Sonic Austerities

There are occasionally times when the system of national representation in the pavilions at Venice works surprisingly well, and this is one of those times. Finnbogi Pétursson is, for good reason, one of the most acclaimed contemporary Icelandic artists, at a time of considerable vitality for Icelandicartists altogether (a time when the diverse work being produced in Iceland, and by Icelandic artists living abroad, is increasingly attracting broad attention, which historically has by no means been the case.) Since he began exhibiting in the early 1980s, Pétursson has developed an intelligent, eccentric, and poetically lively body of work centering on combinations of sound, sculpture, and architecture-exactly what one finds here, with his architectural sculpture housing the so-called Diabolus tone, and more on this in a minute. The most fundamental thing to know about this artist is that sound is his primary vehicle, however not at all in the sense of music, spoken text, noise, ambient tones, or anything else that he composes or arranges. Rather, Pétursson works with sound pared down to its essence, namely single
repetitive tones, at a precise megahertz, which when emitted at different intervals from loudspeakers on the wall, floor, or attached to columns make what Pétursson likes to call "drawings" or "sculptures" in the air: forms consisting not of visible marks but of invisible sound waves. If you could see sound, the way it moves in various waves, the austere yet dazzling shapes that it makes, you would be able to see Pétursson's sculptures. Of course, this can't happen, or rather it usually can't happen. For a wonderful early work, Pétursson literally made sound visible by dangling a loudspeaker over an indoors floor covered with water, like a shallow pool ("Hringur / Circle", 1991). As the frequency moved from 0 to 200 hertz, vibrating sound from the loudspeaker made small circular ripples on the water, which were in turn
reflected on the wall. Here, you could "see" sound, its amazing and intricate patterns, and throughout Pétursson's work the invisible, namely sound waves, becomes concrete and super-present, in no matter how subtle a way. Normally, however, as you listen to Pétursson's sonic drawings or sculptures you don't see things this way but instead build up an image of what is occurring in your mind.

Still, this doesn't mean that there's nothing to look at, for Finnbogi Pétursson excels at giving his sound works a distinctly visual cast. Even though his primary medium is sound, Pétursson has, through the years, demonstrated a marked ability to fuse the physical and the ineffable, physical sculpture and pure sound, oftentimes through nothing more than the geometric arrangement of loudspeakers and wires, and his constructions tend to be gorgeous, with an austere yet vivid beauty. Consider, for instance, his piece "Corner" installed in a corner of a room on two adjacent walls. 16 small loudspeakers in total, in 2 facing X-shaped patterns of 8 loudspeakers, form a striking Minimalist-inflected wall sculpture on their own. Each mini-speaker emits sequences of identical tones, namely static white noise culled from an FM receiver. From a distance, all that you hear is a slight tick-tick-ticking that's easy to miss-this is a particularly humble and unassuming sound piece. Yet when you stand in the corner, really listening, you gradually get the whole effect, which is weird, enticing, mathematical, lovely, and more than a little
hypnotic. Two parallel circular fields slowly assemble, slide toward one another, revolve in unison, and then, in Pétursson's terms, "explode into an abstract chaos when they go out of phase." As a viewer/ listener, you really feel that you are standing in the midst of, and physically experiencing, a complex (yet intangible and invisible) sculpture which constantly shifts between order and chaos.

Pétursson comes from a very contemporary, digitized world of electronic sound, electrical engineering, and computer programs, and he has worked extensively on different projects and environments with the noted Icelandic software firm OZ. For all the technical expertise that goes into his work, however, it also has an aura of mystery and psychological transportation, as he channels primal, decidedly non-human things into his work: "pure" sound, "pure" tones, and not sound worked up into any kind of composed or
arranged music. For "Schumann ómurinn / Schumann Resonance", 1999, a work in dialogue with wall works made of actual lava chips by Ragna Róbertsdóttir, another noted Icelandic artist, vibrating metal panels at either end of the gallery sent out sound waves that mixed in the middle of the room to yield the so-called Schumann resonance-the ultralow frequency that characterizes the space between the earth's surface and the ionosphere. As you stood in the room, you were listening, quite literally, to the primal hum of the world between earth and sky, technologically duplicated, of course, but at the exact megahertz, and in any event a sound that under normal conditions one would not be able to hear.

Probably there are a lot of sources for Pétursson's work, and probably one of those sources is Iceland itself. When you go up to the high, volcanic regions, for instance around the great volcanoes Hekla or Katla, you can listen deeply into a silence so supreme that it seems to be unearthly. At the same time, you are aware that beneath you, deep in the earth, there is tremendous sound going on, and that periodically the forces generating it rise up to dramatically rearrange the entire landscape. It's not that Pétursson is making works about that sound, or works overtly dealing with Icelandic landscape and geology. But at the same time, there is a great deal in his work that suggests a marked openness to the kind of elemental, vast, world-shaping powers that are so prevalent in Iceland, which can also have such a pronounced psychological impact, as anyone who lives there, or who has visited there, can readily attest. Ultimately, there is something very meditative, poetic, and perhaps even spiritual, about Pétursson's sound works, which is one reason why they are so compelling.

For his exhibition in Venice, Pétursson has constructed a tunnel-like structure bisecting the Icelandic pavilion. Pétursson's 16 meter long structure, which juts out of the building, and then tapers at its end to contain a homemade organ pipe built by the artist, functions as a home for the Diabolus tone, which in medieval times was banned by the Catholic Church, for a variety of reason. The Diabolus tone is formed by the intersection of two separate tones, one measuring 61.8hz, here produced by a loudspeaker reverberating under and in the organ pipe, and the other measuring 44.7hz, produced by an air pump intermittently blowing through the pipe. Together the two tones form a heavy interference wave of 17hz-the Diabolus. Mixing medieval methodology and up to date electronic technology, Pétursson's work
conflates past and present, and his tunnel becomes a kind of time chamber, a conduit between the centuries. Importantly, Pétursson has constructed his tunnel in such a way that it is essentially a private experience for the viewer/listener. In a crowded place, you are not in a crowd at all but instead alone with this haunting sound which comes with a very powerful cultural history. This, by the way, is a characteristic of much of Pétursson's art. His works don't leap out at you, or blare out at you, but instead invite patient and intimate encounters.

I'm hardly the person to delve into precisely why the Diabolus tone was censored and banned, or into its role in the history of musical composition, but the name certainly tips one off: it was understood that there was something devilish, diabolical, and disordering about this particular dark tone. In any event, what especially interests Pétursson, in addition to the actual sonic qualities of the tone, is the fact that a mere tone could be so subjected to ecclesiastical and state power, moral posturing, manipulation, and
censorship. And so, via his self-made mixture of old and new technologies, an organ and an electronic loudspeaker, Pétursson has reproduced that oncebanned sound and made it exceptionally prominent. More implicitly, what also factors into Pétursson's work is an investigation of, and opposition to, other forms of censorship, whatever their ilk, and especially censorship of creative tools or ideas. Of course there is also something hilarious about Pétursson traveling to Italy, the seat of the Catholic Church, to uncensor, as it were, a formerly censored thing. In a way, he is setting the record straight,personally rectifying one of many instances when state or church power proved to be heavy-handed and prohibitive.

In the meantime, this work reveals how the various components of Finnbogi Pétursson's art all fit together seamlessly. Sound, obviously, is crucial; it's the main material here. These particular sounds are also a prime example of how Pétursson constructs his invisible drawings or sculptures in space, for if you could see the two tones here as wave patterns, you would see how they travel separately, only to intersect at a couple of points, and those are precisely the points where you hear the Diabolus tone. Equally crucial is the tunnel, as a cross between sculpture and architecture; it effectively serves as a conflation of voyaging and restriction, outside and inside, public and private, plenitude and emptiness. Part pure physics, and part evocative poetics, and always with his blend of the sensual and cerebral, Finnbogi Pétursson's sonic austerities-of which this piece is a good example-constitute a highly unorthodox, yet highly compelling, kind of sculpture which literally traffics in essential elements: space and time, the motion of sound waves, energy, geometry, frequencies. In this case, Pétursson's elements also come with profound cultural implications, centering on issues of censorship and freedom.

- Gregory Volk, 2001