Neo-conceptual artist discusses identity construction and globalization

Deena Douara
4 Min Read

CAIRO: Welcome to the neo-conceptual art of social sculpture, situationalism, and fluxus. Here, headphones hang from trees, bathrooms, and kitchens, exporting the sounds and stories of Icelandic fish factories into empty art museums.

Here, a man sings lines from the national anthem out of order in the middle of the town market.

Here, art may be an invisible social contribution, with a few words telling of it pasted on a coffeemaker.

Welcome to Libia Castro and Olafur Olafsson’s art. Partners of ten years in art, and in life, Castro and Olafsson use video, installation, and intervention to explore complex issues.

Spanish Castro and Icelandic Olafsson, both now based in Rotterdam, frequently engage with issues of identity construction and globalization.

In Iceland the fish industry a generation ago contributed nearly 90 percent of the national income. Castro says anyone over 50 would have worked in the industry at some point. Fifteen years later, the fish industry contributed just 75 percent of the national income – international banking having gained in prominence – and many youth have nothing to do with the fish trade. In fact, 50 percent of those working in the industry are immigrants.

“Chapter 3: The Noise of Money, stems from an Icelandic phrase “the stench of money, which refers to the pungent smell of cod liver oil that permeates the country. “Everybody dislikes it but at the same time, everybody likes it, says Castro, because the smell represents money gained.

The couple brought the sounds of the fish factory into museum spaces – including its bathrooms, and the trees outside – via speakers, and provided narratives of elderly Icelanders, as well as children and new immigrants, through headphones.

Castro and Olafsson’s own life experiences are similarly importations of different cultures into a contrasting environment.

The method is as important as the concept and aesthetic for the two, finding new ways to use a site and work within an existing context.

Another context Castro and Olafsson wanted to document was that of migrants in Malaga, Spain temporarily residing between homes being demolished during a process of gentrification. Castro says the “changing dynamic of the social structure which resulted appealed to them artistically.

Castro and Olafsson are themselves sometimes the subject of their art of deconstructing identity, as in the photograph of the two in identical traditional Icelandic costume before a backdrop of factories. “I am not Icelandic and he is not a woman.

The idea that society itself is a sort of sculpture which can be manipulated is called social sculpture, founded by German artist Joseph Beuys in the 1960s.

Such art is based on dialogue for these two, both with each other and with the subjects of their works. While Castro says this way of working is “very very intense, she also says it is the reason their works are “processes, organic, and with life.

While one could be forgiven for thinking that Castro and Olafsson were ‘against’ globalization, Castro explains that they are not because “it’s a fact; I am against the way globalization produces injustice in the world though.

Her solution?

“[Major powers] make decisions affecting the whole world. It would be nice if people could contribute and decide in a democratic way the political future.

Castro will be presenting a discussion of her collaborative work and method tonight at the Townhouse Gallery at 8 pm. She hopes to return to Cairo to conduct a workshop expanding further her initial explorations of migrants. For more information visit

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