On an exceptionally warm and sunny summer day, I met Bjarni Þórarinsson at Spark Design Space where his work, New Iceland, is currently on view. New Iceland is made up of donnets, which Bjarni describes as a visual counterpart to sonnets. They are a grid of photographs taken with disposable cameras around Iceland over the course of days, months, and years. The pieces are then “composed” of varying shots from the same location, and each image in the grid is uniquely identified much like on a contact sheet, but on the backside and in the artist’s beautiful hand-written script.
Donnets are a new department of Bjarni’s Visio Academy, a system for the study of visual language that began as a theory in rhyme, words and symbols when he was in art school in the mid-70s. They are also part of a new field of visual studies invented over the course of his lifetime as an artist, called Visualogy, for which he’s developed an extensive grammar and vocabulary. His “birthday” as a visualogist was just the day before our meeting.
Bjarni arrived promptly, as I was told to expect from him, and deferred getting a cappuccino until after our interview. Seated in front of the framed ‘donnets’, he began by talking about them as “a new visual art form.”
You are invested in the Icelandic language. I’m curious to know about the word ‘donnet’ which comes from sonnet, a musical term originating in Italy.
The sonnet in Italy started the Italian Renaissance and 27 years ago I started a renaissance in Iceland by making new manuscripts based on my Visualogy. I had been making a new philosophy, a new art style, a completely new way of thinking in the field of visual arts.
Okay, So What Exactly Are These Donnets?
At some point during the interview, when voices were raised and our light-hearted discussion nearly became amusingly heated, Goddur arrived as if on cue to offer an explanation.
Goddur and Bjarni’s creative relationship goes all the way back to when they were in art school together. Goddur began designing stunning graphic posters of his illustrations to accompany Bjarni’s inventive new concepts, symbols, typography, and vocabulary of Visualogy. They’ve always been a good team. As Goddur explains, donnets are a new work within a process spanning decades of Bjarni’s very systematic, invented grammar—and as such cannot be compared to canons.
The donnets are perhaps not about poetry but about poetics of place. As Bjarni eventually said, “I’m a kind of reporter and I do it poetically. I see my country as a living museum.” (He was one of the founding members of The Living Art Museum in 1978.) New Iceland is about a new way of representing Iceland: its impermanence, visual beauty, and ultimately the deceptive silence within the dynamic and violent volcanic landscape.
Do the donnets connect to visual music, for example work that started with Kandinsky in painting, or Hans Richter in film?
Visual music?! I don’t think this has so much to do with visual music because a donnet is a silent poetry. Music is not silent.
But the donnets have visual rhythm and flow very much like how poetry has rhythm, flow, and melody in words…
I’m working in art, science, and philosophy, mainly in the field of visual arts. I started with a poem that I realized was visual poetry. Donnets are Visual Constructive Poetry but I work with nature in these works. The financial catastrophe affected me strongly.
Is this the ‘fit of rage’ you refer to in another interview in relation to the beginning of donnets?
My heart was deeply sinking into sorrow. I had to do something about it and this is my way of trying to conquer the sorrow and to get back my passion and happiness through creating.
The donnets appear to be linking the fields of visual music and landscape photography, with the catalyst of the financial crisis being their starting point. How are they contextualised within the canon of healing anger, and sorrow, and loss in relation to the homeland by going back to the land, which is a very deliberate theme explored by landscape photographers and painters?
There must be some kind of guys stealing these sorts of things but I am not! I don’t have to go to a catalogue or canons to make my art! I am an independent artist! You are not interviewing an art historian! I don’t have a perfect explanation because it is so new since I’ve been working on this. The project has only been going for five years, and I’ve made 500-600 of these pieces. I see the silence in these works and I like that silence.
It appears you are working with the serendipity in nature and rearranging it whereby one element of the landscape in one image flows into the next. For example, how the ridgeline of a mountain in one photograph continues into the edge of a cloud in the adjoining photograph. There is deliberate rhythm from one image to the next, but then a melody that flows through the entire piece by the nature of your composition. You speak of poetry and of silence, but poetry is not silent.
Why do you think tourists come to Iceland?! They come for the silence.
New Iceland is currently showing at SPARK Design Space, and runs through September 19. Read the full listing here.