Dundee Contemporary Arts Centre
28 November 2015 – 14 February 2016
by CHRISTIANA SPENS
Finnish duo IC-98, in their largest exhibition to date, have filled the Dundee Contemporary Arts Centre space with four large-scale projections of melancholic, intricately detailed works, which move subtly and even menacingly to an aptly threatening soundtrack of organ music.
Made up of Visa Suonpää (b1968) and Patrik Söderlund (b1974), IC-98 have been together since 1998. They were originally named Iconoclast, an allusion to their fascination with the principled destruction of images. Based in Turku, Finland (they represented Finland at the Venice Biennale 2015), their work is clearly influenced by their Nordic surroundings and culture, and to enter one of the rooms of the exhibition space feels much like entering another, but familiar world of waves, ruins and woodland. The matching of IC-98 to Dundee, Scotland, is a clever move: their work is especially uncanny and sharp in the setting of this northern town that possesses its own Nordic spirit and history, meaning visitors can understand the subtleties and moods of IC-98 particularly well.
The waves on the left of the room – in Arkhipelagos (Navigating the Tides of Time) – provide a tense pulse that the other moving images seem sometimes to harmonise with, before gradually building a subtle, almost imperceptible dissonance. The rafts that bob on the waves, ambiguously between drowning and travelling, also give a sense of danger to the work, a feeling almost of claustrophobia, as the viewer becomes mesmerised by the relentless, rhythmic waves. As with the other works, these waves are steely grey, since they combine detailed hand drawings animated with digital technology. The effect is a vision that is timeless and classical at first. A View from the Other Side, in particular, seems in its detail, as well as its subject matter – a 19th-century portico in Turku – as if it could have been created by a northern Gothic draughtsman. Indeed, IC-98 are particularly interested in time and change, showing the gradual effects of age and seasonal shifts through these nearly hour-long animations. The vision may allude to art history and even use historical subjects as its subject matter, but the perspective is modern.
IC-98 seem to be concerned, especially, with humanity’s place in a much wider time-frame, and within that, the idea of modern humans when viewed from a distanced perspective. They bring into focus the greater powers – brutal nature, drowning seas, and time that is relentless in its slow, definite changes on manmade and natural structures alike. Trees fade into lakes, and flowers grow in darkness amid the weeds. The world is eerie and powerful and calmly triumphant. The humans are not in these works, and that perhaps explains some of the strangeness: where have we gone? Has time eroded us, too?
To walk through the exhibition is to feel like a ghost in a world that has forgotten us. The waves continue, the rafts balance precariously, looking like empty crucifixes in the ocean; the portico seems too still for its ever-rippling moat; and the flowers in Abendland (Hours, Years, Aeons) look out of place in a dark, dank forest. The rest of the space is heavily quiet, punctuated by organs and shadowy structures. Even leaving the room, the feelings aroused by the Underworld meditation of Drawn into Tomorrow linger and haunt.
This meditation is a worthwhile exercise, for all its eeriness. On the day that I visited, the waves beneath the Tay Bridge had been so wild that the bridge had been closed at one point, for buses swaying in the gales and windows blowing open to terrify passengers. The ominous atmosphere that IC-98 created mere yards away is a chance to meditate on the quotidian powers that be, in a far safer setting than the bridge or the sea. The ever-present danger of nature, as well as its sublime beauty; the mysteriousness of its unpredictability; the communal fearfulness of bad weather: these are timeless concerns for people everywhere. And yet, it seems rare to meditate on them, to see them thought about with the depth and sharpness that IC-98 possess. They provide that aesthetic distance with which to consider the treachery of life and nature, and our tiny place in it.
The result is a sense of claustrophobia, combined with the suspicion of personal insignificance. Viewers may indeed experience an existential crisis for up to an hour. It is, however, a strangely compelling show. For all the melancholy and darkness, it is illuminating, and the silver rays of light and change quite mesmerising. I am reminded of my own roots, our roots, really, in a natural and strange world, where the rhythm of waves may or may not have meaning, where emotions are changed by the moon, and where, for all our grand efforts and innovations, it takes but a few seasons for nature to erode them to insignificance. As Shakespeare wrote in Scene IV of King Lear, as the King laments to the Fool upon the heath:
Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.
The ‘tyranny of the open night,’ as Kent would describe the elements earlier in the scene, and which prove too great for King Lear to endure, is a phrase that would use to describe the scenes captured by IC-98. Although far more subdued and meditative than King Lear’s experience of the storm, there is a feeling of existential dread in this exhibition nevertheless. Perhaps we are all King Lear; IC-98, in their intricate darkness, remind us of that here.