From Iceland — There Will Be Flood: Jónsi's large-scale installation opens at Hafnarhús

There Will Be Flood: Jónsi’s large-scale installation opens at Hafnarhús

Published May 31, 2024

There Will Be Flood: Jónsi’s large-scale installation opens at Hafnarhús
Photo by
Atli Freyr Steinsson

“I don’t know anything about how to be an artist,” says Jón Þór Birgisson, or Jónsi, as we meet at the Reykjavík Art Museum Hafnarhús. Less than a week before his first solo exhibition in Europe, FLÓÐ, opens its doors to visitors and simultaneously kicks off the biennial Reykjavík Arts Festival, Jónsi seems stressed.

As we stand surrounded by half-assembled works, he confesses, “I haven’t tried anything yet, haven’t turned the light on, haven’t heard the audio yet.” It’s been a full month since he arrived in Iceland from his sunny home base in Los Angeles, and he has spent every day since at the museum, methodically piecing together components for the immersive visual, auditory and olfactory installations. “It’s way more work than you think somehow,” he admits. “I want to see it work, but it’s going to happen slowly.”

Creative alchemy

Before Jónsi the artist came Jónsi the musician. 

“I’ve been a musician forever — been in the band for 30 years now, Sigur Rós,” he says modestly as if his decades with the seminal band need an introduction. “I’ve just always been interested in visual arts. When you live in Iceland, you’re surrounded by artists. It’s something you can’t avoid.” Seven years ago, when Jónsi moved to LA, he suddenly had more time and space for experimenting with other creative projects. It was through his collaboration with renowned artist Ólafur Elíasson that Jónsi got connected with gallerist Tanya Bonakdar. 

As someone with a trained eye for visual art, Tanya saw potential in Jónsi’s creative explorations beyond music. “I started telling her about my ideas and installations I’ve been working on and she suggested we try and have an exhibition and see how it goes. That’s how it started.”

“I just want to move people a little bit in some way. It’s nice to be moved.”

Initially commissioned for the Nordic Museum in Seattle, this is the first time FLÓÐ is coming to Europe. Jónsi explains that his original conversation with the Reykjavík Art Museum revolved around another piece, his Obsidian installation from 2021 — a simulation of a volcano brought to life through a 16-channel composition played through 200 speakers. “When it comes to shipping, it’s an extremely impractical, non-logical piece — so heavy and awkward and big,” he says of the Obsidian piece. Since it wouldn’t fit at the museum, Jónsi proposed bringing FLÓÐ instead, along with other ideas. Installations SAD and REK will occupy other spaces within Hafnarhús, while Jónsi’s wind harp will adorn building exterior.

FLÓÐ started as a simple idea, with Jónsi contemplating the ocean and the similarities between Seattle and Reykjavík — sister cities, both coastal and surrounded by the vast waters. The concept, however, soon took a more existential and urgent environmental tone. “Then it went further into us being on social media, doomscrolling and seeing all these climate change things happening.” With a tingle of sadness, he adds, “We live in interesting times because it’s very obvious what’s happening, but nobody’s doing anything about it. [FLÓÐ is] about the big wave that, when the ocean rises, is going to sweep us away.” 

Photo by Atli Freyr Steinsson

With an art book fair happening next door and temporarily slowing down the installation process, I’m left to imagine how things will look here in just a few days. The now white room will turn into a complete blackout space with 50 speakers adorning the walls to play a 25-minute sound piece with Jónsi’s transcendent chorals — pure and powerful. A lone, flickering strip of light will cut through engineered darkness. The air will be thick with swirling smoke, Icelandic black sand and a distinctive, haunting scent.

A sensory adventure

“When I started this art adventure thing, I wanted it to be multisensorial a little bit — you walk into a room and you hear something, you see something and you smell something,” explains Jónsi, who’s been successfully dabbing into perfumery for the past 15 years.

The nose behind Fischersund, his family-run perfume house, Jónsi purposefully curated a scent for the exhibition. He ventured to a nearby beach to harvest seaweed, from which he created a tincture. This, combined with 30 other aroma molecules, resulted in “an apocalyptic, kind of briny, salty, seaweed thing.”

“The scent is a little bit brutal,” he smiles, adding, “Not really, though.”

Together with his siblings, Jónsi is also working on a limited-edition fragrance that will be sold at the museum, turning FLÓÐ into a stimulating sensory journey.

“I just want to move people a little bit in some way. It’s nice to be moved,” he says. “When you go to a concert usually — or hopefully, if you like the band — you come out inspired, full of life and energy. Sometimes when I go to galleries, it is kind of boring,” he admits, adding that modern art often hides in overly abstract concepts that fail to evoke any emotion. Rather than wrapping his art in layers of abstraction, Jónsi embraces a more grounded directness. “I don’t know any of these buzzwords. I never went to an art school. Things are pretty basic, straightforward,” he says. 

“Some musician is having a show at the Reykjavík Art Museum? They are going to be angry about it.”

“It’s also funny,” he adds, “because in the music world, nothing is very conceptualised. You just do things because they make sense. You don’t have to talk about it too much, or explain your music.” Things in the art world, on the other hand, are the exact opposite. “Everything has some meaning behind it — or not, but usually it does.” Experimenting with linking ideas and concepts together has been a rather healthy process for him personally. “It’s healthy to actually have to think about what it means, why you’re doing it and what the meaning behind it is. Sometimes when you start thinking like that, you connect things together and they start to make sense.”

Photo by Atli Freyr Steinsson

I follow Jónsi to the second floor of the museum, where he’s eager to show me one of his two additional artworks, also in a dismantled shape: six rusty metal plates, weathered outside in Iceland to imitate its rugged landscape. These will vibrate accompanied by a choral arrangement Jónsi again recorded with his voice. “Egomaniac,” he laughs, imitating the sound of moving tectonic motions.

Into the abyss

As our conversation turns deeper, Jónsi opens up about challenges and day-to-day demands of being an artist. Having travelled the world with Sigur Rós for decades, he admits that being an artist feels like stepping outside of a safe bubble. While touring and performing as a musician is demanding, shipping an exhibition across continents, researching materials and adjusting them to fit the space of different museums is a whole new level of complexity. “It’s actually more stressful being an artist than a musician for some reason. I don’t know why,” Jónsi says, pondering that maybe it’s because most of his ideas are big and extremely technical, involving hundreds of speakers, computers and lights (for one of the installations on display along with FLÓÐ, he’s using a whopping 60,000 LEDs). Unlike his established career as a musician, Jónsi finds himself navigating uncharted waters as an artist, without the same support system in place. “Here, nobody knows that I’m an artist and nobody cares,” he shrugs. “Everything is on your shoulders. I don’t have any big infrastructure around me.”

He muses that the home audience might raise some eyebrows seeing him transition from musician to an interdisciplinary artist. “It’s the classic version of a musician trying to be an artist, so there’s probably going to be some interesting comments about that,” he says, admitting, “I don’t know the Icelandic art community very well. But I heard it’s very intense.”

With a hint of self-deprecating humour, Jónsi adds, “Some musician is having a show at the Reykjavík Art Museum? They are going to be angry about it.”

“My motto is you just do stuff and [then] you die”

Though new to the Icelandic arts scene, Jónsi’s artworks have travelled from LA to Tasmania, lending him a bit more insight into the art world. “When you’re in the art world, it’s a little bit disappointing because it’s all about business, money and selling.” Jónsi agrees this is understandable up to a certain point — most artists simply need to make some money to sustain their creative process and themselves. “I’m fortunate,” he says. “I’m using my money from Sigur Rós that I had been collecting for 30 years of being in a band to finance my art practice,” he pauses, before adding. “I’m definitely not making any money off being an artist. It’s just fun.” 

As the preparations for FLÓÐ are slowly coming together, Jónsi is excited, but admits he craves a breather. “After every single activity like this, I always think the next activity is going to be small landscape paintings you can just hang on the wall,” he says with a smile. When asked if he’s being serious, Jónsi responds, “Maybe one day, when I’m older. Something really comfortable.” 

Jónsi’s FLÓÐ opens at the Reykjavík Art Museum on June 1 and will be on view until September 22. 

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