Thursday, November 10, 2016

Earwitness: Looking at Sound with Finnbogi Pétursson

Sphere, by Finnbogi Pétursson, 2003, (Photo taken at Wood Street Galleries, Pittsburgh)

“One can look at seeing, one cannot listen to hearing.”  – Marcel Duchamp

What do we mean when we characterize  Finnbogi Pétursson as an artist who captures the shape of time? First and foremost, that he draws with it as a raw material within his medium, that of sculptural installation utilizing mixed media, and predominantly focused on the frozen music of pure sound as it colonizes pure space. By “drawing” with sound through projections of its pure activity as a sine wave, he modifies the space in and around his pieces in subtle yet dramatic ways that clearly chart the trajectories of time through the experiences of light, shadow and silence.

Petursson reveals the shape of time in a manner remarkably similar to the musical compositions of Morton Feldman, even though he is not approaching his subject or theme from a strictly musical perspective but rather through one that engages us in the phenomenology of our perceptions.

Strictly speaking, he is most concerned with the architecture of perception itself, especially that of the threshold where sound comes from and disappears back to, and from where light invades darkness before retreating into itself again. Silence and darkness, light and sound, are the four principal elements with which he is choreographing his beautifully compelling sculptures.

It’s not very often that one gets a chance to say that an artistic presence with the stature of Marcel Duchamp, at whose shrine I regularly offer the aesthetic adoration he truly does deserve, is wrong or misguided. But here is just such a rare opportunity. The artist who taught us how to “look at seeing,” by looking through rather than merely at his subtle objects, surprised me when I encountered his claim (quoted above) about looking and listening, especially considering that one would expect a keen intellect and heart such as his to be able to shift easily to a parallel medium and explore similar ideas or effects within it.

But Duchamp was well known not to have a strong interest in music per se, even though his Musical Erratum, from 1913, was one of the seminal monuments to chance operations in the previous century, and he was known to follow no musical innovations in particular, apart from the later phase of his life when he was encountered by such musical titans as John Cage. So it struck me as doubly ironic that someone of his obvious powers would declare that one cannot “listen to hearing.”

But then again, he hadn’t yet had the opportunity to view, listen to and experience the highly imaginative mixed media provocations of one of the artists whose work he himself might have made possible as a progenitor: the Icelandic interdisciplinary sound-sculptor, Finnbogi (pronounced "Fin-buoy") Pétursson.

This 55-year-old artist was born in Reykjavik, and he represented Iceland at the 2001 Venice Biennale, but he may just as well have been representing Neptune, so subtle, thought-provoking and utterly original are his diverse works exploring the borderline realms of sound, sight and physical proportion.

He not only allows us to look at seeing, as well as listen to hearing; he most crucially and effectively allows us to hear seeing and to look at sound. That is what makes him more than just your average interdisciplinary, postmodern and drastically mixed-media artist, no matter how gifted: his territory is one that operates on a liminal level, at the interstitial zone “in between” the five senses and their objects. His installations are a kind of spectral evidence that charts the trajectory of time by tracing the effects of sound on space.

Umbra, by Finnbogi Pétursson.

His elegantly haunting works – which Gregory Volk once astutely referred to as “part physics and part poetics” – are environmental envelopes of subtle yet powerful sensations. They are therefore capable of providing access to a realm which might otherwise be inaccessible to us: the invisible realm where contradiction ceases to be opposition.

That realm is one I can only refer to as the fourth dimension, and I suggest that all his artworks, as well as the aesthetic philosophy and physical science that inform them, are four-dimensional in nature. They have more to do with the mechanics of time and duration than with the customary physical processes of illusory permanence usually celebrated by sculptural objects.

Iceland is a mysterious and unknown place to most of us. Rekjavik? Apart from the fact that Bobby Fischer defeated Boris Spassky there in the early 70’s, and that Bjork’s apocalyptic pop music was born there in the 90’s, it is a strange and exotic locale indeed. And yet something in its Nordic fabric has also produced a very gifted and deeply moving artist whose whole enterprise seems founded on showing us the invisible, and to letting us listen to the songs of the unseen.

In 1950, Louis Goldstein observed that Feldman “came to think of the essence of sound as a moldable phenomenon in and of itself, and separate from the other elements of music, such as pitch and rhythm. In his mind, sound, with its density and timbre, could have its own shape, design and poetic metaphor.”

This concept of sound “separated from the other elements” is the point of departure for all of Petrusson’s highly expressive and exquisitely crafted aural objects. The ongoing aim of these works is, like Feldman’s sonic environments, to project sounds into time, free from compositional rhetoric, except that Pétursson often projects sounds literally through time and at objects, be they a solid concrete wall or a fragile bowl of shimmering water. The resulting collisions are what form the basis for his elegant works.

Those afflicted with chronophobia, the fear of the passage of time, will find his works both compelling and unsettling, since they are literally earwitness reports on the temporal territory, contained within concise and sophisticated theatrical stages created exclusively for the representation of the fourth dimension.

In each of his progressively more intricate and subtle installations, he is exploring sound’s own shape, design and its essence as a poetic metaphor. Goldstein has also remarked presciently, “With all the attention placed on the liberation of sound in 20th Century music, a more profound and far-reaching liberation has sometimes been ignored: the liberation of time.” That notion is a key to the temporal landscapes produced by Pétursson in his rigorous practice.

Wind-drawing, 1999, by Finnbogi Pétursson.
Just as advanced visual artists have moved beyond the idea of the object as a subject, hybrid mixed-media artists such as Pétursson are moving toward treating time, by using sound as an object. The results are both intellectually challenging and endlessly entertaining.

This tendency to focus on the liminal and interstitial is not a new or recent development in his quite mature body of work over the years. As far back as the 1985 installation called Certain Rhythm For Space in the appropriately named Time-Based Arts in Amsterdam, he commenced what appears to be a two-decade love affair with sounds that interact with spaces in a site-specific manner. This method is one which uncovers the compositional process as it was most aptly described by Goldstein on Feldman: the formal and substantive essentializing of all action. This kind of composition essentializes the flow of time.

But Finnbogi Pétursson is not a musician per se, and I don’t agree with the often confining designation of sound-sculptor, preferring to see him instead as an innately gifted visual artist working within site-specific installation formats in order to render the reverie of the invisible dimension that begins where our fingertips end. The frozen music he creates is more akin to the paint that a visual artist like Rothko utilized to strip the sublime of its physicality: both are four-dimensional artists, in my estimation.

For Certain Rhythm In Space, the artist placed an old-fashioned gramophone with no record on it in the middle of the floor, connected to ten loudspeakers surrounding it on the enclosed walls of the space.

Cardboard tubes of varying lengths and widths were placed either above or below the speakers, funneling dramatically different tones back and forth across the room. The gramophone controlled and evened out the rhythmic interval between the modulation control and each successive loudspeaker, sending 24-volt, direct-current tones, coloured by the different tubes, out toward and into the audience.

This was an audience, as one description put it, which was experiencing a flow of rhythms while also being completely unable to locate or relate to their origin. At its most basic level, all rhythm consists of time and change. At its most intriguing level, that of interacting sound waves and brain waves, Pétursson’s work permits us to become part of the rhythmic space rather than merely observing it as spectators. This was also one of the earliest examples of a process which he called “sound drawings.”

For his high-profile debut at the Venice Biennale, Pétursson constructed Diabolus, a rectangular tunnel about 16 meters long which protruded from the Icelandic pavilion and could easily have been mistaken for a hoarding structure until one entered its inviting mouth and discovered tantalizing tones pulling one further into the interior. At the other end, the tunnel narrowed down into a vertigo-inducing 50-centimeter-wide and 2-meter-high square organ pipe. Within it was embedded a low-frequency loudspeaker producing a sequence of tones which triggered the air pump blowing into the organ, which in turn emitted a second tone that mades manifest an interference wave of 17hz, a wave which was referred to as a “diabolus” in ancient music.

This work was clearly an experiment in both the architecture of perceptions, as well as the actual architecture of the physical dimensions and proportions necessary to create that perception. In the Water-Tanks piece from 2005, Water-Earth, he utilized water and light, with a fluctuating 7.8hz interference wave, making for an environmental sculpture of considerable evocative power. As in many of his works, the use of lights and sound is similar in spirit to that of the Californian artists Robert Irwin and James Turrell, both of whom create subtle environments from minute modifications of the atmosphere through scrims and apertures, but his use of sound as his principal medium is quite unique.

Moment, by Finnbogi Pétursson, 2008.

Current (2005) is a powerful concrete wall structure with sound waves bouncing on and off it to produce a low rumble throughout the bleak surrounding landscape. Steel wind, stone and sinus tone are employed to manufacture an experience of viewing which is at once also an experience of the poetics of space, structure, sound and form.

Border (2006) is a subtle series of light beams passing through water atop a columnular wall structure evoking sculptural plinths and pedestals but supporting on its top only a shimmering display of rays. 4hz-11hz waves in succession create a series of different splintered liquid light shadows that produce a drama quite surprising given the work’s deceptive simplicity.

In a piece like Sphere (2006), the sound drawing method is made somewhat more literal by introducing the additional media of light and water in order to visually project the effects of different frequencies of sound on the surface of water as a means of demonstrating ephemeral patterns which are normally undetectable.

While with the 2006 installation Untitled, his intention is even more subtle, working with the silence of perfectly proportioned and wall-mounted black-box sculptures with hollow interiors which, like the echo chamber of a guitar or lute, mirror any ambient sounds produced within the gallery walls themselves.

With perhaps characteristic Icelandic modesty, Finnbogi Pétursson had the ideal response when I asked him about Duchamp’s quote, “One can look at seeing, one cannot listen to hearing": “I’ve been trying to disprove Duchamp all my career but I’m not sure that I will succeed."

I have news for him: he already has. Especially since his upcoming projects include works which further explore the haptic-optic-aural realm in pieces utilizing water, fire, air, steam, sound, electronics and real time. Thus we are able, through his intercession, to witness both seeing and listening in a most alluring and charming manner. One which would have pleased and amused Duchamp, in the most Duchampian sense of the word "amusement."

And perhaps most appropriate of all, his most recent piece in Reykjavik involves a radio station broadcasting silence on FM 106.5. Its important to note that they are not just broadcasting nothing, meaning the raw air space between sounds, voices or music, but rather “silence,” the absence of sound, an empty envelope whose letter has been lost or surrendered.

It is hard to believe it's almost 80 years since the surrealist master André Breton complained, “Painting, photography and sculpture are lamentable expedients in order to express the ineffable, but they will have to do until something better comes along.” Something better has indeed come along, and its name is Finnbogi Pétursson. By crafting diagrams of silence, before and after it is interrupted by sound, he allows each of us to be earwitnesses to time’s invisible unfolding.

– Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the forthcoming book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016) available in November. In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008.

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