Jónsi, the singer and guitarist for the Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Rós, lives now in Los Angeles. But when the Fagradalsfjall volcano just outside Reykjavik suddenly erupted in spring 2021 after lying dormant for nearly 800 years, it inspired him to create this installation. Unable to return home because of Covid-related travel restrictions, he conjured the volcano’s enormous force through sound and scent installations and a series of sculptural works. Known for musical compositions that are both ethereal and electrifying, he employed in Obsidian a tonal palette that included ambient sounds, mechanically generated frequencies, samples from nature and his own voice.
ABOUT THE CREATOR
Born in Iceland in 1975, Jón Þór “Jónsi” Birgisson lives and works in Los Angeles. Jónsi initially gained international recognition as the lead vocalist for the Icelandic experimental band Sigur Rós. His unequivocal vocal and instrumental approach have expanded the boundaries of musical genres, making him one of the leading musical artists of our time.
Jónsi grounds his visual practice in material and metaphysical experimentations with sound, often through the engineering of immersive installations that reconfigure the act of listening by means of sight, smell, taste, and touch. Known for compositions that are at once ethereal and electrifying, Jónsi employs a tonal palette that includes ambient sounds, mechanically generated frequencies, samples from nature and his own voice in innovative sonic arrangements. Using a perfume organ to develop new and invigorating scents, he infuses his works with earthy, atmospheric fragrances that are subtle and frequently overlooked.
Over the past two decades, Jónsi has collaborated with musicians, visual artists and filmmakers to create a robust body of work that spans multiple disciplines. His artistic collaborations with such leading creative figures as Doug Aitken, Cameron Crowe, Merce Cunningham, Olafur Eliasson and Carl Michael von Hausswolf have led to critical acclaim and numerous awards.
Outside Sigur Rós, Jónsi has cultivated a series of interconnected music projects. In 2009 he and partner Alex Somers released the landmark ambient album Riceboy Sleeps, which they followed up in 2019 with Lost & Found. In 2018 Jónsi, Somers, and Paul Corley formed Liminal, whose ambient sound bath events have been hosted at art spaces across the world. In 2019 he formed the musical duo Dark Morph with Swedish composer Carl Michael von Hausswolf.
Only 25 miles from Reykjavík, the Fagradalsfjall volcano erupted unexpectedly on March 19, 2021 and continued spewing lava until September 18.
ABOUT THE WORK
Obsidian was inspired by the March 2021 eruption of the Fagradalsfjall volcano in Iceland, which had lain dormant for nearly 800 years. Unable to return to his homeland and experience the phenomenon firsthand because of pandemic-related travel restrictions, Jónsi instead conjured its force through two sound installations and a series of sculptural works at the Tonya Banakdar gallery in New York.
On the ground floor of the gallery, visitors entered a darkened room in which a central plinth was encircled by more than 200 speakers. Inspired by performances of Icelandic choir groups, Jónsi writes his own choral hymn in four parts. Primal in nature and devoid of identifiable lyrics, his piercing voice strikes an array of emotional chords, echoing and reverberating throughout the multi-channel installation. Soundscapes of gritty rocks and searing lava are coupled with smoky, tar-like aromas of fossilized amber, the only essential oil in existence that is mined (as opposed to harvested). Enveloped within this perceptual framework, the audience finds itself negotiating a borderline spiritual experience inside the cavernous belly of a volcano.
In the upstairs galleries, sculptural works composed of resin and obsidian glass engaged in dialogue at opposite ends of a room. Crackling sounds intermingled with the smell of burning birch trees. Crafted from hand-carved obsidian blades and a cross-sectioned tree, these sculptures embodied healing energies that stimulate growth and regeneration.
Another sound installation ensued from a convex armature affixed with flower-shaped metallic discs. Equipped with LEDs, the structure pulsated with light in short bursts, blinking slowly at first before swelling into rapid-fire successions, eventually forcing the viewer to close their eyes. In nod to Brion Gysin’s Dreamachine, which emerged in 1959 from a series of experiments Gysin conducted with William Burroughs and his “systems adviser” Ian Sommerville, Jónsi’s flashing lights produced trance-like, hallucinatory effects. Here the artist infused the space with the scent of ozone known to engage photoreceptors inside the brain, further activating the mind’s third eye.
Launched in conjunction with the exhibition and likewise inspired by the Icelandic volcano was Obsidian, Jónsi’s third solo album. Recorded and produced in tandem, the two works inform one another as they seek to capture these volcanic energies. Over the course of ten tracks, each with evocative titles referencing sights, textures and aromas of the ashen terrain, Jónsi takes his listeners through narrative arcs between erupting flares. By layering vocals over orchestral passages, Jónsi collapses the boundaries between the senses. Velvety, musky notes of amber translate through deep, sustained progressions of the double bass. Sharp, tapered edges of obsidian glass register through piercing and frenetic digital bursts. And finally, in the manner of falling ashes, sounds of rushing winds and water cascade steadily over listeners, signaling a return to serenity, stillness, and recovery.