From Iceland — A Witness Of Life: Haraldur Jónsson Reveals His Expansive Artistic Spectrum

A Witness Of Life: Haraldur Jónsson Reveals His Expansive Artistic Spectrum

Published December 7, 2018

A Witness Of Life: Haraldur Jónsson Reveals His Expansive Artistic Spectrum
Phil Uwe Widiger
Photo by
Rut Sigurðardóttir

I am standing in Kjarvalsstaðir museum, where Haraldur Jónsson, one of Iceland’s most renowned visual artists, celebrated the opening of his mid-career retrospective, “Spectrum,” just a few weeks ago. It’s after the museum’s opening hours and, of course, it’s already dark outside. A small group of people stand in the East wing of the building, anticipating the evening’s performance.

A seating area is separated from the waiting audience by a thick rope. Suddenly, Haraldur appears and takes one of the guests by the arm, and as his assistant lifts the rope, Haraldur guides her to the seat that he has apparently chosen for her amongst a series of theatre-like rows. His assistant gently grabs me and guides me to another chair. This silent yet authoritative ritual continues until everyone is seated.

Tracing faces

Haraldur and his assistant put up large red banners to create a “stage”—in reality, just an unused space in the gallery—and the artist finally breaks the silence. “I need two people who are very close to each other,” he says, mysteriously. A young, curious couple tentatively volunteer.

What follows is the perfect example of how Haraldur works. The two are told to stand in opposite corners of the room, one facing away from the other. Then Haraldur massages the tops of their heads, and asks them to each visualise a colour. Next, the two are asked to put their face sideways on a piece of paper in sequence, while the artist draws the outline of their profiles. As the finale, he puts the two drawings on top of each other, showing the combined image to the volunteers like a doctor presenting an X-ray. The audience watches in reverent silence as the couple receives the artwork as a gift, looking astonished as they walk back to their seats.

Two other performances follow, mapping out an intriguing exploration of the interplay between language, perception, body and emotion. The performances are part of Haraldur’s large scale solo exhibition called “Spectrum.” Not only a retrospective, it’s also a beautiful, personal and authentic investigation of what it means to be human.

The English garden

Haraldur’s works necessarily include unpredictable elements of chance and contingency, effectively inviting the unexpected and the intuitive. It’s a method he has trusted throughout his life. “I’m interested in the labyrinth of perception—how people navigate through the cultural architecture of our world like an invisible building,” Haraldur explains later, as we settle down to talk in his studio.

“I’m interested in the labyrinth of perception—how people navigate through the cultural architecture of our world like an invisible building.”

Far from the serious and authoritative persona he had adopted at the performance a few days earlier, he triumphs now with charm. His studio is scattered with stacks of paper, finished or unfinished works, illustrating his process of working on many different pieces simultaneously. “It’s a bit like an English garden,” Haraldur says. “There are piles of ideas, drawings, written notes, archives, catalogues… they’re visual stimuli.”

Little treasures sit scattered around in unexpected places. All in all, I feel like I’m ruthlessly penetrating the space “where the magic happens.” Haraldur, however, is beaming with warmth and openness.

A witness of life

“I see myself as a receiver,” he continues. “I receive messages and work with them. Maybe it’s a little New Age.” He chuckles. “I am a witness of life.”

Trusting his intuition more than anything else, Haraldur says that he often doesn’t know exactly what he’s doing during the process of creation. When the piece is finished, however, he’s able to put it into context and to connect it to one of the four notions he’s continuously working with—body, perception, emotion and language. He describes this work process with the proverb “one is wise after the event,” which is to say that the meaning and purpose of a piece only becomes clear after it has been created.

When he’s selecting pieces for a show, Haraldur sometimes introduces an element of chance by employing a tarot-based system, wherein he lets the pieces combine to create their own narrative, or by randomly opening a page of the dictionary and constructing the show around a word he finds. “It is like a child who is asked to connect the dots on a paper,” he explains. “If the dots don’t have numbers, different people will make different forms out of them.”

Silent, sincere, sleepy, soft

A perfect example of this intuitive work process is a piece called “Emotional Wallpaper,” which occupies the entrance hall to “Spectrum” at Kjarvalsstaðir. Two walls form a tunnel that the visitor passes through to enter the exhibition space; each one bears words for different emotions, one in Icelandic and one in English, lined up in alphabetical order.

“I see myself as a receiver. I receive messages and work with them. Maybe it is a little New Age. I am a witness of life.”

The idea came in a moment that Haraldur describes as an “out-of-body experience” when he found a brochure that was part of an mental health awareness campaign. One page was a list of different emotions. He intuitively lined them up in alphabetical order, not knowing what he was doing at first. The resulting piece has now been exhibited many times internationally, and translated into many different languages.

It unites universal emotions felt everywhere in the world in one artwork and at the same time shows how humans have developed nuanced words for emotional subcategories—such as “grumpy,” “tetchy” or “irritated”—but still sometimes fail to express exactly what they’re feeling. The piece reveals that commonly felt emotions connect people, but also shows that finding a shared vocabulary to express or explain them can also create a sense of alienation and distance.

Linguistic revelations

Language has interested Haraldur since the earliest stages of his life. He was born in Finland, but he doesn’t speak the language as his family sailed to Iceland when he was just two years old. He is, however, a man of many nations, having studied in France and Germany; he was honoured with the title of “Meisterschüler” from the arts academy in Düsseldorf. Today, Haraldur speaks both French and German. He says that learning another language was “a revelation,” and references to language are scattered throughout his oeuvre.

“I wanted the art experience to be something challenging.”

Haraldur recalls being particularly intrigued by how people used gestural communication in the South of France. “It was really a big inspiration for me,” he says. “I didn’t understand the gestures at first. In Iceland, people are like in the sagas, with blank faces—kind of like in a Nordic Western, the cool type.” For Haraldur, those gestures expanded the notion of language into the physical realm.

This manifested in the piece “Blindners”—a series of clay shapes, again made using the power of intuition. Haraldur blindly shaped the clay with his hands, using those same movements that would mould the air during gestural communication, thus taking a temporal phenomenon and setting it in stone.

Challenging and dangerous

It was last autumn when Haraldur had the inkling of collecting all these works into a retrospective. Before he had told anybody of his thinking, he received a serendipitous call from Reykjavík Art Museum, inviting him to stage an exhibition. The time had come, and it was clear from the start that it was going to be something special. “I wanted the art experience to be something challenging,” he says. “Maybe a little dangerous.”

The results are expansively ambitious. Haraldur has used a wide variety of media during his 30-year career, including sculpture, drawing, photography, video and performance. The key concepts of language, perception, physicality and emotion are endlessly intertwined and connected throughout his body of work—a red thread that runs through everything, tying it together through the decades.

Haraldur himself describes “Spectrum” as a “Gesamtkunstwerk” (a “total work of art,” in English). “It was only last spring when we started thinking about how it would be installed,” he recounts. “I was least worried about that. From the beginning, I was more thinking about the whole.”

On the spectrum

In Icelandic, the “Spectrum” translates as “Róf”—a word with many different connotations. It refers to all kinds of spectra, but also to psychological phenomena like ADHD, where one is metaphorically standing on the edge of something, or just slightly off the grid. The show is exactly that—you enter a space where the artwork is, in many ways, testing the limits, and you have no idea where it starts, or where it is going to end.

“I’ve always been fascinated by windows as screens to people’s lives.”

One such barrier-crossing is when the exhibition spills out of Kjarvalstaðir and into the street of Flókagata. As you walk to the museum, you can see yellow, orange and red vertical strip blinds hanging in the windows of people’s homes. “I’ve always been fascinated by windows as screens to people’s lives, kind of like Instagrams or photographs,” Haraldur explains. “They frame the scene playing inside people’s homes, like a portrait.”

As the blinds automatically open or close, they become colourful screens that sometimes reveal real life domestic vignettes. Making scenes from private life public speaks to the current era of social media, where people constantly put themselves on the digital stage. “They’re like an unplugged version of social media,” says Haraldur. “People are already in the exhibition before they even enter the museum.”

The eternal child

A special work also awaits the spectator in Klambratún, the park adjacent to the museum, where a David Attenborough-style narrator can be heard reading Haraldur’s text describing the phenomenon of children. “Balance between mother and father is decisive during the pregnancy,” it says. “The child perceives at once when the father touches the mother and vice versa. The child discerns all their communications in the womb since amniotic fluid is an excellent channel and the child starts drawing conclusions from the sounds it captures long before curiosity thrusts it into the world.”

In another sound piece, audible just before you set foot in the museum, one can hear a five-year old counting slowly—a motif that recurs in a different form once you’re inside.

“I see the monumental in the miniature. This is how the world reveals itself in surprising moments.”

Fittingly, Haraldur’s path to the arts also started when he was just a child. One strong memory springs to mind: he was playing in his parents’ garden when he heard two cars collide. He left his toys, ran to the scene and was completely intrigued by what he saw—there were the broken fragments of plastic car lights scattered on the ground, and a cop sweeping them into a pile. For Haraldur, this was a magic moment of chaos and order uniting harmoniously—faintly reminiscent of Friedrich Casper’s painting ‘Das Eismeer.’

“I see the monumental in the miniature,” Haraldur says. “This is how the world reveals itself in surprising moments.”

Artistic triggers

The second of four children, Haraldur was always the one to put up the Christmas decorations in his family’s garden. For him, it was a life-shaping experience. “It was very mysterious, being alone in the garden, climbing the tree in the darkness,” Haraldur recounts. “In a way, it was my first installation. It was always a magical moment to put up the lights and then to see how they transformed the environment when I finally turned them on.”

“It was very mysterious, being alone in the garden, climbing the tree in the darkness.”

This childhood artistic trigger is expressed in a video piece called “Arctic Fruits,” which is also showing as part of “Spectrum.” It’s a collection of Haraldur’s photographs of Christmas lights in Iceland. The title refers to the general lack of naturally growing fruit in Iceland, and raises awareness of the intimacy that the action of putting on Christmas lights once carried with it. Nowadays often covering whole trees or areas with Christmas lights, people are slowly forgetting about the deeply personal aspect of the action itself—of creating beauty for oneself and for one’s neighbours.

A third awakening of Haraldur’s artistic being came to him through a constant companion while falling asleep. From his bedroom, he could see an airplane landing signal: a hypnotic, rotating light of white and green, which for him was “a visual lullaby.” It’s an example of another notion in his work: the divide between private and public, and the personal space of the bedroom and the officiality of the lights outside, as seen in the blinds piece.

Building as body

The fourth and final trigger that completes his “fascinating years of adolescence” came during a family trip to Spain. They visited ancient temples that were dark and mysterious spaces. “If you would drop a coin, it would echo throughout the whole temple,” says Haraldur. For him, it was like entering a mindblowing piece of architecture and a sound installation at the same time, and awakened his body and perception for many years to come.

“I wanted to activate the house as a body, just like the pieces in the show trigger different notions.”

“A building is a state of mind, and architecture is a conditioning thing,” he says. “It’s very aggressive in a way, how it controls your movement. I wanted to activate the house as a body, just like the pieces in the show trigger different notions.”

Living distillation

Haraldur sees “Spectrum” as more of a living distillation of his development, thinking and process than a simple inventory of artworks. “I wanted to leave space for the spectator to navigate freely through the different elements,” he explains. “You’re in a kind of landscape where you can go from one place to another and always experience different things.”

One of the key pieces in the show can be found on the toilet—without giving away too much, it’s a variation of a sound piece first experienced outside the museum. It unites sound with the other senses to create something both minimalistic and monumental—just like those Spanish temples.

“Dark Lamp” is another example that unites the spectrum of Haraldur’s inspirations. The viewer enters a pitch black cabin and hears a voice reading out different colours, like in a weather forecast. The mind immediately starts to imagine the colours, being deprived of all other visual stimulation, provoked into action by words alone.

Visualising emotions

Alongside these works touching on body, perception and language, emotions are the final piece of the puzzle that unites in Haraldur’s output. As well as the “Emotional Wallpaper” tunnel piece, one can find various works related to emotions in the exhibition.

There are the so-called “Emograms,” which are mappings of emotions that Haraldur made instinctively and immediately. There is also the “Emotional Ladder,” which resembles a normal ladder, only that the steps are made of black rubber bands (it would collapse almost immediately were you to try to climb it). Another piece is “Impressions,” a video of Haraldur slowly changing his facial expression, effectively showing the range of emotions that can be expressed physically.

Moulding space

“Spectrum” would not be a truthful representation of the breadth of Haraldur’s work without performances. Yet another aspect of the show will be revealed through regular performances, called “Moulds,” that take place on one Saturday each month from November to January. Not only are these performances art pieces in their own right, but they also make Haraldur’s other works appear in a new light.

The area reserved for “Moulds” contains a projected slideshow of photographs from the performances that have already taken place. In one of them, Haraldur whispered a colour into the ear of each guest, who then had to whisper it to the next one, and so on, in an adapted game of telephone. The last person had to say the final result out loud—and a square of the resulting orange-ish colour was painted onto a wall of the gallery. “I love performances,” says Haraldur. “Life itself is a performance.”

Milestone as moment

Taken as a whole, Haraldur’s “Spectrum” is a loving ode to existence, from the womb and the first steps of social interaction, through development, physicality, complex emotions, language and perception itself. His practise thoughtfully examines every aspect of personhood, and this expansive approach is reflected in a diverse and multiplicitous collection of works.

Even so, Haraldur’s curiosity remains undimmed. Ever fascinated by meaningful minutiae, the sharp-witted creative alchemy of “Spectrum” makes keenly observed details seem universal and monumental. But for the artist, the grand milestone of this retrospective is just another moment. “I’m neither looking forward to the past, nor missing the future,” he finishes, as I leave with a newly enriched sense of the spectrum of life.

Haraldur’s “Spectrum” is on show at Kjarvalsstaðir until January 27th 2019. Follow Haraldur on Instagram here and visit his website here.

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