HARALDUR JÓNSSON AND US
MEÐ: WITH, OR ALMOST CENTRAL
On winter solstice 2016, Haraldur Jónsson and I slip into conversation at the top of BERG Contemporary, one of Reykjavík’s newest art galleries. As practitioners committed to the poetic, our conversation unspools with an improvised intensity, a performance for an us.
“How to be on the horizon of experience?”
As the afternoon dims, I listen. Haraldur’s mental associations are lightning-fire. Needlepoint. Quick. Incisive. His undivided attention creates an intimate moment tailored to the context and affiliation of the meeting. This is applicable to both his exhibition works and to this moment where we slip into conversation. His questions bely his knowledge that we share mutual interests. He’s speaking from within his life-long research: the emotional space of any us.
“How to start a conversation with your surroundings?”
In 2000, Haraldur installed Chamber Music in Bergen, Norway’s brutalist-designed Grieg Hall Concert Hall. As the rainiest place in Norway averaging 280 precipitous days per year, Haraldur focused on the region as an “emotional space.” On concrete walls, he projected video portraiture of facial expressions of teenagers “a little bit like the weather.” He collected a variety of rain sounds, which acted as sonic architecture for the exhibition. Chamber Music’s opening was attended by Norway’s King Harald and Queen Sonja. As Haraldur met Harald and Sonja, it started to rain inside. From a skaldic poetry tradition emerges the 21st century’s performance poetry:
“How to desire a space?”
Á: ON, OR RIVER
Haraldur describes his creation and development process as intuitive, an abstract carving-down of a work to expose it. For Haraldur, architecture is a state of mind, but architecture also governs our movements. A house is a mood, but it’s also a body. He relies on these configurations to engender a creative process that is intuitive as it carves down the theoretical and material work to reveal its make-public form.
BERG Contemporary’s gallery space wasn’t yet finalized when Haraldur was approached as one of the debut artist whose new work would establish an aura for the rooms. The gallery intended their new institution as a traditional “white cube” for the Icelandic public to enter. Such a white cube would no doubt signify a space of art, but also a space of commerce. A mood, a body. The unfinished gallery contributed to how Haraldur commenced the Leiðsla / Channel works.
How might he break open the white cube to show the wound with which traditional exhibition space is inflicted, and how might his exhibition’s public opening then correlate to a medical operation? Haraldur’s 1998 exhibition In the Skin for Reykjavík’s Living Art Museum foregrounded post-humanism, so gripped by gender, cyborg, mutation, and HIV. His artwork “Bloodmining” featured a gallery space reversioned as health clinic, where visitors’ blood could be taken with needle and syringe, then returned in a vial as a souvenir of one’s self. “Blood is concentrated,” Haraldur posits. “Material. Evidence of having the experience.”
Haraldur’s works continue to be penetrative and extractive, sublimating the hidden knowledges of routine experience. Exhibition visitors unwittingly become midwives (Icelandic: ljósmóðir, translated literally as lightmothers). Indeed, Leiðsla / Channel runs through the darkest period of the year, with just four hours for the sun to crest the horizon in December. Lightmothers needed to attend the darkness, the opening. The white cube doubles as a clinic again within Haraldur’s context, a cube or clinic isolated from the outer world and yet so far inside the world, it’s otherworldly in its crisp, pristine light. The white cube triples as lightmother. A room is a body.
NIÐUR: DOWN, OR A BUZZING IN THE EARS
Leiðsla / Channel proposes the collusion of gallery space with visitor as a channel, a ritual, an ecstacy. Translated to English, Leiðsla / Channel signifies simultaneously as trance, guide for a journey, initiation, metal pipe for brackets or moulds, cable, the way, and the path. For the exhibition’s opening, Haraldur considers how to manifest these correlative definitions into materials, obviated through performance. The stage is first beset with several mixed-media works, what he types a “phenomenological wunderkammer” for the gallery visitor.
Berg Contemporary’s doorway is wide. To its left upon entering, visitors might notice that a second doorway (opening to a private upstairs) is half as wide as the gallery’s entryway. Beside that, Jónsson’s first curiosity: “Niður.” This work is a gap, an opening just wide enough for one body to pass through if only it weren’t felt. Felt as in emotionally resonant but also literally fabric. “Niður” becomes an invitation, a metaphoric felt doorway, a possibility of if only a door within the white cube. How to open, and why, and where.
Opposite the gallery’s doorway, two large and clear plexiglass forms suspend mid-air, mounted on wall pegs. The plexiglass installation of “Mið” bends into familiar yet indistinct forms, tentative in their touching. My form is reflected in their forms. This gentle mirroring foregrounds the coming curiosities placed throughout Haraldur’s exhibition.
VIÐ HLIÐINA Á: BESIDE, OR WE THE HILLS RIVER
“Language is incomprehensible animism,” Haraldur suggests, “something perceived but not understood.” Language looms as an entity with which to merge. We attempt to merge with the Icelandic word skilja to consider its inhabited contexts, its enactive imponderabilia. To do this, we touch on words that house skil.
skil: division, boundary
skila: to give back or return
skilja: to understand, to divorce, to separate
skilningarvit: sense organs
skilningstré: tree of knowledge
We roll the Icelandic words in our mouths, puzzle over imagined etymologies. So many definitions suggest belief in truth, understanding, and rupture. To test belief and to enact rupture for the opening at Berg Contemporary, Haraldur randomly selects an audience member, using the selection tactics of a child’s pointing game, who will participate with him in performance. The performance is one without language. Belief. Rupture. At the opening, Haraldur selects four gallery visitors and counts “eeny meeny miny moe” until the selection game lands on his sister.
Haraldur drapes a red blanket over his sister, and to her he offers his arm which she holds. They walk through the gallery, austere and slowly. Who leads who? They walk the space as though the indicator moving around the gallery is on a Ouija board, spirit-glass. Unsure who leads who. The audience architects physical and sonic space for the procession, a quieting improvisation of assembly. Incision. The crowd gapes, gaps, wounding.
Under the blanket, his sister is the performer who cannot be seen. Hers is a sensorial performance through touch. She takes direction from her guide through touch of her arm and the ground beneath her feet. Light touches. Firma. As her confidence emboldens, he loosens his contact. “Hands,” for Haraldur,” “are the second face.” Face and hands gesture. Sister and brother glide through interior and exterior, enacting the subtility of their communicative dance. “Language and fire are invented at the same moment.”
INN Í: INTO, OR THE OF
Valur Brynjar Antonsson and I lean against a wall, our heads bobbing dangerously close to the hung work “Channel”—seven drawings, pencil on paper, conduits for imagining movement through a space. Valur wrote the catalogue copy for Leiðsla / Channel, but we do not discuss this. Instead, we survey our personal lives through psychotherapeutic narratives of mourning and fatherhood, oddly private subjects to leak from our bodies in the bright lights, video camera, and crowded opening of Haraldur’s exhibition. And yet, this familiarity of subject, this moment of disclosure, amplifies the medical precision of the art opening.
The sound of the artworld, the gathering, elicits a murmur reminiscent of Norwegian rain. A curious room. Leaving the gallery space together, Haraldur and his sister navigate the immediate streets. The murmur falls away, its affective rain a prologue to an ear-cleaning walk at dusk on the streets of downtown Reykjavík. A cameraman documents their journey into twilight.
A man walks with his sister. She is veiled. A protection. A lead. Executioner or will he give her away in marriage.
Outside the gallery, they stand with dwarf birch. The artist looks into the eye of the video camera fleetingly.
Outside the gallery, they stand with a fence. Maybe they consider it. At least they do not breach it.
Outside the gallery, lamps in windows in a stark concrete autumn twilight.
Outside, cars purr.
Outside, the blue screen of the sky. Video-projector blue.
Outside, an arrow points to the sky but the couple passes without acknowledging.
Outside, she handles the metal pipe of the railing. Leiðsla means metal pipe. She handles a way.
Outside, she handles another way with her palms pressed to a car.
Outside, any walk could be a rite.
Outside, his hand grips her arm through the blanket. Their game is silence. Solemn.
Outside: Lindargata. The trees are a way. The street is a way.
Outside, more-than-language language points to numerous paths. Navigation is demarked on dark maps.
Outside, she rings a bike bell.
Outside: Gjaldskylda. P2.
Outside, many follow the couple.
Outside, they hear the hum of the opened gallery. A blood gush of murmur pours through the door. They insert themselves.
When they return to the point of departure, the gallery opens its crowd to insert Haraldur and his sister into its folds. Haraldur suddenly pulls the blanket off his sister, as a Polaroid snaps the exact moment her face is exposed. Haraldur describes this gesture as documenting the wound, the opening that ruptures the new known experience beneath the blanket. “The moment when the veil is removed, we see the second veil,” Haraldur insists, “the flesh. To see the face as a wound, naked, its truth—just an instant, then it’s gone. And the silence of the child a moment before, it screams in its silencing.”
The white cube is rendered as black box through inserting the theatrical into a gallery space. A wedding, an execution, an apparition. For attendees to open themselves to the moment of performance is a choice to present a gift to one’s self, like giving blood to one’s self, like walking outside of a contextualized room and entering it again through the context of return.
If a stage moves, where does it begin or end? Such performative works parade dichotomy: absence/presence. Fourth wall/immersion. Private/public. Primal/pedestrian. In/visible. Un/veiled. Absent/formed. For Haraldur, “the person who hides herself in public becomes social sculpture.” The artist becomes illusionist, “shaman, conjuring expeditions to other worlds and bringing back signs or symbols, opening up channels, inviting audience to join.”
In the moment of the gallery opening, an opening. With the onset of performance, do we leave or do we leap?
AFTUR: AGAIN, OR BACK
It is my second visit to Berg Contemporary to view Haraldur’s exhibition, which is also the first exhibition of the new gallery. I came first for the opening, and now I’ve returned for conversation and a private experience of the work. The second walk-through varies from the opening in two distinct ways—less people, and two additional works installed that were derived from the performance at the opening.
The first of these works is “Leiðsla”—video documentation of the walk. The video commences with security-camera footage of the gallery visitors mingling from the moment the doors open. During my second visit, I watch the video and spot myself. There we were. Poet Snorri Páll, bookbinder Sveinbjörg, and I popped Vitamin-C tablets sans water to experiment with healthy versions of Pop Rocks. We were in the centre of the opening’s crowd, unexpectedly performing our bodies’ interiors in a collective experiment. Our unofficial health experiment was captured on camera, as was the later tête-á-tête with Valur Brynjar, projected in video loop as the final installed work post-opening. The wound opened, X-rayed, projected onto a wall for re-examination by every subsequent gallery visitor.
The second new work I spot on the wall post-opening is “Svipur,” a polaroid capturing the moment when the red blanket was pulled from Haraldur’s sister. The blanket’s caught mid-air in a bullfighting sweep, with the gallery dark in its background. The polaroid becomes a vial of drawn blood, a portrait of emotional weather, a narrative without words.
What does anyone watch then they watch the veiled performer? I walk the space and sister and brother walk the space in the video. By watching them walk, I grow awareness of my own passage through the gallery space. I think of my first and second fleshes and their flashes.
FYRIR: FOR, OR BEFORE
In the final room of Leiðsla / Channel, “Dimmur” lays stark the poet’s performed book object, so heavily marked with imagined affect and ink the pages have soaked to their solitary darknesses. The installation covers most of the floor in the gallery’s smallest room, standing in contrast to the expansive larger space colonized by all other artworks in the exhibition.
“Dimmur” materializes as black construction paper folded into maps. The paper arches up like mountains. Outside the gallery, a horn sounds three times. Then an explosion. More mountains unfold on the south side of the room. The resulting sculpture could be island or lake, with the incidental distant soundscape crafting narrative around the paper.
For years before and after the exhibition, in the East Fjords of Iceland, Haraldur mountain-guides. Guides through the gallery, guides through a valley. As a mountain guide on the east coast, Haraldur describes the experience as somewhere between literature by Franz Kafka or Samuel Beckett—“somewhere between the end of the world and the beginning of the world.”
Farther east of the fjords, across an ocean, in Bergen, in another decade, Haraldur shook hands with a king in an emotional space constructed by an us. West of the fjords, in Reykjavík, Haraldur invites us to bring us to us. To make ways that sense the immaterial material betweennesses of our interconnections. We improvise a path, and leap. And leave.