The Gallery Companion
The Gallery Companion
Glitches in the System

Paid episode

The full episode is only available to paid subscribers of The Gallery Companion

Glitches in the System

Unpacking new underwear, ubiquitous objects that we don't notice, and other thoughts on art this week
Hildigunnur Birgisdóttir, 1:12 (2021). Repurposed plastic. Image © the artist.

Every so often I come across an artist whose work completely aligns with the thoughts in my head at that moment in time. It happened again yesterday after I had removed the plastic packaging around the new underwear I bought last week. For some reason this time I didn’t just mindlessly strip it all away, but instead got caught up in looking at the tiny paddle tags as I removed them from the bras, and studied the curved shapes of the hangers holding the knickers.

None of this packaging is strictly necessary, but it does help retailers to display their goods in a particular way that entices us to consume them. There’s little that we can do with this plastic packaging once we get our goods home, except to pop it straight in the bin. It doesn’t have another function. Some of it can’t even be recycled. I don’t know about you but I’ve never really looked closely at these objects, which exist in the world as secondary supports for other things that are being consumed. Their usefulness is very short-lived.

Whether we consciously clock them or not, we are all (weirdly) familiar with their forms and shapes. Objects like these have passed through all our hands and we have had to process them in some way. They have a supporting role, a ubiquitous presence, but they largely go unobserved and unvalued.

Something serendipitous was in the air for me yesterday. A couple of hours after sorting through my new underwear purchases I happened to watch a video in which the Icelandic artist Hildigunnur Birgisdóttir talked about her practice. She’s fascinated by just these sorts of prevalent-but-unseen objects, things that she says ‘just come to her’ and about which she finds herself wondering ‘why do you exist?’

Like many artists Birgisdóttir is a hoarder. A collector of stuff. She keeps hold of things that others would casually chuck because she sees a truth or knowledge in them that she wants to share with the world. That’s her motivation as an artist.

I love the way that she notices these kinds of throw-away objects and images that exist in the background of our visual sphere, and that we rarely think about. She then transforms them through her own artistic intervention into profound commentaries about how we exist in the world. She draws attention to the shapes that we are unconsciously familiar with, the way our brains process things without us even realising, and the patterns that we can’t stop our minds looking for.

Hildigunnur Birgisdóttir, 1:40 (2021). Repurposed plastic gym mat. Image © the artist.

Like this work, 1:40 (2021) in which Birgisdóttir has made a giant shape from a discarded foam gym mat in the form of a bread clip — that flat plastic thing that clips round a bread bag to close it and keep the contents fresh. We’re all familiar with the form of it because it’s so unique and yet we don’t see it in any other context than in the packaging of baked goods. Our brains recognise the familiar shape in her work, but might struggle to make the connection to what we know (the bread clip) when it has a new context, material and size.

So her work is also about what happens to our cognitive processing when there are dissonances in what we’re used to seeing, and how imperfections, irregularities and glitches reveal the whole system.

1:40 is part of her series of artworks called Unfortunate Produce, about disposable objects that lose their value as soon as they have fulfilled their purpose. Another work from this series is 1:19, a sculpture in the shape of one of those black plastic sock hanger things.

Hildigunnur Birgisdóttir, 1:19 (2022). Repurposed plastic. Image © the artist.

Birgisdóttir nails it when she says,

there is so much beauty and tragedy in this one object made out of plastic that can tell us so much about the silly state we humans find ourselves in.

Birgisdóttir is representing Iceland at the Venice Biennale this year, and I can’t wait to see her show there in May. I think she might be my new favourite artist (for this week at least). If you have time to watch this video I would love to know your thoughts on what she says about her practice of looking, her experience of being an artist, and the ideas that she works with. I think she’s funny and completely charming, and speaks really eloquently of what we see and don’t see, and what we value and don’t value, in our world. It’s 16 minutes of joy to watch:

This post is for paid subscribers

The Gallery Companion
The Gallery Companion
Shortlisted for the Independent Podcast Awards 2023, The Gallery Companion is hosted by writer and historian Dr Victoria Powell. Expect stories about all the messy, complicated stuff that artists explore and question in their work: what’s going on, how we think and behave, how the past impacts on the present, and the role of art in our world.