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The conceptual, the romantic, and the nonhuman : the SÚM group and the emergence of contemporary art in Iceland, 1965-1978 Árnadóttir, Heiða Björk


This dissertation considers the emergence of contemporary art practices in Iceland through the activities of the artist collective SÚM between 1965 and 1978. The founding of SÚM in 1965 brought forth, for the first time, a generation of Icelandic artists whose practices closely correspond to that of experimental artists globally, especially those aligned with Fluxus and conceptual art. As I highlight, this relied on Iceland’s belated modernization and changes to the country’s geopolitical status in the twentieth century, as well as on global efforts to decentralize the artworld. And yet, SÚM’s challenge to the definition of the art object is also uniquely configured through the artists’ complicated relationship to the local tradition of landscape painting and the concomitant romantic nationalist discourse which had shaped Icelandic self-identity, cultural practices and discourses since the turn of the twentieth century. In particular, SÚM’s practice developed through a critical engagement with the idealized place of nature in Icelandic national identity—a critique which sought to complicate the boundary between nature and culture. SÚM artists’ efforts to subvert Icelandic nationalist ideology and artistic tradition are complicated, however, by their alliance with the postwar political resistance movement against the growing economic and cultural influence of the United States in Iceland as well as its neocolonial practices globally. This led the artists to situate their work in relation to a specific, yet ill-defined, local Icelandic way and sense of being. Often characterized in terms of a “poetic” or “romantic” attitude, this typically focuses on the centrality of the natural in the work of prominent members of SÚM, their engagement with “premodern” Icelandic cultural traditions, folk belief and art, and their suggestions for an intuitive or emotional basis for their practice. Highlighting the dialectical tension between the globalizing and localizing impulses of SÚM, I argue that to understand the specificity of Icelandic contemporary art, one must consider the degree to which its emergence, through SÚM, was produced within the context of the country’s changing geopolitical position and its longer history as a peripheral territory within the Danish colonial empire.

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