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Icelandic artist and musician Jónsi is riding a big wave to Seattle. No, not a literal wave, but a figurative one composed of sound, scents, and images.
Though best known as the singer and guitarist for his post-rock band Sigur Rós, Jónsi also has a robust visual art practice. He pulls from his interest in perfumery and music to create installations that engage multiple senses—sight, sound, smell—and he’s making his US museum debut this spring at the National Nordic Museum in Ballard with FLÓÐ (Flood), a site-specific installation that will plunge you into the depths of the ocean.
Meditating on climate change and the relationship between Seattle and Reykjavik—sister cities since 1986—the installation will simulate the experience of a wave moving across the gallery. Choral music and field recordings will play in the background as fog and the scent of seaweed—harvested from the North Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and distilled into a tincture by Jónsi himself—disperse through the space. I’d expect nothing less from an artist known for his sad, angelic vocal style.
“What really drew me to [Jónsi’s art] was his ability to create a multisensory—almost synesthetic—experience through his works,” said the National Nordic Museum’s Leslie Ann Anderson, director of collections, exhibitions, and programs who curated FLÓÐ. “It’s work that is contemporary, it addresses very important subject matter, it’s cutting edge, but it’s also very accessible. I love that you could enter this exhibition and immediately—equipped with no information—understand you’re being transported to a place.”
Weeks before Jónsi was set to come to town to debut his installation, I called him up to get the lowdown on his burgeoning art career, the connection between Reykjavik and Seattle, and the big wave that will kill us all.
You’ve had a long, illustrious career as a musician. What spurred you to dip your toes into the art world?
I’ve just been surrounded by artists all my life. Iceland is a tiny community full of musicians and artists. So if I wouldn’t have done music, I would have probably been doing some art stuff. The only thing I could do in school was painting and drawing. Then slowly music took over, but now I’m kind of dipping my toe into that [art] pool.
From what I’ve been reading about your work, sound is a real throughline in the art you make. How did your work as a musician influence your work as a visual artist?
I guess a lot. It’s a different space. [As a musician], you’re used to playing concert venues and big arenas, so it’s kind of interesting to take music and dissect it. With a gallery space, you can do what you want and really control the sound. Because with shows, you’re usually in and out of different venues, but [with galleries] you have a space for a few months and you can design it however you want. I’m also into spatialization of sound, where you have a lot of speakers in different places in the room, so you can get this surround sound kind of thing. I’m really into that at the moment.
There’s this beautiful combination of natural and unnatural in a lot of your pieces. Where do you draw inspiration from?
From nature. Nature is just always the perfect art form. There’s not many false moves in nature. I take a lot of inspiration from that if I’m doing something sculptural. It comes from some geometric natural shape or flowers or some kind of natural formation.
In addition to your career as a musician and visual artist, you’ve also launched a career in perfumery. What kicked off that interest?
The more people I talk to about perfumery and scent, I feel like everybody is kind of obsessed with it, but it’s very hard to get access to and know where to start, how to do it. Everything seems so complicated. I mean, for me, I started maybe over 10 years ago with essential oils then slowly got into aroma molecules. You can really do detailed stuff with that. I have been kind of obsessed with it all my life, but for the last 10 years, I’ve been doing a deep dive into scents or creating perfumes or scents for exhibitions and stuff like that.
My shows usually have a scent aspect to them. I’m trying to trigger a lot of senses in people. You have music or some soundscape for your ears, something to look at with your eyes, then something to smell with your nose. I love triggering as many senses as possible, so if you come into the gallery space, you have something to be moved by.
FLÓÐ (Flood) at the National Nordic Museum is site-specific to the museum. I know you’re still in the middle of fabricating everything, but what’s the concept behind the show?
I’m still making it, as you mentioned, but I think the main inspiration is probably the big wave. Everybody on social media and Instagram is scrolling and you see all this news of natural disasters, wildfires, floods, crazy climate change, change in weather systems, and stuff like that. So I think my thing now is the big wave and how we’re all gonna die and everything is gonna flood.
I know. Exactly. [Laughs] So we have to create some ark together... no. It’s gonna be a sound installation with probably 30 or 40 speakers around the room based on the big wave. I’ve never been to Iceland. How do you see Seattle and Reykjavik in relation to one another? I was talking to Leslie [Ann Anderson] at the Nordic Museum, she was telling me that Seattle and Reykjavik are sister cities. I hadn’t even thought about that, but I guess they are pretty connected: rain, depression, grayness… and all the good, creative energy that comes from that. You have to be inside a lot and create something to be happy. And also just the ocean, the fisheries, boats, and stuff like that.
And there’s going to be a scent piece that is pulled from both Seattle and Reykjavik, right? What are the throughlines between those two cities and smells?
It’s basically just the ocean. I wanna do some kind of seaweedy apocalyptic smell. [Laughs] It doesn’t sound pleasant, but I haven’t done it yet.
Experience FLÓÐ (Flood) March 17 through July 30 at the National Nordic Museum.