Gudmundur Oddur Magnusson, also called Goddur, is an artist and professor of graphic design at the Art Academy of Iceland. I actually discovered him through Facebook, were I particularly found fantastic sets of pictures of the barren, dramatic Icelandic landscape. I gazed for hours, he took me to his moments, almost in a meditative state of mind. It is a mix of humble, powerful and raw language with glimpses of humour he speaks. The way he composes light and matter moved me deeply. Since, I have been longing to show some of his works here. Finally here are some of many fine. Also, my curiosity managed to bring a few well-chosen words directly from Goddur. Enjoy
Who are you?
Well, what can I say… I am born Gemini (June 5th 1955) and raised in northern Iceland in Akureyri, small town of then 7-8000 people. I am 55 years old now. I have never been married. I am afraid to that kind of commitments – or things never really worked out in that direction. I left the town around 20. I hated the small town mentality at that time. I love it now. I have basically been living in Reykjavik since except about 4 years when I studied Graphic design in Vancouver, British Columbia. I was a student in fine art in Reykjavik after I left Akureyri. This was between 1976 and 1979. The instructors I had there had heavy impact on my way of thinking. This was at the time when a group of artists became really influential in the Reykjavik Art School. Their ideas were based on the Fluxus movement. It was basically about leaving the emphasis on material and go into the world of ideas and concepts. I had instructors like Dieter Roth, Hermann Nitsch and Robert Filliou and some others who share the same line of thought. When Dieter Roth started to “teach” us he said he did not want to teach us. He wanted to have conversations with us and rehearse his Icelandic. Dieter Roth came to Iceland in the fifties and married and had children with Icelandic woman. He divorced in early sixties and left Iceland but came every year for three months or so because of his children. He asked us if he could change the classroom into a pub. He would bring the booze. We, the class were drunk with him for one month. A year later he imported by our request the Vienna “aktionist” Hermann Nitch. We recorded a symphony in ten movements called “Iceland” which Dieter Roth published. We (the class) went on a tour with the symphony to European cities and performed in Basel, Vienna, Innsbruck and Munich. This was 1980 a year after I was kicked out of school. I never graduated. I was developing addiction for alcohol and cannabis. I went to my first detox and rehab in 1984. As a part of my rehab I decided to leave the bohemian lifestyle and I wanted to be “straight”. So I studied something “useful”. That’s how I went to Vancouver to study graphic design in 1986. I needed some connection with earth.
What do you do?
I do all kinds of artistic activity. I do pencil drawings whenever I find time to do it. I love it when I forget myself in just doing drawings. I write a lot on culture and cultural politics both for print and the web media. Every second week I write one page in the Icelandic business newspaper. I find it interesting to write there. I usually try to give the business community some spirituality. My friends and the cultural community read the web version. They would never buy or read the business newspaper. I photograph a lot – that is also a passion, I do typography and graphic design but almost only for the cultural community. I am teacher, I do lectures and workshops. I travel a lot for my institution but also on my own. I hate meetings and administrative work. I am a professor in graphic design at The Iceland Academy of the Arts – I am still considered a rebel there. This is what I do for living. I don’t make a difference between my life and my work. I live to work – I don’t like to work that I would not love only to get some money to live some other life.
What are your favorites tools?
I guess my favorite tools are the computer, the camera, my voice and the drawing pencil. In this order. I think that the computer is a wonderful tool but I sometimes really need to get out of the digital world and lay my hands on something “real”.
What is art for you?
From very early on I knew that art was not about surface. It had to signify something. I had a lot of skills when I was young. My teachers praised me. But I felt that they were only praising the skills and the surface. I know a lot of people who have got lots of skills but signify nothing. I felt that about myself for a long time. Of course skills are important to do the magic but art is much more than that. During the drinking and conversation with Dieter Roth this was basically the topic – What is art? Dieter was really trying to teach us to tell the “truth”. We had to exercise telling the “truth” everyday in his “class”. It sounds not so difficult – but when it comes to details and you are drunk it is it is quite difficult. God is in the details and the devil as well. “Do you have proof?” was a common question in the class. Dieter was convinced that there are so much lies in the world. He was convinced that it was a holy mission of every artist to be true and tell the “truth” in some sense. Truth is beauty – beauty is truth, that’s all you need to know. He wanted us to exercise this. We were really praised in his court if we managed somehow. If we were exposed not being 100% honest we were kicked out of class and there was no mercy. But art in my mind is not enough interesting if it is a mere mirror. The mirror has no imagination. Another instructor in this department of the school in the late seventies was quite a philosopher. His quotes were like: „My art begins where my knowledge ends“. In other words if you want to be creative you must leave the world of the known – and there is danger on the edge of town. Another artist from the schooldays in the seventies, Robert Filliou, the French fluxus artist was very interested in this. He simply said: “Art is what artists do” or “Art is … what makes art more interesting than art.” One of my instructors in Canada was always emphasizing the use of intellectual imagination. Use imagination to shape reality, you know, that kind of sentences.
What does the Iceland nature means to you?
There are some different things about experiencing Icelandic nature. When I was a young boy my parents used to take me to places they loved – These places are very scenic but 45 years later it is almost impossible to go there because they are crowded with tourist. You hardly saw them when I was young. Maybe one or two with rucksacks – looking very exotic. Now it is a big horrible business. I know about places that are not known to the tourist industry at least in the sense it is too much of a trouble for them to work with it. The main thing about the nature is that it is very strong and builds up your energy. In the springtime I start to hate the city life and get this urge to go to the countryside. I have place on the east coast in small town of 800 people. This town is very unlike other small towns in Iceland (there is only Reykjavik, the rest is just farms and small towns). This town has such a high tolerance for freaks and foreigners. It has a border town mentality. I go there every summer. It is a deep fjord where the mountains are high and very close to you. You start to look and the mountain and you forget yourself. From there I can do day-trips to the highlands where no one is. You find a warm spring – even a warm stream with a small warm waterfall which works like a hot shower. You bath yourself in a bright midsummer night at solstice for example. When there is no wind, which happens often at nights at this time of the year you hear all the sounds from the birds and flies, which you experience as great natural symphony. And then all of a sudden a mountain explodes and dark clouds of ashes stretch to heaven and you expect Phoenix to rise any minute… you know. You can endlessly think in these lines. This builds up energy and you come back to city in the autumn full of force…
What gives you meaning?
The spirituality I gained after I quit using alcohol and other chemical substances gave my life completely new meaning. I must emphasize that I consider enormous difference between religion and spirituality. I don’t really like religious people unless they are spiritual. And people can surely be spiritual without being religious – most good artist are. They master what we call the fundamentals of alchemy – to infuse matter with spirit. I really dislike political correctness everywhere except in criminal matters of course you know when you face or sense that there is zero tolerance. Where there is more emphasis on matter than spirit.
What is your purpose?
Also another story from the art school in the seventies about Filliou, the French fluxus artist I mentioned before. We had a summer course on the Snæfellsnes peninsula. That peninsula is magical in some sense. It is the place where Jules Verne starts his story The Journey to the Center of the Earth. It is also according to Zen Buddhism one of the seven hotspots on earth like the Bermuda triangle. UFO freaks have festivals there and all the New-age people as well. Well this is about 30 years ago when there was no New Age yet at least not in Iceland. Robert was ill because of stomach cancer (he died three or so years later). One morning very early I woke up and could not sleep anymore and I went to the kitchen where we stayed. Robert could not sleep either and was there drinking hot water with some remedies to relief his stomach pain. We had just started the seminar and I was a bit curious about what he felt about the beginning. So I asked him: “Robert, how do you define the situation?” He answered: ” We are at the shooting string”. It was not exactly the type of an answer for what I thought of as a casual question. It took me some time to find out what he meant. We both stared out of the kitchen window. Then the image came to me. “Ah, you mean the bow.” I said. Then he continues: “Yes, Gudmundur and what is your aiming point?” This was going much “deeper” than I expected. I was somehow forced to think about an answer for the master. I could not really come up with a good answer. So I almost accidentally said “It must be life!” Then he said very seriously „Please aim carefully because after you slip the string you cannot change the direction of the arrow”. This was like written in my mind onwards and I guess the purpose is to just survive and I am aware of that I must do that carefully.
What do you believe in?
I don’t really believe any more – It is more like that I know now. It is more like that people of spirituality have a logical idea what life is about.