It’s been a while since I felt content describing an experience as indescribable, but that is the word that presented itself most forcefully after walking into Icelandic artist Jónsi’s first New York gallery show. After a pandemic-induced spell limited to constrained screens and stereo equipment at home, it is really something to wander into the all-encompassing presence of sound generated by some 200 speakers roaring in total darkness. At first there’s nothing to see, as you step pensively, unsure of what might be in your midst. But then a light slowly brightens, and as the eye adjusts, it becomes clear that you’re surrounded by a room-size ring of speakers on metal risers arranged in the service of Hrafntinna (Obsidian), an installation created to invoke a volcano.
“Did you sit down? You have to sit down—it’s all about getting the bass in your ass,” Jónsi said during a recent walkthrough of his exhibition at Tanya Bonakdar, which first showed the Sigur Rós star at its Los Angeles location in 2019. Though I had wondered about the functionality of the bench-like sculptural intervention in the center of the room—a pristine black circle that somehow looks blacker than black—I hadn’t sat down, preferring instead to bask in the uncertainty of not-knowing while in a state of such signal-scrambling immersion. But the circle hides a subwoofer, a type of loudspeaker that emits bellowing bass tones—and also presents a good position from which to take in another sensory offering: a scent pumped into the gallery, made from fossilized amber.
“It’s basically a 35-million-year-old tree resin,” Jónsi said. “They mine it and distill it through a process called destructive distillation. You get a lot of smoke because it is hard like a rock. It is hard to do.”
The smoky scent, suggestive of something not only burning but having started burning a long time ago, mixes with the sound to create an experience that Jónsi hopes might transport gallerygoers to his homeland. “It’s mainly me being stuck in L.A. for two years because of Covid,” he said of the inspiration behind his artwork in the show, which is on view through December 17. “I couldn’t see my family and friends because of lockdown”—and he couldn’t see the eruption of Fagradalsfjall, the Icelandic volcano that started spewing lava after thousands of years of dormancy this past spring. “I was seeing this eruption happen through all my friends and family hiking up to it,” Jónsi said. “I was in L.A., with the sun shining, just looking at this stuff and wishing I could see it and smell it.”
Sounds evoking volcanic activity figure in the Hrafntinna (Obsidian) installation, which draws in part from music released on Jónsi’s new album Obsidian. And smell pervades the whole of the show, from the fossilized amber in the centerpiece on the gallery’s ground floor to different scents at work in two separate rooms upstairs. One room plays home to four wall works, all of them textured and dark. “This is more normal artwork, I guess,” Jónsi said in front of Eldfjall (Volcano) 1, a framed panel made with resin and foam—and something rotten inside. “I grow mold and then put the resin on top to cover it. I put all kinds of shit in a plastic bag for a few weeks, stuff that ferments, like yogurt. It smells absolutely horrible. You can actually still smell this one. I don’t know if you want to, but…”
Each of the two Eldfjall (Volcano) works also incorporate sound, by way of directional speakers emitting moody, melancholic ambient music beneath their surface. But two works titled Hrafntinnublómstur (Obsidian bloom)—with shards of obsidian blades arranged like flowers on burnt wood—stay silent, aside from imaginings of sounds they might conjure. “Obsidian is so sharp they use it for scalpels for surgeries,” Jónsi said.
In a room of its own, Sólgos (Solar flare) is another installation featuring loud sound and strobing light effects in the midst of another scent, this one called geosmin— “like the smell after a rainstorm,” Jónsi said. “It’s one of the molecules that people smell the easiest.”
Though he didn’t mix the geosmin himself, Jónsi is an avid perfumer who started with the hobby around 10 years ago. “Perfuming is really interesting and really hard to do,” he said. “It’s hard to find information, and it’s really private. You start with essential oils and then reach a peak, but there are thousands of aroma molecules. I’ve been playing with them for a long time now, but there are so many of them, and there are different strengths, different [levels of] volatility. You have to be really patient, and I’m not a patient person. I want results now, but with perfume you have to let it mature so all the aroma molecules can meld together.”
The results can be spotty. “I always call it a bottomless pit of disappointment,” he said, with a fatalistic Icelandic laugh. “I do maybe a blend a day with say 30 to 50 molecules in it, but if you put one drop of something in and it’s too strong, you have to start from scratch. But I love it, and I’m kind of addicted.”
The same goes for working in the art world, which Jónsi said he has taken to after making his name musically with Sigur Rós and on his solo records, in addition to collaborative music he’s made with Alex Somers and as part of the duo Dark Morph (with sound artist Carl Michael von Hausswolff). “When I was a teenager I was always painting and doing stuff. If I wouldn’t have gone into music, I probably would find something like painting,” he said. “But music took over and has been doing that for 25 years. Now I’m trying to experiment a little bit more and branch out in the gallery space. It’s scary but fun.”
He continued, “As a touring musician, you’re always in a new place. Every single night, you do a show—and then leave. But in a gallery space you have months to really control a space and tweak it and do anything you want. It’s interesting to make something exactly how you want it to be. As a musician you never have time to make things perfect or to make them very complicated.”