Ásmundarsafn and Yearning for Space

Visiting Iceland earlier in the year, I caught Yearning for Space at Ásmundarsafn in the few days before the exhibition closed. Yearning for Space is the name of an Ásmundur Sveinsson sculpture from 1967, and it indexes the time when the Space Race was at its peak: set off by the successful orbiting of Sputnik 1 in October 1957, after the Soviet Union again beat the United States by sending, in April 1961, the first human, Yuri Gagarin, to outer space, by 1967 the world was just a couple of years away from Apollo 11 and the first landing of humans on the Moon.

Between 1965 and 1967, NASA sent two training missions to Iceland. The idea was that the harsh conditions and variegated terrain would help to prepare Apollo astronauts for their impending Moon trips. The missions visited the caldera Askja within the Dyngjuföll mountains, in the central highlands of Iceland just north of the Vatnajökull glacier, and the focus of the astronauts was on studying geological formations. Askja had last erupted in 1961.

Ásmundur Sveinsson was inspired by the Space Age from its very outset. In 1957 he sculpted Space Dragon, a two-metre-tall iron dragon with gaping jaws, white canines, and a star chart with a floating moon. When NASA began sending its astronauts to Iceland, Sveinsson showed them his Space Dragon with a warning, telling them ‘There are dangers on the way to the moon’. ‘Yes’, the astronauts collectively responded, ‘You go this way to the moon, but we have to go there differently’.

Against the backdrop of the Space Race, Yearning for Space at Ásmundarsafn showed how Icelandic artists in the 50s and 60s explored modern technologies, the literary genre of science fiction, as well as lingering and contemporaneous artistic developments in modernism, futurism, and minimalism. It featured works by Ásmundur Sveinsson, Gerður Helgadóttir, and Sigurjón Ólafsson, who each began their careers sculpting in the traditional materials of clay, plaster, or stone before turning in the 1950s to iron, copper, glass, and steel; and by Jón Gunnar Árnason, who was educated as a mechanic before studying art under Sveinsson’s tutelage.

In different ways, both physically and mystically, all of these artists gestured towards the celestial. Highlights included Ásmundur Sveinsson’s Space Dragon (1957) and The Face of the Sun (1961), a jagged orbit in wood and copper; Gerður Helgadóttir’s tall wire Tower (1956-58) and Tower of Babel (1956-58); Sigurjón Ólafsson’s Atomic Bomb (1979) and The Secret Weapon (1979), rusted and barbarous yet modestly functional; and Jón Gunnar Árnason’s The Heart (1968), a grinding mechanical heart made from scrap metal, and RTS 17 (Homo Technicus) 1969, menacing and lethal with its coiling blades.

In the gardens of Ásmundarsafn – Ásmundur Sveinsson’s home and workshop, which he designed and constructed in the 1930s, and bequeathed to the City of Reykjavik to serve as a museum upon his death in 1982 – stood various of his sculptures in stone and metal, such as Weather Man (1934), Midsummer (1940), Sigh (1948), and Ocean Tones (1950). Coinciding with the exhibition, the Reykjavik Art Museum offered a programme of events in collaboration with the Amateur Astronomical Society of Seltjarnarnes.