed by scattered laughter because it was so good and fake. The one whose wings were being amputated made sounds of distress and was sweetly and knowingly comforted by her fellow members.

Then came the celebration––champagne. Each member vigorously shook her bottle, coyly pointed it at the audience standing about five feet away, and released their corks in unison. Champagne limply bubbled out, without giving the audience a soaking. Each member drank, each ate a spoonful of caviar. In a slapstick moment, one member plopped down a diversionary bit of caviar for a dog that emerged from the audience and could not be shooed away.

Finally, came the circus. A two-by-four plank atop a cinder block served as a makeshift catapult onto which was put an increasing number of full champagne glasses. The first member up pantomimed her intent and motioned, smiling, for the front row to back up. Each member took a turn running and jumping onto the high end of the board sending the full glasses flying over her head to shatter on the ground behind her, genuinely impressing even the most skeptical on-lookers.

Icelandic Love Corporation are Sigrún Hrólfsdóttir, Jóní Jónsdóttir, and Eirún Sigurdardóttir, all currently based in Reykjavíc. They have been producing performance, objects, photographs and video together since 1996. They shortly rose to national attention in Iceland––back when they were known solely as Gjörningaklúbburinn, which they have translated as “Performance Club”––when they appeared on television kissing each other and then, briefly, kissing the camera. ILC’s media savvy and careful re-branding for benefit of their non-Icelandic audience seems incongruous with the crafty, irreverent execution of their objects and performances. They are intelligently irreverent, their work contains equal amounts of knowing art-historical references, humor, and a fresh brand of irony; which you gather if the glitter and all their talk about love doesn’t scare you off first. ILC embraces their myriad contradictions with the term “white punk.” They’re so sweet it hurts: transgressive by virtue of their positivity and good will. The following poem, from their 1999 performance “Higher Beings”, could serve as a statement of sorts; it also illuminates their cheeky, though all-inclusive brand of spirituality. A documentary photo from this performance appears on the ILC website ( showing them in cocktail dresses, outside what appears to be a public toilet, holding up plastic cups of champagne to a passing group of punks.

The atmosphere promises a better future and general positivity. A movement that is above everyday worries,

a new power.

Higher Beings are strong, beautiful and untouchable.

They dress in symbolic shimmering clothes of gold

and they offer food and beverage.

Higher Beings appear in specially marked places

at certain times, to talk to people, give information

about the movement and to make it possible for

people to join them.

In this piece the Icelandic Love Corporation

makes it clear that everybody is a Higher Being

inside themselves.

People should respect themselves and enjoy life.

– ILC, 1999

“Intimacy Circus”, like Icelandic Love Corporation’s entire enterprise, is disarming. To disarm involves taking away defences either literally or figuratively through the use of such tools as charm, confidence, skill, or brute force. ILC not only disarms their audience, but consequently blocks attempts at traditional critique. The structure of “Intimacy Circus” is driven by themes of myth and ritual, though to seriously delve into this symbology would be like judging a rock show solely on the basis of the lyrics rather than the energy of the band, and whether or not it was any fun to be there. The kiss, the dresses, the booze all seem tantalizingly coded, yet this is no critique. In that regard, ILC displays a currently prevalent self-sufficiency marked by an active engagement in creating self-generated, idiosyncratic references that, knowingly or not, thwart the old codes. They also, in their pursuit of spectacle, seemingly innocent fun, and non-competitive cooperation share some pretty deep affinities with Fluxus. The cute, crafty, and fun imagery is a very effective smoke screen, which serves to disguise ILC’s engagement with a question traditionally fundamental to performance: that of the artist’s relationship with and attitude towards their audience. Vito Acconci alternately wooed, bored and made uncomfortable voyeurs of his audience; Iggy Pop invited those at early Stooges shows to abuse him; Rirkrit Tiravanija has turned gallery shows into dinner parties for his audience. ‘You really had to be there’ is a performance cliché, but increasingly, meaning is conveyed in situ as the scrawled artist’s notes and grainy action photos have been replaced with good-looking color shots of varying skill that serve less to document and explicate, than to convey a certain style and attitude. This audience experienced some confusion about the kiss, laughter at the blood packs, appreciation for the way ILC managed to deal seamlessly with unforeseen distractions like the wandering dog, and a satisfaction at the success of the ‘circus’ acts. ILC’s relationship to their audience emerges as an attempt at an unguarded exchange by means of their disarming attitude. Though they are successful at winning over an audience, ILC seems to have some trouble ultimately convincing people of their work’s significance––what exactly is exchanged? Is the unguarded exchange a means to an end? Their laid-back approach coupled with a crafty aesthetic and a coyness when interviewers critically engage them, ends up distancing some. A problem not uncommon at this time when not everyone in the art world is reading the same critical texts, and a new field for a kind of critical discourse is being tentatively laid.

There are a host of artists working in New York currently who share ILCs disarming attitude, through some combination of an unguarded relationship with their audience, a particular self-sufficient crafty aesthetic, and––as in ILCs poetry––a sort of frank exploration of spirituality or transcendence.

“Turning”, 2004, Antony and the Johnson’s collaboration with live-action videographer Charles Atlas, debuted at Brooklyn’s Saint Ann’s Warehouse in April. The Johnsons––bass, drums, and a trio of strings––backed up Antony’s exquisite vocals, while projected behind them was Atlas’s real-time video mixing––close-ups of a cast of thirteen “Beauties” that were placed on a revolving dias so they could be seen from all angles, and montaged with what looked like nice stock photos of such things as flowers and water. The models were androgynous, hyper-feminine people, as untraditionally gender-defying as Antony’s vocals are defiant of any musical categorization.

Antony, whose formal training is in experimental theater, emerged from venues like Manhattan’s Pyramid Club where he did his own version of what could be called cabaret. Since coming to the attention of a more mainstream art world, he has chosen a talented back-up band to accompany his heart-breaking yet affirming songs whose complex lyrics seem to be primarily about love and pain––both emotional and physical. One of his biggest hits, “I Fell in Love with a Dead Boy” is self-explanatory. His voice has been compared to Nina Simone’s, and his range is huge, nuanced and controlled. He has been hailed by Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson, has collaborated with the recently ubiquitous artist/musician Devendra Banhart, and is in both the Whitney and Bonn Biennials. His confident yet child-like persona adds to his appeal, as does his charming between-songs banter. He somehow avoids wallowing, rather, he creates an unlikely environment of catharsis. In a 2003 interview with Lou Reed for Index Magazine, Antony sheds some light on the roots of his practice:

"You know, a lot of people tell me that my songs are too self-indulgent, too full of sorrow and grief. People are terrified of emotion. Most of the art in New York right now is pop and superficial, with a thin layer of cynicism and irony. When I started performing, AIDS was bringing about a cultural apocalypse in New York. I think of the piers as the Native American burial grounds for homosexuals. The people who survived were like war veterans... they were shell-shocked for years. I arrived in New York after the bomb dropped, but I was still preoccupied with this feeling of the cloud that had swept over the land. Some of my favorite artists died... "

The emotion that Antony manages to siphon back in to these revitalized torch songs is what disarms his audience. I’m sure that I heard the audience at Saint Ann’s gradually thaw, as they began to encourage Antony, who was nervous, when midway through he tried to talk a bit more between songs. The between songs banter is where Antony’s edge really emerges, demonstrating his immense control even though he’s giving it all up emotionally. Though ILC and Antony have little in common in their aesthetic concerns, they do share a fierceness––they are emphatically, unapologetically themselves. Yes, they are strange and hard to pin down and, as so, liable to cause discomfort for those who aren’t sure if its alright to like them or not.

ILC evades categorization partly because of the breadth of their practice. Each body of work deals with a particular theme around which is created video, photos, poems/lyrics, and objects. An exhibition of new and old work accompanied “Intimacy Circus”. One stand out is, from 2004, an oversized bald eagle sort of swooping down from the ceiling made entirely from an astonishing palette of panty hose stretched over wire, like the angel wings. John Connelly Presents and Daniel Reich galleries are two new-ish Chelsea venues showing artists that create disarming, crafty, and unabashed work which has affinities with these other arms of ILC’s enterprise.

Christian Holstad, who shows at Daniel Reich, is perhaps best know for “Life is a Gift Installation”, 2003, a makeshift plastic-enclosed bedroom which is a sort of poetic exploration of death, isolation, and human connection via a scrappy manifestation of the room of “bubble boy”, Daniel Vetter––who lived in an enclosed, germ-free environment due to his weakened immune system. For this year’s Whitney Biennial, Holstad has again created a material-savvy installation, which, among many other objects, contains a completely crocheted campfire. This campfire, like ILC’s panty hose sculptures, is humble, yet triumphant in its self-sufficiency. This reflects a particular material intelligence: when faced with all possible solutions to the problem of how to manifest an object, many artists are choosing the seemingly worst choice and making it work out of sheer determination and love of process. The dysfunctional campfire, red and orange crocheted flames hung from the ceiling over crocheted logs, is funny and visually stunning. The pantyhose eagle is the kind of scrappy debacle you’d find in an elementary school classroom, yet it too, is visually impressive. ILC’s eagle, like Halstad’s campfire, is a charmingly ironic object with a sly punch that hinges on its means of construction. It is similar in attitude, yet operates much differently than their performance.

The poetry which accompanies each performance operates differently, as well, and can seem initially sort of tuneless and overly-sincere. The word frank is more accurate than sincere; ILC is unguardedly, and not without humor, exploring some deep questions regarding spirituality, nature and transcendence.

Sissel Kardel––whose exhibition “From This Earthly World We Shall Soon Depart” was at John Connelly Presents in April––is a painter dealing with a very personalized, updated view of Romantic preoccupations like transcendence through nature. Each of these new paintings and drawings depicted the same nude woman moving through, or basking in a very imaginary, yet specific forest. She walks through the trees, relaxes on the rocks, swims in the lagoon––all painted in soft, washy strokes of slightly-off greens, blues, and pinks. Though she’s a hot blonde girl, she is not there to be oggled, in fact, such thoughts about the gaze seem entirely beside the point. The gallery press release states, “Of course, nakedness is the most natural of states and one in which we all are born into this world. Thus the path that Kardel’s nude subject takes can be read as a return to what we came from and what we will ultimately become. In this sense the figure...can be seen as a universal entity, humbled before nature but also enjoying moments of sheer freedom and pleasure.” “Where do we go from here?”, 2001, are the lyrics sung––in a weirdy medieval way––by ILC in a video of the same name. Stills from the video depict the women communing with nature in a similar manner to Kardel’s woman.

The soul is pure and proud,

in our house of safety.

There is never an angry cloud,

still outside there is plenty.

Curiosity drove us from our happy nest.

Looking for a new dimension.

We hoped for all the best,

in the land of beauty and tension.

The cliffs are high and scary

The bodies are small and vary

The face of the sky is eerie

This is misery.

We ask the whale! Help!

We ask the wind! Help!

We ask the waves! Help!

We ask the world! Help!

Never reason with nature.

They have received a strange message.

Their radio has told them a tale.

They go gladly on this passage.

They believe the whale.

Seeing that beauty is dying

Braveness fills their hearts and limbs

Their senses feel the crying

Searching the edges and rims

In the soft embrace of nature

The dog gives the kiss of life

Where do we go from here?

We are dressed for eternity.

ILC 2001

Both Kardel’s paintings and ILC’s verse appear a little outdated. What updates them is that both have an individual viewpoint, they aren’t reliant on any one philosophical, spiritual, or artistic notion like Transcendentalists or Romantics would have been in the last century. They are self-sufficient explorers of the same old big questions.

This is a lot to distill into a tidy package; yet it’s an attempt to get a handle on some of the incrementally changing attitudes and concerns emerging in the art world. Though this kind of work has been popping up everywhere for the last several years, its significance is often elusive––the newness of attitude is easy to spot, and just as easy to dismiss. It remains to be seen how this disarming attitude will mature, however it is far too prevalent to be written off just yet.

—Amoreen Armetta