The power of public monuments to shape social identities is a rich topic to uncover. The shifts in how we regard them at different times and in differing circumstances can be tremendous. In some cases, large-scale artworks are meant to capture the eye and produce a reaction. More often than not, we view with a sense of indifference. They become a part of the everyday scenery.
The latter applies to the Viking statue of Thorfinn Karlsefni, by Icelandic sculpturer Einar Jónson, situated next to a neighborhood cinema’s parking lot in Reykjavík, Iceland. Moviegoers pay little to no attention to Karlsefni; he is only one of many Viking statues situated around the country, which usually symbolize a historical period in Iceland’s history, a memoir from the 20th-century independence movement.
Karlsefni, however, has a scandalous twin. The other cast of Thorfinn Karlsefni, formerly situated in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, was toppled in 2018 and dragged into the Schuylkill River because of the sculpture’s problematic political connotations. The story of whom visual and performance artist Hugo Llanes traces in his work: Thorfinn Karlsefni, performed at the Einar Jónsson Museum.
Hugo Llanes is a Reykjavík-based, Mexican, visual, and performance artist who focuses mainly on political art.
Eva: How did you come across the story of Thorfinn Karlsefni?
I was working on a project about monuments in the Einar Jónsson Museum when I found out that one of his monuments had recently been toppled in Philadelphia. I immediately became interested in knowing why. I found out that it had become a gathering point for fascist and neo-nazi groups, which was in stark contrast to the sculpture’s history, which was commissioned to Jónsson by the Samuels, a Jewish couple, at the former Fairmount Park Art Association in Philadelphia in 1917.
It had wholly shifted meaning between eras. Before, it represented the first settlers in America, in a park that aims to trace America’s history and bring art to the masses. In 2018, however, the sculpture had become a way of representing pure race and was toppled by anti-fascist groups.
Eva: I didn’t know about this at all! The sculpture in Reykjavík has always had the neighborhood Viking sense to it; I’ve never even given him much second thought. Can you tell me a little bit more about how you decided to make a performance about the Sculpture?
The sculpture does serve as evidence for transformations in meanings within national heritage, history, and contexts. It’s a rich and important topic that touches upon many issues of society. It is possible to uncover a lot about our current society by looking at questions about how we approach monuments, how artists create public artwork, and where they are placed.
These questions led me to create the performance where Viktoría Jóhannsdóttir, the museum’s docent, read a script I wrote that would Re-introduce “Thorfinn Karlsefni” (1920).
In the performance, the sculpture’s history was told from beginning to end. The story became about much more than the object/sculpture itself; it is more than just a Viking. The performance was about the commissions, the philanthropists, the neo-nazi, and fascist groups. It was a series of facts and elements that I traced through research. Thereby it provided a new perspective on the complicated relationship Karlsefni has with both his counterpart and time.
Eva Lín (b. 1995) writes about art on the side of her MA philosophy studies. She currently lives in London but is from Reykjavík, Iceland. You can find her work is on her website: https://evalin.is/