Text by Jón Proppé

The Subtle Art of Haraldur Jónsson
Jón Proppé

Haraldur Jónsson has exhibited widely in the last two decades and developed a highly personal imagery and approach. His works are visual and engaging despite the fact that he often deals with presenting intangible and immaterial ideas: Silence or darkness or some vague intuition or thought. This contradiction makes his exhibitions all the more exciting. In an exhibition in ASÍ Museum in Reykjavík many of the themes that Haraldur has explored in recent years were brought together. His explorations of how we perceive and conceive our world includes no only the visual but branches easily into the world of sound or tactile sensations: Shapes reflect sound, objects suggest darkness, lines map thoughts. Haraldur Jónsson is an artist with a delicate touch and his works sometimes seem to have been made from nothing at all. His pieces and installations seem to map intangible webs and fleeting thoughts that hover at the edge of consciousness, the emotions that form the intangible accompaniment to our lives, sometimes fleeting, sometimes overwhelming, sometimes restrained, sometimes out of our control. Many of his sculptural pieces describe silence or darkness in one way or another: A large black rectangle of sound-absorbing material fixed onto a gallery wall; large shapes that seem calculated to channel, emit or cancel sounds but that remain obstinately quiet; a sealed box full of Icelandic darkness that was his contribution to a travelling exhibition in the United States; a pair of boxes that, if one stands between them, eliminate the sounds of the environment so one can hear one’s own heartbeat. Haraldur’s silences are pregnant with energy and ideas, things we don’t normally notice beneath the soundscapes of our life. His approach to conceptual art is unusual in that his concepts are always elusive, they shift under our gaze and can never quite be defined. In this his work may be compared to that of Hreinn Friðfinnsson, to name an older Icelandic artist, but Haraldur’s sculptures, installations and photographs also have a strange and sometimes almost uncomfortable physical association, insistent and demanding. This was particularly clear in his contribution to the exhibition In the Flesh in the Reykjavík Art Festival of 1998. Haraldur had curtained off a corner of the hall where a doctor in attendance drew blood from the visitor that he could then take home in a small clear vial. In effect, the visitor was himself the work of art, framed in the transparent plastic container. While Haraldur’s works are quite diverse – including sculptural objects, photographs, drawings and sound installations – they share a common concern to make visible our primordial, pre-conceptual response to our environment. This is very much reflected in installations such as his Crumpled Darkness pieces where he will fill a space with crumpled sheets of black paper, or in the actions where he plays on the audience’s own bodily presence, or when he uses lights and sound to transform our experience of a space, as in his exhibition at the European Kunsthalle in Cologne where he exhibited in an underground railway station. But he also creates works that respond more immediately to local situations or cultural tropes, often in surprising ways. His exhibition Glætan in Gallery South-South-West is a case in point, held in a town near the now-defunct NATO base at Iceland’s international airport. Here he covered the windows of the gallery with aluminium foil, blocking out the daylight in a move that recalled the time when American servicemen used to lodge in the town and used to same trick to block out the light of the midnight sun so they could sleep in summer. Tearing small holes in the foil, Haraldur then transformed the interior by letting flecks of sunlight play on the walls.

His sound installations also reflect a concern with local or even historical subjects, though their presentation is characteristically sparse. Visitors to an exhibition on the outskirts of Reykjavík a few years ago were suddenly surprised by the sound of a child crying, apparently coming from the rocks piled up along the coast. This was Haraldur’s haunting reference to the fact that in former times unwanted children were sometimes left out in lonely places to die of exposure – a complicate and painful part of the Icelanders’ tragic history. Other sound installations have explored the terms we sue to refer to our feelings or the words in Icelandic that immigrants from abroad find most characteristically Icelandic.

In his drawings, photographs and sculptures, Haraldur seeks out the vague thoughts and associations that escape our taxonomies, the lines that never quite meet and the thoughts that have no obvious expression. Sometimes the result conveys a wry humour, for example in the Arctic Fruits series of photographs which shows Icelandic gardens in winter, the trees laden with Christmas lights in lieu of the fruit that people enjoy in warmer climes. Haraldur works in many media but his artwork always has the look of having grown from the germ of an idea, almost without any intervention on the artist’s part. There is nothing there that is extraneous to the idea of the work but, in contrast to most minimalist art, the ideas remain free to meander and branch into new thoughts in the viewer’s mind.