Between Sound and Vision

In a time when the art and culture of Iceland holds considerable international appeal, Finnbogi Pétursson has emerged as one of that country's most respected and acclaimed contemporary artists. With a practice that spans more than 20 years, Pétursson has earned a solid reputation as an innovative artist whose work defies convention and easy categorization.

While the landscape of Iceland is not explicitly represented, Pétursson's experience of being born and raised in that country has clearly influenced his psychology and can be strongly felt in his work. The harshness, austerity and stark beauty of this extreme northern clime; the rumble and roar of the inner earth as felt on this volcanic island; the extended periods of darkness and light- all contribute to the aesthetic, conceptual and experiential dimensions of this artist's work. It should come as no surprise, then, that his first solo exhibition in North America is being held in Canada, a country that shares Iceland's northern perspective. This exhibition has been conceived in two parts: the first provides a window on the artist's previous work through the presentation of Sphere at Prefix Institute of Contemporary Art, while the second offers insight into the artist's creative process with a new site-specific installation for InterAccess Electronic Media Arts Centre.
Finnbogi Pétursson's primary medium is sound. Or, more specifically, unconstructed sound. Sound that is neither organized like music nor unorganized like noise. Sound that is, in a sense, pure.

While Pétursson is extremely technologically adept, he is not interested in technology for technology's sake. Rather, he uses his knowledge and skills in the service of creation and communication. His artistic practice combines 21st-century savvy with an appreciation of the elemental in an attempt to generate a transformative effect. As he has stated, "I am always trying to capture phenomena, such as sound, water, fire, shadow and light, and channel them along new grooves, turn them into something other than what they are. These are phenomena that you feel and think about, but never see."

In Sphere, as in many of his other works, Pétursson works with the sine wave, an elementary form of sound that bears a distinct relationship to traditional Icelandic singing. Here, sine waves within a frequency range of 50 to 60 Hz are channelled into a large, clear bowl of water, creating reverberations on the water's surface. Light is then projected from beneath the water onto the ceiling, creating an undulating orb of light. As the sound modulates, the patterns of the projection fluctuate and evolve. Mesmerizing, hypnotic and unearthly in its beauty, this dynamic installation evokes the primal nature of sound within a dazzling display of shadow and light.

For his new site-specific installation, Pétursson has responded to the frequency of the exhibition space. TitledTraps this work consists of five black, rectangular, wall-mounted sculptures, each of which is composed of two individual segments. Each sculpture responds to a certain frequency in the room. While the overall dimensions of these sculptures are identical, the dimensions of the two segments that make up each sculpture vary. Between each of the two segments lies a narrow gap. Viewers discover that, by pressing their ears against the gaps, they perceive a barely audible tone similar to that gleaned from a seashell. Although the sculptures appear to be silent and minimal, the viewers' interactions with them yield subtle sound rewards.

In Pétursson's work, the ancient and the contemporary, the material and the invisible, the elemental and the technological, co-exist. Writer Gunnar Arnason, drawing on the writings of Aristotle, has contextualized this work by stating that human beings perceive some qualities of objects with specific sense organs, while others are common to all of the senses. Our ability to perceive qualities not attributable to a specific sense transcends mere sensory experience and is considered a "faculty of the soul." Arnason then asks, "Could it be that Pétursson is directing our attention to perceptual qualities that do not belong specifically either to visual or aural perception?"

It is a testament to Finnbogi Pétursson's creativity and ingenuity that, in Sphere, he uses sound as a tool to generate a visual artwork, while in Traps, he creates a sound work that is readily perceived as visual art. Not quite what they appear to be, these works challenge our perceptions by charting the terrain between sound and vision.

- Scott McLeod, 2006