Icelandic artist Unnur Ýrr Helgadóttir tells us about her paintings inhabited by birds, vixens, sea creatures and Dalarna horses in disguise. Her witty and delicate images can be seen at her first Swedish exhibition at Ljunggren in Stockholm.
You move between the Scandinavian landscapes of Iceland and Sweden. How do these two countries influence your art?
– Iceland has always been a passion of mine. It’s hard not to be inspired by such an incredible place and a lot of my work, especially in the beginning of my painting career is influenced by it. But Sweden and Stockholm has also inspired my art in different ways. For instance, since I moved here I’ve started to paint with pastel colours, which I had never done before I came here. There is something in the environment here that I pick up on and makes me search for different scales and tones.
Since I like my message to be inconspicuous, I often explain the meaning just with the title.
Even some of my subject matter became a little “milder” for some reason. My motifs vary depending on the local context I guess. But what they have in common is that I always have a twist to my paintings although they function differently according to the cultural codes of the place. For instance, in Iceland, I would paint a woman with birds nesting in her hair that are known to all Icelanders to be birds that peck at your head if you aren’t careful. It is a message culturally recognizable by any Icelander.
– As a foreigner in Sweden it has been more difficult for me to find these undertones and oblivious meanings , but I’m starting to pick up on them now, which is a lot of fun. Searching for an inspiration that would be both quirky and comprehensible for my last exhibition, I came up with my painting entitled ‘’ Hen’’. The word ‘’hen’’ is a new, gender neutral personal pronoun in Swedish. A hen is neither a ‘’he ‘’or a ‘’she’’. At the same time it means a female chicken in English. This twist, together with the image, tells a story which has a double meaning for a Swedish spectator.
Animals, sea creatures and birds seem to have special symbolism in your paintings.
– I often use animals or replaced objects to convey my message or story, sometimes very personal and ambiguous. Nature and animals always carry with them a “feeling” or energy that I use as a tool in my storytelling. The painting with a huge jellyfish represents a couple of very difficult years I experienced. The sea creature that the girl holds on to by its tentacles represents my/our relationship with the past. People tend to want to hold on to it, can’t get over it, be-friend it even, carry it around like a pet. But it stings! Hurts even! So although it has become familiar and safe it is something heavy that I for one am trying to stop dragging along behind me. Since I like my message to be inconspicuous, I often explain the meaning just with the title. The jellyfish painting is simply called ‘’The Past’’.
– Another painting depicts a goldfish and a girl with a fishbowl on her head. In this image I wanted to encourage everybody to take a different look at things, to change their perspective. We are always so stuck in our little worlds, but if we open our minds we can really learn by switching things around.
And what about the Dalacorn? How did you dare to take up on one of the most known folkloric Swedish symbols, the horse from Dalarna region, and convert it into a unicorn?
– It’s basically my story of coming here and slowly discovering Swedish traditions.I come from a country of fishers and farmers. We don’t have so many setting and stiff customs. After arriving to Stockholm I would get very puzzled by all the rules. Even simple sitting at the table you would require a lot of etiquette. It felt so rigid! But I learned to love it and embraced its certain charm after a while. The Dalacorn is the personification of this rigid rules that cover Swedes’ graceful interior.
It seems like your images often come with a narrative, as if you were writing stories with your paintings.
– It may be quite true! As a child I enjoyed reading and writing very much. I would spend hours sitting in the closet and writing poems….which worried my parents a bit(laughing). I also always got the result that I should be a writer on all these career tests in school which are supposed to tell you what you should be when you grow up.
– I’m thinking about illustrating books and children stories. Even writing them. I’ve been carrying one in my head for quite a long time. My brother has a couple of little girls I tell stories to, which motivates me even more to make it happen.
I read on your website that you believe creativity comes from ‘’stillness” and when you “stop thinking’’. How is your creative process in regards to that?
– I get most of my ideas when I’m not under any pressure to be thinking about something specific, like while doing manual work or just before falling asleep. When I’m in a place where I’m not completely sucked in by life. When I’m not thinking about everything that has happened, is happening or is going to happen. That’s how and when I reach some form of stillness like I call it.
– During my art school years I used to clean the floors of a pharmacy. Every weekday for 30 minutes. I absolutely loved it- it was my most creative and productive time of the day. It became meditative for me.
I need to satisfy my curiosity and ask about the ‘’unrealistic fear of sharks’’ you claim to have. Is it more like a Jaws or Sharknado kind of fear?
– Probably more of Jaws! My brother and I read the book Jaws together in a dark room of a mountain ski cabin when we were kids since there was nothing else available. I believe that’s how my phobia started. It’s just not realistic, they have not done anything to me. I can be at the swimming pool and I’m worried about sharks. I think it is just my creative side getting carried away, spinning out a story: what could happen if…?
See more of Unnur at:
The exhibition running at Ljunggren, Götgatan 36, Stockholm, until the 2nd of October.