Shape shifting trolls born in the depths of Iceland’s volcanoes who eat women and love coffee have curated a national pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale.
Egill Sæbjörnsson, the artist chosen to represent Iceland at the art festival held across the city, made the decision that instead of putting on a exhibition himself, he would hand over the reins to two trolls, Ugh and Boogar, fictional entities who have been a part of his life for a decade.
These two bad-tempered, giant nosed trolls entered Sæbjörnsson’s imagination in 2007 when he spotted a troll statue in an airport tourist shop. The figure lingered in his mind and eventually grew into the characters of Ugh and Boogar, who are now, he said, “out of my control”.
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“It started as just me flirting with the phenomenon of trolls and then they became these imaginary characters that I was playing with, without really even intending to make art with them,” said Sæbjörnsson. “But as they got bigger and bigger, they eventually took over my life. They are these entities, like an energy inside you.”
According to Sæbjörnsson, the trolls have a filthy temper. “They are a little bit like megalomaniacs with a really big temper and they eat people too, which is really embarrassing,” he said. “It’s difficult. Sometimes I come to the studio and there are breasts of dead people lying around.”
When Ugh and Boogar heard he had been offered to exhibit at the Venice Biennale, he added, they had been filled with envy and demanded he gave the pavilion over to them.
The pavilion itself is comprised of two three-storey structures each representing the heads of Ugh and Boogar – which visitors can walk inside and up, with two vast noses sticking out into a central space. Video installations have been projected on each structure so they come alive as the troll’s faces – they move, snarl, breathe and talk to each other about which Venice tourists look the most delicious.
Sæbjörnsson admitted he was ‘a bit afraid people might find it ridiculous’.
In a more provocative move, the trolls are briefly projected with the images of Margaret Thatcher and Donald Trump. Visitors are also able to drink coffee, a favourite beverage of the pair, whilst sitting in the trolls’ heads.
Sæbjörnsson talks of the trolls as real figures in his life. “When I was a kid I always had an imaginary world with my brother and 30 years later we still do. It’s such a relief because life can be so restraining. We are cast into our roles and cast into behaviour – life can be quite dreadful sometimes – and this play is escapism. But by escaping and playing, you also find solutions to impossible problems.”
Sæbjörnsson admitted he was “a bit afraid people might find it ridiculous” against the backdrop of the most prestigious event of the international art world. However, it is in keeping with the other unusual endeavours by the Icelandic pavilion, which included building a fully functioning mosque in 2015 which was swiftly shut down for security.
Sæbjörnsson said it was important to realise that the trolls were not tied to this single exhibition, but had a life beyond it. As part of the exhibition, he has set up an Instagram account showing Ugh and Boogar visiting various sites in Venice, enjoying the views over the Grand Canal and drinking 100,000 cups of espresso.
The world he has shared with the trolls since 2007 has been a private one – only his brother and a few friends have been let in on the game. He admitted it had not been easy to open it up to the hundreds of thousands of people who will flow through the Venice Biennale between May and November, visiting the 85 national pavilions on display.
“It was really a strange and difficult step to let other people into this world that me and my brother have created, because it is so intimate,” he said. “And the more people enter it, the less power I have in that world but I also think the more people see them, the more real they will become.”