Ólöf Nordal and the Archives: the agency of a house and embodiment of research

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A number of North Atlantic artists have dealt with the narrative and structuring work that archives do. One of the best known examples is that of Danish-Greenlandic artist Pia Arke who has inspired and challenged viewers and scholars with her sophisticated and deeply engaged investigations of power, emotion, bodies, history and identity in the personal and official archives.


More recently Icelandic artist Ólöf Nordal has opened similar questions in her dealing with archives reflecting the fascination of anthropometrics, ethnographic theories and racial classification in the work Musée Islandique. Plaster casts of body parts, meticulous measurements and hair samples are photographed and shown together with film clips that give the audience an insight into the long and persistent fascination with “the Nordic people” with cases from the 1850s to the second half of the 20th century.

Ólöf Nordal: Museé Islandique


The ideas reflected in these historic cases also offer questions for our own time: what are the inherent narratives of current ideas such as “Nordic exceptionalism”, genetic research, the persistent notions of “race”, self-exoticizing branding campaigns etc.

Furthermore, Nordal’s photographs of Icelandic Anthropologist Dr. Jens Pálsson’s collection of hair, fingerprints, skull measurements etc., also point to the ever-changing and political nature of scientific methodology and theory.

November-January 2015 the exhibition was shown at the old imperial warehouse in Copenhagen – currently the North Atlantic culture house: Bryggen seminar and exhibition. In collaboration with the culture house I organized a seminar with invited speakers from Denmark and Iceland. Among the speakers were two Icelandic researchers: Gisli Pálsson and Æsa Sigurjónsdóttir, who have worked with and written about Ólöf Nordal’s exhibition when it was shown in Iceland. Pálsson, who is an anthropologist himself, talked about the racial theories that the anthropometric survey projects have been based on. Sigurjónsdóttir addressed the potential of the artistic approaches used by Nordal in her investigation.


Inevitably the old warehouse itself became a participant in the reflections on the relational aspects of collective identity, the embodied experience of being the object (subject) of ethnographic research, emotions that stick to the processes of minoritization and majoritization and to the questions of who write, narrate and organize history? The house continues to be an agent in the continued negotions of identities in the former Danish commonwealth. These questions are dealt with from a number of angles and within various scholarly fields in the joint research project Denmark and the New North Atlantic.



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