Habby Osk’s work rests upon basic physics—gravity, balance, movement, time and force. These concepts are the concrete medium for her artistic practice which toys with the limits of balance and stability using gravity and force. Through sculpture, photography, and installations, Osk reveals a tension between movement and stillness by placing objects in seemingly unstable positions, capturing a moment of perpetual precarity. These compositions of fragility emphasize the potential for destruction but within an equally mirrored state of balance and stability using a variety of materials such as concrete, wood, aluminum, wax, sugar and jello. Her work references impermanence and the contingency of an action—probing how far objects can go without tipping over, to capture the moment of stillness before a looming collapse or transformation over time.
You were born and raised in Iceland, currently living and working in Brooklyn. How do you think this cultural / geographical journey has impacted your ideas and work process?
I have lived abroad for 20 years now. First, I moved to Copenhagen in Denmark and went to dance school there. Then I went to art school in the Netherlands, where I lived for 5 years. I moved to New York 15 years ago for graduate school and have lived here ever since, with brief stints in Berlin. I think I have absorbed bits and pieces of each culture. Moving around from country to country has also made me realize how my own upbringing and environment has impacted my work. Growing up in a peaceful society with a serene but very volatile nature when anything can happen at any moment and if you don’t know what you’re doing, there is a possibility you could die. You can say that New York is the polar opposite; the tension and unpredictability is here but in reverse, it’s not the surroundings but the people and the society. I feel that the tension and the constant looming collapse in my work comes from these two polar opposite places.
Your form seems to be primarily sculpture – you start with 3-D constructions which end up as either sculptures or digital prints. Does the “end” result impact your initial approach and process? And if so, how? Let’s look for example at Snap and Anchor X.
Yes, the end result does impact my initial approach. I make a distinction between the sculptures I make for the photographs and the ones that are intended to ‘live’ as actual sculptures. I make sculptures especially for the photographs, the photographs are not a documentation of the sculptures but the work itself. In my photography, I work with ephemeral materials such as food, which is very sensitive to temperature and time. For instance the brown brick in Snap is made of sugar. I made this work right before the lockdown in 2020 when I was a resident at ISCP. Our studios were closed for 3 months due to Covid-restrictions and I forgot to bring the actual sculpture home with me. When the studio opened again in July 2020, the sculpture had completely melted into a syrup as the sun had continuously heated the studio during the lockdown months. It is actually kind of funny because my photography work is about capturing that fleeting moment of their short existence.
For Anchor X, I came up with a method to have these heavy concrete objects balance only by a rope going over and under with a weight hanging off a shelf. I found it interesting to use cement which is considered sturdy and strong material—we build houses, bridges and so forth with cement but in the case of the Anchor body of work, the cement pieces are the most vulnerable and fragile components of the piece. Viewers get quiet and nervous around the Anchor sculptures; they also are really surprised when they learn that it is gravity holding the piece up and no tricks involved. The impact of seeing this sculpture in person cannot be replicated in a photograph.
Your materials include industrial material such as aluminum, wax, cement, wood, rope and earlie on, sometimes additive materials like Jello – how do you choose what materials to use and what draws you to these materials?
I try to keep an open mind when it comes to choosing materials and I find it really interesting to work with materials I haven’t used before. I kind of get super focused on one material for a while and then when it gets too familiar, I start exploring again for new materials. I really like not knowing what I’m getting myself into. That is the most exciting and frustrating part of my practice. Most of the time I have an idea or a concept and I go searching for materials that I feel would fit that particular work. It happens regularly that the initial material I chose doesn’t work out so I go again looking and experimenting until I find material that I can use to execute the work. It’s an experimental process of trial and error.
My favorite places to visit are hardware stores. I like roaming around the aisles and feel all these different types of materials. Sometimes I’m really drawn to a particular material without having a clear idea of how I am going to use it. I take it to my studio and start playing with it. What draws me to these materials and not others, it’s hard to say. I like working with wax for instance as it is this self-destructive material. It is basically produced to be destroyed. As I mentioned above, one of the reasons I work with cement is the possibility to turn the vulnerability and fragility around, just because something appears strong doesn’t necessarily mean it is and vice versa.
In your videos you seem to explore similar interests in balance, gravity, movement, time and force but in this format your are expressing it through performers, which bring us into the psychological realm of human relationship such as trust. What is the relationship between your videos and “still” work such as sculpture or print?
I had started exploring these subjects long time ago when I was doing live performances. I then moved to doing video performances, and eventually incorporating other performers in videos such as Trust. The reason I moved away from making videos was that I started really missing working with my hands and got tired of spending over 90% of my studio time behind the computer.
I still wanted to continue exploring these subjects with objects and keep a performative aspect in my work. Not necessarily in the most literal sense since not all of my work changes or moves but there is this notion that it might and in some works there is a transformation over time.
Your work seems to be “clean”, minimalistic, precise and strikes me as poetic. Works like Anchor X for instance immediately refer in my mind to the Fischli and Weiss iconic film (or photo series) the Way Things Go. Was this reference part of your thought process and can you elaborate on other references in your work?
I remember seeing works by Fischli and Weiss for the first time when I was at undergrad in The Netherlands and I have since then been intrigued with their work but I wouldn’t say this was a part of my thought process while making my work. Seeing great work is always inspiring and motivating but it is usually not on my mind while I am working in my studio. My references come from society, nature and physics.
Black and White colors seem to be central in your work but you also introduce blue, red, and yellow. What role does color play in your work?
Color is important in my work even though the color palette is quite minimal. I typically use 1 – 3 types of colors in each work. I’m interested in creating a stark contrast between the elements in the work when I use multiple colors. The colors mentioned above, are colors that I am drawn to and are my aesthetic palate. Sometimes the choice of color depends on what is available around me as I also use found objects in my work, the found object I’m using can be the base of the color palette for the whole piece. In some cases when casting with wax, concrete or plaster, I don’t add color to those materials and then the color palette is based around their original colors.
What are you working on now?
I am currently working on a body of work I started in 2015, the Remain series. I made the first sculpture while I was working on a solo exhibition for a museum in Iceland and have since then visited this body of work through the years and added to it. I envision having at some point numerous of them, where the viewer navigates in between them.
Habby Osk is born and raised in Akureyri, Iceland, and lives and works in Brooklyn. Her work has been exhibited in the US, Europe and Asia, including solo exhibitions in the US and Iceland, thereof two museum solo exhibitions and numerous group exhibitions. She holds a MFA in Fine Arts from the School of Visual Arts in New York and a BFA in Fine Arts from the AKI ArtEz University of the Arts in The Netherlands. Habby is a four time recipient of the prestigious Artists’ Salaries from the Icelandic Centre of Research. She has participated in several residencies including NARS Foundation and ISCP – International Studio & Curatorial Program in New York.