In November 2019 — which seems like another world ago — Jónsi had his first solo exhibition at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in Los Angeles. It was also the first solo show anywhere for this acclaimed singer/musician and co-founder of the great Icelandic experimental rock band Sigur Rós, known for his ethereal, soaring falsetto and for playing his electric guitar with a cello bow. Combining sculpture, sound, scents, and architectural interventions, his exhibition was flat-out marvelous. So too is Jónsi’s second show with the gallery, this time in New York. Titled Obsidian after the black natural glass formed by cooling lava, the exhibition coincides with the release of Jónsi’s wonderful new solo album of the same title.
Both exhibition and album are inspired by the recent eruption of the Fagradalsfjall volcano in Iceland, a signature event that riveted the whole nation. Eruptions in the heavily volcanic country are usually in sparsely populated regions relatively far from Reykjavik and its environs. They can seem a long way off for the 60 percent of the population (out of a total of about 366,000) living in the Greater Reykjavik area.
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Not so with Fagradalsfjall. A mere 25 miles from the capital city, and the first eruption on the Reykjanes peninsula in some 800 years, its immense natural power was immediate and accessible, its glow visible from the suburbs. People flocked to witness this awe-inspiring and humbling natural wonder, with its stunning aerial displays and fiery rivers of lava.
Jónsi, who has long been inspired by Icelandic nature, and channels it in innovative ways into his music and art, couldn’t experience the volcano in person because of COVID-19 travel restrictions. Having relocated to Los Angeles, he was separated from his homeland, and from family and friends, at this pivotal time.
What he has achieved are artworks and enthralling songs that don’t document or chronicle the volcano, but instead respond from afar to its wild, potent force, as well as its emotional, cultural, and — very likely — spiritual import for him and many others, especially Icelanders.
On the gallery’s first floor is the 15-channel sound installation Hrafntinna (Obsidian) (all works are 2021), featuring more than 200 speakers arranged in a broad arc around a central black plinth. Entering this darkened, mysterious space is unsteadying and disorienting. At first, I could hardly see a thing, but I could certainly hear, pulled in by the sound.
As my eyes gradually adjusted, I began to make out the contents of the space: the many black speakers, which conjure the interior of a volcano or the walls of a cave, the jet-black plinth on the carpeted floor, an illuminated disk high above the plinth, which evokes a volcano’s vent seen from below, as well as the moon, sun, and sky. With light from the disk glinting on their surfaces, the speakers also loosely resemble reflective obsidian. The effect is of being inside a volcano — a sound-filled, mediated one that includes the smoky scent of fossilized amber, derived from tree resin millions of years old. For me, it was tough to discern the scent through my nose-covering mask; Jónsi’s excellent scents, which he makes himself, were a lot easier to detect in maskless, pre-pandemic Los Angeles.
It is best to sit or, even better, lie down on the plinth to experience the environment, as the ever-shifting soundscape courses around the room. Subwoofers cause viewers to both hear and feel the sounds. The soundscape, composed of Jónsi’s voice, nature samples, musical instruments, mechanical sounds, and no doubt other sounds, is transfixing and cathartic, inducing thoughtfulness, wonderment, trepidation, and occasionally bliss. Sometimes it is minimal, barely audible, other times pronounced. Rather than fret about the beginning or end of the 25’33” soundtrack, visitors instead might wish to surrender to its flow.
There is no point in trying to discern lyrics in Jónsi’s voice (often his layered voices), if there are any; he also often sings in the invented gibberish language Vonlenska (“Hopelandic” in English). The vocal parts resemble a choir, at times even a church choir, and are achingly lovely, sometimes somber and contemplative, sometimes reverential and majestic, and all things in between. One hears whispering and breathing; suddenly things become intimate. One hears sounds that resemble wind and clicking rocks — earth sounds, volcano sounds, underground sounds. Intermittent roars evoke gushing lava, while the overhead light alternately dims, intensifies, and flashes in league with the sound, conjuring the glow of bubbling magma, flowing lava, and maybe lightning as well. Experiencing this multisensory installation — which engages the body, mind, and soul — at length is entrancing and exhilarating. I personally found it tough to leave.
Upstairs are four dark wall constructions, made from a mix of natural and manmade materials, each an abstracted version of volcanic activity, or a truncated terrain. From a distance, they resemble paintings, but they are more sculptural than that, and are made without paint. For “Hrafntinnublómstur (Obsidian bloom) 2” Jónsi crafted a flower shape with multiple petals from obsidian, which is affixed to an irregularly shaped section of burned Brazilian walnut. Mold (as in actual mold) is incorporated into the work, sealed in resin, as well as black sand and steel. With these works, Jónsi hasn’t just utilized natural materials but has, one senses, collaborated with them, allowing them their own innate power. It might seem strange to turn obsidian, produced by huge eruptions, into a flower, but volcanoes, and especially volcanic ash, shower the world with nutrients that eventually facilitate plant growth. This work signals destruction and decay but also regeneration and vitality.
Two wall constructions feature sound from directional speakers. Crusty, earthy, and dark, gradating from dark brown/black to lighter shades of brown, with a gritty surface that includes small lumps like tiny versions of lava mounds, the modestly sized (25 3/4 by 5 1/4 by 37 1/2 inches) “Eldfjall (Volcano) 1” is made from foam, mold, and resin, and enclosed in a walnut frame. Step in close to hear subtle, earthy sounds, which are absorbing. It is a simulated version of a landscape walloped and shaped by volcanic eruptions.
It is great to couple Jónsi’s exhibition with his album; the two are related. The album Obsidian is much closer in sound to Sigur Rós than Jónsi’s 2020 pop-oriented solo album Shiver. The first time I heard it — I was in Reykjavik and Jónsi emailed me a link three weeks before the official release — I listened to it from beginning to end, entirely enthralled.
“Kvika” (magma in English), the third song, starts out slow and enchanting, almost dreamlike. The music swells to orchestral proportions, with Jónsi’s voice at its highest, but then wind and bubbling sounds enter: a synthesis of music and magma, the human and primal nature. “Obsidian” is lovely and transportive, and feels like a voyage; its last minute or so features an array of earth sounds. The album is full of gorgeous and emotional music inspired by non-human substances, by things; throughout exhibition and album nature isn’t an issue to be addressed but a force of its own. Several of the songs (“Cypriol,” “Pyralone,” “Ambrox”) are named after scents. (Not only does Jónsi include scents in his artworks, but he and his sisters also have an idiosyncratic shop — Fischersund — in an old building in Old Reykjavik that purveys his own scents.)
For another sound installation in the exhibition, the gallery recommends wearing sunglasses (they are outside the entrance) and not staying for longer than 10 minutes. This is “Sólgos (Solar flare),” a convex armature on one wall made of chrome disks and LED lighting, that suggests a flower writ extremely large, but also a cosmic body — for instance, the sun.
At first the armature is unlit. Then its many lights begin to blink while sound escalates. As the lights blink faster and faster (which is somewhat dizzying and unnerving) shadows, streaks, and colors (I detected blue and green) flicker on the walls. This is mesmerizing and synesthetic. Even more mesmerizing is to “look” at this installation through closed eyes. Abstract shapes including, again, blue and green ones (at least for me), induced by the combination of sound and light, flicker and shift on the inside of one’s eyelids. The installation enters and alters one’s consciousness and body.
The gallery’s text points to Brion Gysin’s renowned 1961 “Dreammachine,” as a possible reference. Another — and here I am just hazarding a guess — could be to the visual effects that occasionally accompany the fantastic Sigur Rós song “Untitled #8 (Popplagið)” when played as an encore. Midway through, a huge, semitransparent scrim is drawn across the stage (I’ve experienced this in person). Lights, looming shadows, and video projections on the scrim of rapidly changing, mostly abstract shapes, responding to both music and band, seem hallucinatory and wondrous, but also agitated and bewildering. Something not exactly similar, but perhaps related, happens with this installation, both in the physical space and inside one’s body and brain.
Jónsi’s elemental exhibition, with all its scents and sounds, visual dynamism, and compelling materials, and especially the ways in which it connects humans with nature — including volcanoes — is altogether welcome and apt.
Jónsi: Obsidian continues at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery (521 West 21st Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through December 17.