“In many ways, I’m profoundly uninterested in architecture,” says Katrin Sigurdardottir — a surprising statement from an artist whose work would seem to be intimately linked to architectural traditions. For instance, "Boiseries," Sigurdardottir’s project at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2010, included reproductions of two of the museum’s French 18th-century period rooms: one from the Hôtel de Crillon and the other from the Hôtel de Cabris. Sigurdardottir constructed renditions of the two rooms on a scale that was 85 percent of the originals: a proportion almost the right size, only slightly off — making for an uncomfortable experience when walking into them. Her rooms were completely whitewashed. The elaborate embellishments in gold and paint became white patterns, the lush furniture turned ghosts of stuff past. Surprisingly enough, however, the result did not look like a stripped-down version of an original: It was some- thing entirely new. Her rooms take their cue from the French interiors, but they also allude to history and the way we as a society build structures, use them, and then revel in conserving them. “It’s not the questions of architecture that I am interested in,” she clarifies. “I use architecture as a language to describe places, places with history, containers for experiences. Architecture programs experiences in the sense that it becomes a kind of script for how to live or how to exist, how to perform your daily life in space — but it also just becomes the stage where things take place.”
What does it mean to break down a building to its essence? There’s something about Sigurdardottir’s work that is very immediate — her pieces are visually gorgeous — but they are also suggestive in an elusive way. They evoke a play of associations, on what is and isn’t palpable or what remains unsaid. And paradoxically, she creates immersive environments but then allows the audience limited access to them. For "Untitled," 2009, an installation at Eleven Rivington, her New York gallery, she created a box of medium-density fiberboard that housed a small replica of a watchtower visible through a window only by means of an assortment of two-way mirrors that offered myriad reflections, but never a direct view of the actual thing. Her most recent New York installation, "Stage," 2012, a miniature model of a theater, was displayed in Art in General’s storefront window. Echoing the fact that a theater’s stage is seen from the front, Sigurdardottir’s sculpture was suspended from the ceiling and could be viewed only from the street. And "High Plane," 2001–07, a large white platform with an imaginary landscape of a mountain range sculpted on it, is set on trusses 13 feet above its exhibition spaces, reachable by ladders leading to small holes in the platform through which the viewers can poke their heads.
Usually made of cheap materials — plywood, plaster, resin, and so forth — Sigurdardottir’s works are largely handmade. Her Long Island City studio has very little furniture in it: a number of desks and tables with works in progress scattered on them and a small sitting area by a large window, including a beautiful, simple bench made of wood with thick fabric stretched vertically and horizontally across it. When I comment on it, her eyes light up: “That is my divan. It’s where I make my most important decisions. I built it out of leftover wood I had in the studio and fabric I bought in Berlin.” Furniture may not be art, but building it is part of Sigurdardottir’s experimentation with materials, which she defines as a crucial element of her work, especially because she did not study sculpture. “I was trained as a painter and a filmmaker, actually. So I have this obsession with doing as much as I can with my own hands,” she says. “If a drawing were not made by the artist’s hand, you would question its authenticity. There is something in that personally handmade quality that I often choose. Therefore I might opt to do something myself, even if I could hand it over to someone else to do it. I’m kind of an old-fashioned sculptor in that way.”
The way into all of these works is paved with challenges, physical and visual. Recognizing these hurdles is a large part of the experience of Sigurdardottir’s art. In an early piece, "Impasse," 2003, she constructed a wall between two columns. At the bottom of the wall was a miniature model of the elementary school she attended as a child in Iceland. “The wall is in full scale,” she describes, “but the work itself is tiny. In some ways, this piece is indexical of my use of scale. I employ scale specifically to express an inability to enter. In the Met works, too, one is able to enter through a life-size door, but every step one takes into the work, it grows smaller. Yes, you can step in, but the farther you get into the room, the less possible it is to get out. That’s something to be interpreted by each person. I think that I’ve taken up this use of the distorted miniature and of scale precisely to present these as a metaphor for distance, to express something about a barrier in time or space.”
This state of dislocation isn’t surprising for an artist who splits her life between two continents. Sigurdardottir was born in Iceland, but has lived in the U.S. since her twenties. She wonders just how much a person who “lives between New York and Berlin” belongs in either. “I’m always interested in this overlap of places,” she explains. “Maybe this is, in some very banal way, a central element to the narrative in my work: How do you unite two homelands? How do you take two soils in two different parts of the world and make them exist in one light? In some ways, that’s the premise of my work, and that’s the question of a lived life.”
Sigurdardottir will be representing Iceland in the 2013 Venice Biennale. Even though she spent a large part of her life abroad, “in the most rudimentary terms, I am an Icelandic artist, no matter what I do,” she says. “If the pyramids in Egypt were to be my subject matter for the rest of my life, I would still be an Icelandic artist.” Iceland has not had a national pavilion in the Giardini since 2005, meaning that Sigurdardottir will be showing in a building that is not necessarily dedicated to exhibitions and does not carry the memories of other biennials. She points out that there is an interesting overlap in the contemporary idea of mobility — of transience and homelessness — and the national pavilions. “In the French pavilion, for example, are you on French soil? Within French jurisdiction? That’s something that I find amusing to think about, this staking of territory, and the mapping of Venice. The cartography of this international city and its pavilions.”
Sigurdardottir has another show scheduled before Venice, a solo exhibition opening in November at Eleven Rivington. “It will have something to do with architecture,” she says, smiling. Even though she has a plan for the exhibition, she is hesitant to talk about it before it is complete. “It’s like discussing names before the baby is born. Like parking a Volkswagen in your living room as a placeholder for the sofa.”
To see a selection of Katrin Sigurdardottir's works, click the slide show.
This article appears in the summer issue of Modern Painters magazine.