Sigur Rós Singer Jonsi on the Volcano in His Mind
Inspired by the eruption of Fagradalsfjall, almost 200 speakers roar and rumble in the artist's pitch-dark installation at Mona, Hobart.
Jónsi and his installation Hrafntinna (Obsidian) at the Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart. Photo: Mona/Jesse Hunniford.
Jónsi may have been playing music at the front of Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Rós for nearly three decades, but he's a relative newcomer to the art world.
Not all musicians are adept at changing lanes, but Jónsi knows a thing or two about creating immersive experiences for audiences.
Tim Stone tracked the artist down in Hobart for the unveiling of Hrafntinna (Obsidian), a near-pitch-dark installation that features a rumbling soundtrack on a 196-speaker array, haptic reverberations, and a handcrafted scent—all of which was inspired by the one-in-800-year eruption of an Icelandic volcano just outside Reykjavik.
When Fagradalsfjall erupted in 2021 you were in Los Angeles and couldn't experience it due to Covid travel restrictions. How did that experience inform this work?
These days you experience every single thing, what your friends are doing or your favourite artist or musician, through your phone. So it was interesting to experience that eruption through social media. You start to imagine what it would be like, how it would sound. I'd ask people: 'What's the sound like, is it loud or low or is it bassy?' or, 'How does it smell?' And they were like: 'I don't know but it smelled funny', and somebody said it was 'sulphurous'. So you just have to make a volcano in your mind, which is just fun. It gives you a lot of freedom not to experience it also at the same time.
What compelled you to pursue art-making alongside your other creative projects?
I've just been observing [art] from afar all my life and I've always been missing a lot of elements to trigger something. Like when you go to a gallery, you want to be moved, you want to take something away or be inspired. And usually when I go to museums and haven't been inspired [I ask myself]: 'Why didn't they do this, or why didn't they make that?' In [my work] I want to trigger sound—to hear something loud—to see something, smell something, so it's gonna trigger a lot of senses, just for that purpose: to move you in some kind of way.
Do you approach installation in much the same way as you approach music, or are they vastly different?
I always start using my voice because to me it's like the most primal connection to anything. I think using your voice, like when you're speaking or singing, people listen because it's just in their nature. You have to listen to somebody speaking to you or singing to you. Writing music or writing songs, it's extremely creative and you get a lot out of it. But when you go to the studio, it's like a lot of practical stuff you need to do, you need to play it again, and again, and again to get the best take. In this [installation] for example, when you have 200 speakers around and you have a lot of channels, and because obviously I don't have the setup at home, when I'm writing it, I had to imagine a lot of this stuff. I want this voice to start there, and the other voices to come in there, so there's a lot of imagination going on. I only heard it when [I installed it] for the first time.
What have you learnt from playing to audiences for 29 years that you've applied to your sound installations?
I was reading an article recently about 'frisson', this feeling when you have goosebumps [listening to music], and there was a lot about loudness, going from low to really high. For me, harmonies are a big part of that and loudness is a big part of it (and music in general). Like in Obsidian, it's so dark, so it's very easy to close your eyes and just sit there, just feel the bass going through you and just listen to the spatialised sound and imagine things. Sound is like this chemical thing. You can't explain it, but it moves you. —[O]