Ragnhildur Jóhannsdóttir's sculptural poetry

Diktur by Ragnhildur Jóhannsdóttir
Diktur by Ragnhildur Jóhannsdóttir

Iceland’s national identity is rooted in its literary history. Stretching from early international saga infamy to a flood of contemporary literature, the nation’s love of books is eagerly supported by a small island population with a near-100% Icelandic-language literacy rate. For Ragnhildur Jóhannsdóttir, hands-on engagement with literature forms the corpus of her work—troubling the division between author and artist. This trouble offers a refreshing makery in a land with so much emphasis on the literary.

Ragnhildur sources books as pre-loved, abandoned hardcovers, found throughout the country’s used bookstores, second-hand shops, and booths of Kolaportið’s flea-market. She then performs vivisections on these texts. To animate the material body of the book, which so often becomes a footnote to a foregrounded semantic, is to pervert the utility of the familiar object. In Ragnhildur’s hands, vintage books undergo transmogrification to give them a second, sensorial, aestheticized existence.

In the fourth winter month of Þorri, when most people slumber through the quiet yawning of increased daily sunlight, Ragnhildur has been busy making things up. Where að dikta is to compose or to write, Ragnhildur has created the neologism diktur to signify objects made through the act of composing or writing. Her bookworks are diktur, unexpected objects resulting from her acts of composing with an X-Acto knife.

Select a book.

Select a knife.

Say what you see.

Mean what you see.

Ragnhildur’s exhibition, DIKTUR, is installed in Hafnarfjörður, Iceland’s cultural and arts centre Hafnarborg, in the ground-floor gallery room Sverrissalur from January 23 to February 28, 2016. From an aerial perspective, Sverrissalur holds the shape of a hard-cover book popping open at window’s side. The window opens onto the town’s main pedestrian drag, inviting eyes to gaze into the room through the shape of a propped-open book.

Icelandic boasts one word to denote collection and museum: safn. In Ragnhildur’s DIKTUR, the safn grows monstrous; reformed book-flesh resonates as a Shelley-esque experiment to reposition the view and tactility of a literary corporeality in a safn within a safn. A collection of treated and altered books, exhibited. Library an exhibition. Safnasafn.

To experience DIKTUR, one approaches Sverrissalur through a door at the left edge of what would be a book’s spine. One enters DIKTUR through the spine. Each body becomes a needle threading stitches through signatures, threading steps through safn. The body threads through the skin of the text, each text a visual poem of Ragnhildur’s devising. 

For every body’s arrival, Ragnhildur has arranged books—books arranged into signatures, books post-binding with hot glue, books pre- hard-cover application (or is it post-?), the hard covers removed. In Sverrissalur, Ragnhildur presents books in partial undress, exposing their seams and scars.

Cut down and coverless, ink bleeds to the boundaries of some book-blocks, marking frenetic lines along the fore edges and heads. Lines as polygraph, spectrograph, seismograph, encephalograph. Rows upon rows of off-cut black books, shaped to the unconventional size of 18cm x 8cm, stand slender yet stunted. Spine-edge hidden, page-edge visible. A shelving reversal.

On another wall, sculptural poetry: phrases fray from between page edges. The density of the phrases, excised with speed and exactitude, offers an intense and unexpected reading experience. Each carved book becomes a safn-in-miniature, curating the contents’ interior into feathery visual poems. Light filters through fragile paper, a translucent skin on which words are tattooed.

twisted my head
and more and more
flinging himself into my

Ef þú hefur átt
Hvers konar ljóð

Each body becomes a reader, a threader, patching disparate words and phrases to reassemble meaning.

Overseeing the safn-surgery, Ragnhildur plays the role of an anatomist who carves books to expose their constituents. The result of her surgery is DIKTUR—the book, remade. In DIKTUR, Ragnhildur re-envisions ways to read, ways to write, ways to remake with voice, and ways to rejoin the meaning.