Sardonic as well as profound, the 1993 The Monument to the Unknown Bureaucrat is located on the bank of the Reykjavík Pond, between Iðnó Theater and City Hall. It has become an unmissable landmark of the old city center and is loved by locals and visitors alike.
Acquired by the City of Reykjavík in 1993, the idea behind the work stems from the artist’s fascination with memorials to unknown soldiers, found in many cities throughout the militarized world. “Iceland has no army, but plenty of bureaucrats,” said the artist on the work’s original conception, “and I felt that the foot soldiers of government administration, those nameless, faceless agents who nevertheless exert great influence on the destinies of regular people, deserved a monument, too.”
sculpture of bronze and basalt about two meters high, the work was originally
meant to stand on a footpath on the western slope of Arnarhóll Hill, which
would have been a fitting location, given its close proximity to major
administrative buildings. This, however, did not come to pass. Documents
discovered in the Reykjavík City Archives by administrative staff revealed that
city officials had agreed never to place another work of art on Arnarhóll in
1926, when the statue at its hilltop, Einar Jónsson’s bronze of Reykjavík’s
first settler Ingólfur Arnarson, was donated to the city by the Reykjavík
Wading through the red tape
The Monument to the Unknown Bureaucrat was therefore placed in a garden in between Lækjargata and Pósthússtræti, behind the historic Hótel Borg. Plans had been made to open up this space to pedestrian traffic between Austurstræti and Austurvöllur, but those plans eventually came to nothing. As a result, The Monument to the Unknown Bureaucrat stood for nearly twenty years in a nondescript backyard in the city center. Despite its obscure location, the sculpture gained many faithful admirers, who regarded the artwork as one of the city’s best-kept secrets.
At the beginning of 2012, Hafþór Yngvason, then director of the National Gallery of Iceland, suggested to the city council that the sculpture be moved to a more appropriate location, near the City Hall. The proposal was enthusiastically received by the ruling majority in the city council, and plans were made accordingly. Finally, on 14 September 2012, Jón Gnarr, then Mayor of Reykjavík, unveiled the monument in its new location.All in all, the fate of Magnús Tómasson’s Monument to the Unknown Bureaucrat curiously reflects the work’s very subject: The unpredictable workings of bureaucracy and its many unknown foot soldiers. But all is well that ends well. The Monument to the Unknown Bureaucrat has already established itself as an unmissable landmark on the banks of The Reykjavík Pond and is visited by a large number of people every day.
Contemplating the human condition
Born in 1943 in Reykjavík, visual artist Magnús Tómasson has had a long and distinguished career ever since his first solo exhibition in the National Museum of Iceland in 1962, at the age of 19. Magnús’ works have been featured in numerous solo and collective exhibitions at all major art institutes in Iceland, as well as abroad, e.g. in Denmark, Germany and Japan. He has received various awards and honors for his art and was the first artist to receive the title “Reykjavík City Artist” in 1981.
Magnús’ works vary in size and method, spanning everything from delicate “visual poetry” works made of paper to colossal outdoor sculptures made with metal and rock, along with more traditional oil painting and graphic works. Despite their diverse appearance, his works all share his trademark qualities: A playful imagination, ingenuity in handling space and matter, a unique and often wry sense of humor and abundant poetic references to mythology, philosophy and history. His art is therefore never simply pleasing to the eye, but rather prompts the viewer to contemplate some aspect of the human condition.
Magnús’ works can be found in the permanent collections of both the National Gallery of Iceland and the Reykjavík Art Museum, while many of his prominent outdoor sculptures are well known to most Icelanders—among them The Jet Nest, located in front of the main building at Keflavík Airport, and the Monument to the Unknown Bureaucrat, which stands by Reykjavík City Hall.
Get your own bureaucrat! The Monument to the Unknown Bureaucrat is now available as a miniature in two sizes, designed by Helga Gerður Magnúsdóttir, daughter of Magnús Tómasson. You will find them in the museum shops at the National Galleryof Iceland and Reykjavik Art Museum and design store Epal, located both at Harpa Concert Hall and Laugavegur 70 in downtown Reykjavik.