‘Elastic Hours’, the 8th edition of the Sequences biennial in Reykjavik, Iceland, took time scales – both short and long – as its subject
Time humbles in its vastness. Though we now measure it in ever-diminishing slices – the months it takes for luxury condominiums to alter the character of a neighbourhood, the weeks between ecological catastrophes, the days since the United States’ last mass shooting, the hours it takes for an ill-considered tweet to shift the world's political landscape, the minutes it takes to initiate an apocalyptic nuclear strike, the nano-seconds that vast computer servers take to make their automated stock trades – nature keeps a different pace. Trans-historical time. Geologic time. Cosmic time. In Iceland, where even the highway medians are surpassingly beautiful and alien, this sublime non-human time is inescapable. A human life there seems as fleeting as the island's mercurial weather systems, which cruise across it as smoothly and swiftly as a jumbo jet.
Inspired by this landscape, the 8th installment of the charming, artist-supported biennial Sequences, in Reykjavik, which is devoted to time-based media and performance, took time scales – both short and unimaginably long – as its subject. This sounds conceptually baggy, but the festival cohered. Titled ‘Elastic Hours’ and curated by the New Museum of Contemporary Art's Margot Norton, the festival featured 22 artists, mostly based in New York, Los Angeles, and Reykjavik, whose work and performances were scattered in venues across the small Icelandic capital, over the course of 10 days. The bulk of the action occurred on the opening weekend, culminating in a feature-length performance by the festival's honorary artist, Joan Jonas, who was also the subject of a mini-retrospective at the Living Art Museum. Yes: Björk was spotted. Yes: fermented shark was eaten. (I can't recommend the shark.)
The festival's main venue was the artist-run space Kling and Bang, which is situated, along with The Living Museum, in the slick, newly opened Marshall House, where most of the festival's non-ephemeral works were organized into a tight group show. Two highlights here were an elaborate installation piece by Nancy Lupo and a recursive video installation by Anna K.E. and Florian Meisenberg. Both dealt obliquely with boredom, that nearly forgotten feeling of time's dilation that our smart phones now fill. Lupo's installation, AAA (2016), consisted principally of a large array of disposable cutlery, which she painstakingly bound together with tangles of dental floss over the course of a year, studded with nest-like rings of plastic cradling various combustibles, including avocados, ostrich eggs, and cantaloupe. It is a monument to the obsessive and the useless, to the activities used to fritter away time when it's expanse seems too great, but also, it seemed, an allegory for the repetitive, unglamorous and sometimes maddening act of nurturance.
In a somewhat similar vein, K.E. and Meisenberg's work consisted of a series of three video monitors and a projection, each running a synchronized loop – mise en abyme style – of a series of videos made in hotel rooms across the world. Collectively titled Late Checkout I-IV (2015-16), the videos are a kind of collaborative dance between Meisenberg, who operates the camera, and K.E., who improvises languid, balletic movements with her face turned away from the camera, while monitoring Meisenberg's feed on her iPhone. The contrast between the purgatorial environs of the hotels – hermetically sealed behind plate-glass windows, suffuse with the purring of the air-conditioning systems – and the graceful, sexually charged movements of their inhabitants is poignant, suggesting an effort to buck against the constraints of the grindingly ordinary. At the same time, KE's entrancement with the screen of her phone suggests escape might not be as easy as we might hope.
Meisenberg and K.E. also performed a new iteration of ‘Late Checkout’, in a suite at a hotel by the Reykjavik marina, which was live-streamed into another room, packed with eager art viewers, to unsettling effect; the experience was uncanny, even suffocating. Other performances were more uplifting: a Roman Ondák work, Lightness of Being (2017), consisted of a chain of 12 members of the same family linked together in order of age, who filed through the crowded opening at Kling and Bang, conga line style, in a touching affirmation of generational and familial bonds; Eduardo Navarro's In Collaboration with the Sun (2017) was marred by the titular collaborator's non-participation, but the shimmering gold costumes donned by his performers beguiled, and lent an otherworldly air to the opening proceedings, sun or no; Ragnar Helga Ólafsson's night of searingly intimate, single-viewer performances at Harbinger gallery, a part of the installation Days, Nights, Weeks, Months, Years / Almanac [A Few A Priori Contingent Facts] (2017), for which he and the artist and poet Ásta Fanney Sigurðardóttir improvised ethereal, incantatory songs inspired by imaginary calendars that bedecked the gallery's walls, nearly crushed me under the weight of its beauty.
Joan Jonas' centerpiece performance, Moving Off the Land (2016/17), which took place in front of a sold-out crowd at the Tjarnarbíó cultural centre, looked at time on an evolutionary scale, and also solidified one the festival's sub-themes: the imagination of non-human consciousnesses. This project, now voguish amongst those travelling in art and philosophy of mind circles, who have been reading Thomas Nagel and Peter Godfrey-Smith and thinking about Object Oriented Ontology, cropped up with varying degrees of success elsewhere. The festival's film programme, for instance, included an engaging video by the artist Sara Magenheimer (who was also included in the show at Kling and Bang), entitled Best is Man's Breath Quality (2017), which was narrated, in part, by an anthropomorphized jellyfish, and included footage from a popular YouTube video of wild animals interacting with their reflections in a mirror that also appeared in Jonas' performance. A less successful installation of video and photographs by Hildigunnur Birgisdóttir, Time Passes: Camera Accidentally Taking Video Instead of Still Pictures (2017), in the stairwells of a local health clinic asked viewers to consider the lives of potted plants, to somewhat soporific effect.
Jonas' performance, however, was the highlight of the festival. Combining video, free form lecturing, dance, performance painting, and musical improvisation (in collaboration with the Icelandic musician María Held Markan Sigfúsdóttir), Jonas delved deep into speculative considerations of fish and cephalopod consciousnesses (inspired principally by Godfey-Smith's 2016 book Other Minds) as well as literary and mythological engagements with the ocean and its wonders (through Calvino, Dickenson, and Melville, among others). In one particularly entrancing passage, Jonas attempted to commune with a series of starfish, whose projected images she flailed in front of, face shrouded in white fabric, ringing hand bells. In a lesser performer's hands, this might have felt mawkish and parodic, but Jonas radiated wisdom and shamanic grace throughout.
Jonas' performance was an attempt to elicit interspecies empathy, to draw attention to our common evolutionary roots as lifeforms on this planet. It was supremely effective. It made me feel bad for eating that shark, and I left wondering, after all the millions of years of upheaval and evolution that brought me, the starfishes, the sharks, and all the other creatures of the land and sea to this very moment in our collective history, how much time we really have left.
Main image: Anna KE and Florian Meisenberg, Late Checkout II, 2015-16, film still. Courtesy: the artists