A Poetic Sense of Our Surroundings: Studio Visit with Heimir Björgúlfsson

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Heimir Björgúlfsson makes art populated by birds and wild animals, snippets of the natural world, and bits of detritus evidencing the human hand. Spend some time with his paintings and mixed media collages and it won't come as a surprise that he had a full-fledged music career prior to his life in art. His work feels quiet and composed, the way a musician might arrange notes and rests. His use of negative space recontextualizes the elements within his work, imbuing them with an air of unfamiliarity. He is living proof that, as he says, "your passion does not always align with your talent."

Heimir was born in Iceland and by age 11 was a budding young ornithologist. "I joined the bird society and I was going on a lot of trips and was always the youngest one," he told me as we perused a stack of drawings in his East LA studio last month. "But then I became a teenager and it faded away until I did my postgraduate study at the Sandberg Institute. I started drawing more and more and of course I started drawing birds, just sort of by default."

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As an undergraduate, Heimir was still focused on sound. "I was in a band and we toured quite a bit, opening a few times for Sonic Youth. I applied to the Art Academy in Amsterdam with the goal in mind of working with sound." Heimir's time at the Art Academy pushed his work towards the visual realm. "At art school everything starts changing and you get influenced by other students," he says. "I was working with these sounds I had recorded from geysers in Iceland. Like that 'thlub-thlub-thlub.' I had this sound playing in a box on the floor. Then I thought, well, maybe it's more interesting if I start freezing the speakers in ice blocks. So I was making this self-destructive installation where the ice melts, it releases the sound, and at the same time it destroys the speaker. Then all of a sudden it hit me-- I don't really need the speaker."

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I asked Heimir about a quote in which he describes his work as being "about where I come from vs where I am," and he articulated some of the idiosyncratic differences of the three places he's lived-- Iceland, the Netherlands, and Los Angeles. "In Iceland. . . the extremes of nature are something you respect," he says. He described a time he and his brother-in-law were nearly snowed in overnight in the highlands of Iceland:

"We were driving and we couldn't see the road anymore. There were these sticks in the side of the road. We'd pass one and could just barely make out the shape of the next one. That's how bad it was. And then at some point we couldn't see the next one and we drove off the road. And I managed to get out of the car and wave down an SUV. They pulled us up but we almost went off the other side of the road immediately."

He contrasts this with his time in the Netherlands:

"The Netherlands is the opposite of Iceland in some ways. Everything is organized. Everything is manmade or altered. A large part of the country is under sea level and so every square foot is planned. And in Iceland it's not like that at all. If you go to an old village in Iceland in the country side and all the houses are scattered like somebody threw them. No city planning whatsoever whereas the Dutch are super organized. New York? The grid? It was called New Amsterdam."

Los Angeles is a sort of combination, he explains:

"Here you can have it both ways. You can drive out to the desert here and it is this harsh and uninhabitable environment that's really striking and beautiful. Same as in Iceland, except it's just the opposite-- the colors, the smells, the heat. And also we have this extreme manmade structure where nature has been torn-- the LA River."

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Heimir resists the idea that his work is political. He says he is not after a direct statement, but rather "a poetic sense we have of our surroundings." He says, "I don't set out to have a certain message. I'm more interested in questioning double standards that we all have. Even if you're the most politically correct vegan, you still have some double standards in your life. We all do. I think that's just what makes us human."

I remark on the fact that there are no humans in Heimir's work. He replies, "Well, these are all metaphors for humans. The birds are all metaphors." I notice two small taxidermied birds in the corner. "Do you know the story of the European Starling," he asks. I had not.

"So they were imported to central park just for their singing. They were released and took over the continent. They pushed other species out and conquered everything. Like what's happening with the python in the Everglades. Because they have no natural predators in that environment. You can see the similarities between the European settlers and the European Starlings. They both pushed everything out of the way and took over."

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Heimir insists there are many ways of interpreting an artwork. He says, "you come from your corner of the world and you see this very differently, through a different pair of eyes, from a totally different background and culture. You're going to interpret this in a different way. And that's the beauty of it. I like to have my work suggestive of different meanings. That's what I strive for. I always try to do things as simple and straightforward as possible. There's a balance in there."

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Heimir just closed a solo show titled, 'Never Again, or Is it Too Late to Change My Mind?' at Tveir Hrafnar Listhús in Reykjavík. Check out the interview below to learn more or visit his website to get in touch.

Kevin Smith