LOS ANGELES — Twenty years ago (on October 30, 1999, to be exact) I was in Reykjavik, Iceland, conducting research for an article on contemporary Icelandic art. Ingólfur Arnarsson, an artist, was facilitating my introduction to the small yet vibrant art scene. Arnarsson is also well-versed in contemporary music, Icelandic and otherwise. He told me about a quintessentially Icelandic band, Sigur Rós, that I really should see and hear, and got me a ticket to the band’s concert that evening.
There was a distinctly local flavor to the event: a Reykjavik band playing to an enthusiastic hometown crowd. Back then, chilly, rainy, autumnal Reykjavik was not inundated with tourists as it usually is now; I’m quite sure I was one of the few foreigners in attendance. Sigur Rós hadn’t yet become full-blown, international stars, although they were well on their way, propelled by their breakthrough 1999 album Ágætis byrjun.
The concert began and I was instantly mesmerized. A standard, four-piece rock group (guitar, bass, keyboards, drums) was producing music unlike anything I had ever heard: slow, patient, minimalist, with crescendos and raucous flourishes; enchanting, often beatific, but with somber and dark passages. Emotion-inducing music, it seemed to channel elemental natural forces like sweeping wind and tidal surges. The lyrics were in Icelandic, or in Sigur Rós’s invented, gibberish language of Vonlenska (“Hopelandic” in English) and I couldn’t understand a word, but that made no difference. This music mattered.
And then there was Jónsi, playing electric guitar with a cello bow to elicit droning, soaring, screeching, and ethereal tones, and singing in his stunning, gender-bending falsetto. I was transfixed. Everyone around me was. That concert felt like a voyage, not a performance, and I quickly become an ardent fan.
Jónsi’s first solo art exhibition, currently at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in Los Angeles (a youthful show long ago in Reykjavik, he told me, doesn’t count), follows several collaborations with other artists during the past several years, including Olafur Eliasson, Doug Aitken, Merce Cunningham, and Carl Michael von Hausswolff. It is not surprising that a music star would have an exhibition at an art gallery. This has happened many times before, often with less than stellar results. What is surprising is how compelling and meaningful Jónsi’s show really is.
Three installations (all 2019) feature layered and complex sound, composed and presented in different ways. Each is also infused with a unique scent concocted by the artist from sundry substances. I could see, hear, smell, and feel these unusually multisensory artworks, which affected my whole body. They thoroughly fuse nature and the human. That’s something Sigur Rós music does as well.
The dramatic centerpiece is “Hvítblinda (Whiteout).” Jónsi emptied out and completely transformed the gallery’s main room. Everything is bright white: walls, ceiling, floor, and two low platforms for sitting or reclining. Visitors have to don (white) booties over shoes in order to keep things pristine. Entering is like venturing into some marvelous, yet disorienting elsewhere, a space at once heavenly and alarming. The scent is ozone. You’re smelling the atmosphere.
Emanating from ten hidden speakers and two subwoofers is an enthralling five-act soundtrack composed of Jónsi’s voice (his singing is frankly angelic), field recordings in nature, including the sounds of snow and wind, and synthesized sounds. Special LED lighting, alternately intensifying and dimming, responds to the soundtrack, while wall panels and the vibrating platforms (the subwoofers are inside) help make the sound full and lush.
Swelling and subsiding, growing concentrated and emphatic and then dispersing, evoking a full choir or alien tones from the remote universe, the sound laves viewers as they move through the room, the whole space transformed into a multifaceted instrument. It is best to spend a long time enveloped and transported by the sounds flowing around and through you.
The press release mentions the white rooms on Jupiter near the end of Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey as a possible inspiration, but I would suggest Icelandic references too. Whiteouts are common in Iceland, from thick fog, snow, or both. Driving through the magnificent landscape, you can suddenly be walloped by whiteouts so complete that you can’t see the surroundings and lose all sense of direction. Many accidents have happened, and many people have died. The same goes for trekking in the highlands, where whiteouts can be a grave threat, even in summer. Glacial ice and blindingly white snowfields are other possible references. Jónsi’s installation functions as an indoor version of these sublime yet sometimes precarious outdoor experiences.
The neighboring “Svartalda (Dark Wave)” is just the opposite: so inky black that at first nothing is visible, which again is disorienting, especially so, given the startling transition from the glaring white space to this one. Sound emanates from eight hyper directional speakers installed on eight motorized, black aluminum ceiling panels overhead. The soundtrack features Jónsi breathing, whispering, and making his own versions of ocean sounds.
As my eyes adjusted, I noticed the ceiling panels undulating like a wave or the ocean’s surface; this feels magical and poetic, not mechanical. A faint seaweed scent can also be detected — that’s the fragrance.
The hyper directional speakers project beams of sound, which shift with the movements of the ceiling panels. Essentially, Jónsi has sculpted with sound, fashioning invisible, mobile sonic sculptures. Depending on the direction of the speakers and where you’re standing in the darkness, Jónsi’s breathing and whispering are far away and barely audible but then suddenly right beside you — a disembodied friend, lover, or stranger at your shoulder, whispering into your ear. These close-up encounters have a physical effect; I felt the sound on my skin, on my cheeks, on the back of my neck. Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) is the phenomenon (increasingly popular on the internet) in which directed sound (for instance whispering) causes physical sensations, like tingling; this seems to have influenced Jónsi’s composition of the experience.
What Jónsi is whispering, in Icelandic, is a poem about the ocean (and desire, mortality, dreams, and erosion) by Hannes Hafstein (1861-1922) a well-known poet, statesman, politician, and proponent of Iceland’s independence from Danish colonial rule. Reciting poems is an age-old tradition in Iceland, dating to 9th-century Viking settlement days. Jónsi’s spatial and sonic installation is a wonderful, high-tech, 21st-century variation.
I am not suggesting that the exhibition, or this installation, is about Iceland; nevertheless, Iceland is in both. The installation conjures very dark nights (there are many in Iceland), as well as the ocean, which surrounds the island nation with all its mystery and power, and both the wonderment and vulnerability one often feels in the volcanic and volatile landscape.
“Í blóma (In bloom),” in the gallery’s front room, takes things in a different direction: more erotic, homoerotic, botanical, and overtly sculptural. If Iceland suffuses this exhibition, in some measure, so too do Jónsi’s life and enthusiasms.
The upright sculpture, in a corner of the gallery’s small front room, is made of 14 gray horn loudspeakers; dangling down and spreading across the floor is a tangle of root-like, red electrical wiring. This industrial sculpture is Jónsi’s version of foxglove, with the speakers as flowers; each speaker sports a “stamen” that is a loosely phallic-shaped chrome butt plug. (In the showroom is a small, bristling, plant-like sculpture made of multiple glass butt plugs. Plants and sex toys, fecundity, sexual pleasure, and possible pain converge in both works.)
Foxglove is an ambiguous plant. It is attractive and toxic. It induces pleasure but can result in severe pain, even death. It is also therapeutic. Digitalis medicines, made from foxglove, are used to treat congestive heart failure and heart rhythm problems. The musky scent here is cadaverine, suggesting both putrefying animal tissue and semen; death and regeneration, decay and desire combine.
For this work’s hypnotic, mysterious soundtrack, Jónsi used advanced technology to record electric impulses emitted by foxglove. He then digitally translated these impulses into, according to the press release, “rhythms and pitch,” which he also vocalizes. Plants and his voice intertwine; he is in dialogue with the natural world and vice versa. The soundtrack also includes field recordings of Icelandic birds, along with his synthesized voice. Flowering plants, nature, the male body, with its aromas and secretions, sexuality, pleasure, pain, and technology fuse in a rugged, metallic sculpture that is surprisingly lovely, even delicate.
For the exhibition, Jónsi drew on his years of experience working with sound, as a member of Sigur Rós, as well as the ambient duo Jónsi and Alex (with Alex Somers), aka Riceboy Sleeps, and Liminal (with Alex Somers and Paul Corley), and also through solo performances and numerous other projects. In addition, he used his extensive experience — actually something of an obsession — devising his own fragrances. He and his sisters have a shop/art/music project called Fischer in Reykjavik that purveys his homemade, decidedly non-mass-market perfumes (next time I am in Reykjavik I will make a beeline to this place).
Jónsi’s refreshingly non-anthropocentric, sound and scent-filled exhibition is impressive, especially for a debut show. It also suggests that visual (and sonic, and olfactory) art will likely become increasingly significant for him going forward. I mentioned that long ago in Reykjavik I was first transfixed by Sigur Rós in concert. Twenty years later, I was transfixed anew, body and mind, senses and emotions, by Jónsi’s solo art show.
Jónsi continues at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery (1010 North Highland Ave., Los Angeles, California) through January 9.