Los Angeles

Jónsi, Hvítblinda (Whiteout), 2019, twelve-channel sound installation (20 minutes), ten speakers, two subwoofers, aluminum, LED lighting, ozone scent. Installation view.

Jónsi, Hvítblinda (Whiteout), 2019, twelve-channel sound installation (20 minutes), ten speakers, two subwoofers, aluminum, LED lighting, ozone scent. Installation view.


Even if you have a fondness for the paintings of, say, Bob Dylan, you might find it difficult to argue for their historical significance. “Show people” tend to treat the visual-art context as a place to unload their doodles—or, worse, they superficially conform to the latest standards of aesthetic production. It is therefore with some trepidation that one might approach a show by the lead singer and guitarist of the Icelandic band Sigur Rós. Jónsi is a bona fide rock star, though not lacking in visual fluency, having recently collaborated with such figures as Doug Aitken and Olafur Eliasson. Some of the latter’s influence could be sensed in Jónsi’s debut as a solo artist at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery; his exhibition hewed closely to his fellow Icelander’s Minimalist style and likewise approached the gallery space as a sculptural form that the audience could physically occupy.

The three works on view were presented in separate rooms, the largest of which was painted floor to ceiling in a dazzling white and, apart from two plinth-like benches, appeared almost bare. But a densely layered audio composition emanated from the walls, within which an elaborate speaker system had been invisibly embedded. Titled Hvítblinda (Whiteout) (all works 2019), this piece is dominated by Jónsi’s famously plaintive falsetto, repeatedly overdubbed to ring out like a polyphonic choir that gathers in volume and then subsides into an environmental backdrop of wintry gusts of wind and buckling trees. The somewhat abstract idea of sound sculpting was here literalized by the spatial distribution of the speakers, which sent sonic details orbiting around the ears and reverberating through the bones. Whereas visual phenomena tend to be perceived as being at a remove from oneself, the acoustic realm is experienced as engulfing, and the artist exacerbated this sensation by treating the white cube as a speaker box, one with a few extra features. Lending optical stimulation to his compelling merger of ecclesiastic harmonizing and musique concrète was a synchronized network of LED bulbs, inconspicuously installed in the skylights, which gently transitioned between different levels of brightness. Periodic diffusions of a faintly metallic “ozone scent” rounded out the synesthetic experience while intimating ecological disaster.

The adjoining room, which contained Svartalda (Dark Wave), was barely illuminated, in stark contrast to the whitewashed expanse that preceded it. The work’s claustrophobic sense of intimacy was amplified by a closely miked under-the-breath recitation of a poem about the sea playing over a recording of what I heard as the creaking contractions of a wooden ship’s hull. As one’s eyes adjusted to this somber interior, some overhead movements became perceptible: Affixed to the ceiling was a paneled canopy programmed to perform wavelike undulations that slowly traveled from one end of the space to the other. The audience was seemingly plunged underwater—another harbinger of catastrophe. But this illusionistic effect was also a sensual visualization of the aural waveforms in which the entire show was bathed. The seaweed scent sprayed into the chamber was at once bracing and carnal.

I am inclined to think that Jónsi inhabits the context of visual art to observe his music from the outside. In this show, his signature sound was disassembled into its core components, each rendered in space, as space: the crystalline tundra of the spirit versus the overheated cabin of the body, the self-annihilating allure of rock sublimity countered with earthy affirmations of physical renewal. The closest thing to a discrete artwork here, Í blóma (In bloom), entwined these divergent strands. This accumulation of speaker cones—outfitted with lethal spikes and, wisely undercutting the solemn tone of the proceedings with a note of gay lewdness, butt plugs—hugged a corner of the front room like a climbing flower. The press release informed us that its physical and aural design was modeled on the poisonous/medicinal foxglove, whose electrical impulses were digitally tracked, mapped, and converted into audio signals. Jónsi’s own voice was once again added to the mix, creating a technologized duet of lowing and chirping between person and plant. A mating call, he has termed it, and one dispatched toward a nonhuman world that we have for too long conceived of as over there, when in fact it enfolds us.