Ragna Róbertsdóttir: 'I always have done my art very simply. Often the story is in the material'

Karen Wright meets the artist in her studio in Reykjavik, Iceland

Karen Wright
Thursday 29 January 2015 17:00 GMT
Thinking outside of the box: Ragna Róbertsdóttir in her Reykjavik studio
Thinking outside of the box: Ragna Róbertsdóttir in her Reykjavik studio

Getting to the studio is an important part of my experience. It is my first trip to Iceland and I am in Reykjavik. Even at 10am it is still dark. I am also a little disorientated, wandering through the snowy streets. I am reassured to find the right street and to be greeted by this formidable yet affable artist.

Ragna Róbertsdóttir has been in this location for three years, having previously been closer to the centre of town in the very house in which I am staying. This studio is long and thin, and dominated by a storage system of plastic boxes through which one can tantalizingly see the silhouettes of materials in different levels and colours.

Róbertsdóttir was born in Reykjavik in 1945 and studied first at the Icelandic College of Arts and Crafts before spending a year in Sweden. She says, "The people here have always gone away and come back." She, too, has always done things in cycles. When she came back from Sweden she had her son and made work focusing on textile pieces, some of which are currently on show in the Icelandic Museum.

She then began working with the natural materials that she is still using today: volcanic stone that she cut and turned into minimal sculptures, reflecting the American minimalism of Carl Andre and Donald Judd. When I ask about their influence, she replies "I always have done it very simply. Often the story is in the material."

She shows me the contents of her boxes, meticulously labelled as to where they have been collected – often from volcanoes in the south – the exotic names rolling off her tongue. She travels to the site and collects the pumice before bringing it back to the studio to sieve, wash and weigh, before putting it into boxes for later.

Having asked her to define her studio, she says that for her it is like a bank. When she is given a commission, "I go to my bank and see what I will use; what will be best for that particular space?" Instead of the usual familiar paint-brushes there is a workmanlike sink, a machine for grinding glass and a pestle and mortar.

Róbertsdóttir and her husband now split their time between Iceland and Berlin, where her son and beloved grandson live. She works when she is there, making architectural site-specific pieces, often incorporating acrylic chips used primarily in discotheques to reflect light. When I point out that, with their lurid colours, they are the antithesis of natural materials, her response is "the green is like the [northern] lights and the orange is like the sun."

In the summer she returns to Iceland and her summer home in the West Fjords, where she lives close to the shore, collecting shells and storing them. Her spare words reflect the pared-down landscape of this strange country. "Iceland is so special for all of Europe, the country and the landscape – it's so empty. I have been using Iceland and the volcanoes as my real studio."

Ragna Róbertsdóttir's work can be seen at i8 Gallery, Reykjavík (www.i8.is)

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