“The title of the exhibition is ‘Unseen Fields’, which is a direct reference to places, spaces or things that I seek as a resource,” explains Sigurður Guðjónsson of his newest exhibition at Berg Contemporary, which includes two of his pieces ‘Fluorescent’ and ‘Enigma.’ Known for his immersion into machinery and otherworldly audio-visual works, the artist will soon represent Iceland at the 2022 Venice Biennale. “These are not invisible places, rather places that we come across in our daily lives, but we pay them no mind,” he continues. “Still they lurk in the back.“
“I like to look at technology in a poetic way,” Sigurður relays simply, when asked about the ethos behind his work. He speaks quietly and with great reverence, as if afraid of disturbing his own rumbling videos—the aforementioned ‘Fluorescent’—which project around him in the Berg gallery. “I’ve always been curious about the inner workings and parts of things,” he continues. “And since 2010, I’ve been experimenting with machines and tools in conjunction with more lateral elements.”
In the past, Sigurður explains, these machines and tools have included now-archaic innovations such as slide projectors, cassette decks and those combo radio/television units, which were each considered the height of technology at one point or another. All of these, Sigurður dismantled to their cores to capture the everyday minutia typically associated with the object.
“One of my main starting points is that I want to create a world that the viewer is able to travel through, rather than creating a singular object or memorabilia,” he says.
No mercury here
In ‘Fluorescent’, Sigurður dove into, as you might guess, fluorescent lights.
The work contains a two-channel video and sound piece that is projected onto opposing walls. Perfectly circular, each spiralling video shows a hypnotising and methodical sequence that almost resembles sand or a kaleidoscope. It’s eerily meditative and with soft droning in the background, it’s a piece you could easily stand in front of for aeons, gazing into its tantalising void.
In reality though, it’s footage from inside a fluorescent lamp taken by a macro lens.
“It‘s magical and mesmerising to look into the glass tube where the luminescent material becomes visible through the movement as it flows and forms a kind of vortex,” he explains. “I thought the work fit extremely well with this space and it can be said that the length of the space points to the bulb itself.” He’s referring to the expansive rectangular area occupied by the opposing videos. In fact, for ’Unseen Fields’, it seems Berg Contemporary has truly become somewhat of its own kind of fluorescent lamp—sans the phosphorus or mercury, of course.
The low humming sound that accompanies the video, he reveals, is merely the signal from the lamp, which he captured using a special magnet recorder and fiddled with in audio programs.
“I have talked about this installation as a visual-sound work, because the feeling in the work is, in a certain way, that you can hear sound through the world of images. I then tried to shape the world of sound so that it fits in with the works themselves and the exhibition space so that it becomes almost intertwined.”
“I’m always thinking through sound,” he concludes, pausing to let the purr of the installation sink in. “Even if it’s still, I experience motion.”
Magnifying hidden things
Along with ‘Fluorescent’ is ‘Enigma’, another mystical video piece that, at first glance, might resemble a flickering lava field. But it takes just a moment for the viewer to realise that the picture is far more jagged and dark than any place in Iceland could be. To put it concisely, ‘Enigma’ does not seem to be of this Earth. No, it occupies an alien landscape, full of sharp falls and pulsing tephra bubbling around like the most terrifying places in the deepest outposts of space.
But, as Sigurður explains, the work is actually but a fragment of charcoal filmed with an electron microscope, which magnifies the texture up to one million times its size.
“In ‘Enigma’, we get deeper into the idea of material. The electron microscope scans the black charcoal inside a vacuum, inside a totally vacant space,” he states, pointing to the tiny crevasses in the rocks. “Then I put that into the computer and played with it. And from there the poetry comes. When you create an emotion and focus that from one site to another, then you experience it in a different way.”
For Sigurður, it’s the quantum texture of the carbon that grabs him most. “The space inside the material,” he says, nodding. “I experience it both visually and through sounds.”
‘Fluorescent’ and ‘Enigma’ have a common thread in how they approach documenting the peculiarities or specificities of an object. Moreover, what way best showcases the uniqueness of said object. Sigurður consciously chose to present the components of the lamp that—for it to be practical—must remain hidden. Likewise, he displays charcoal, which is but wood removed of all its constituents but carbon, in a way that the human eye could never regard it.
“The title ‘Enigma’ is a reference to the unspoken something that is not so easy to put into words,” he says. “And with the title ‘Unseen Fields’, I’m quoting the space I’m taking the source from, the visual source. It’s not invisible space, it’s just hidden inside things.”
The next machine
Unfortunately, Sigurður can’t divulge just exactly what he has planned for the Venice Biennale—it’s a secret—but he can say it’s a large scale video sound installation. Notably, he’ll be located in Arsenale, the main exhibition space, working in collaboration with the Icelandic Art Center and curator Monica Bello, who is the Head of Arts at CERN. Through his work with Monica, he was actually granted access to the facility.
“It was amazing—going 100 metres down into the Earth to see some monster machines,” Sigurður raves. It’s a place that one can imagine is artistically just up his alley—or perhaps, his particle accelerator. “Of course, it’s super interesting what they are doing. But for me, everything is very visual there.”
Since the Biennale was postponed for a year, Sigurður has even more time to examine whichever machine or piece of matter lies at the centre of his Venice work. And it’s here that Sigurður sees the silver lining in the delay. “This experimental process is so important. When you get to play with a material and find out how it speaks to you,” he says smiling.
“I’m very curious to see where it goes. In the process of a project like this, there’s so many things that happen,” he concludes. “This is something you cannot foresee.”
Alas—another unseen field.
‘Unseen Fields’ by Sigurður Guðjónsson will show at Berg Contemporary until June 5th, 2021.
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