Acoustic image of the present

Interview with Finnbogi Pétursson for the magazine Kunst und Kirche (Art and Church)


“The creative theme is very strong in Finnbogi’s works.” * In the work Ode 1991  there is a reference to the Big Bang: the artist cuts between material and fire for a while until a rhythmic visual work appears on a video. Then he starts to add water to it. He is adding basic elements to this visual process; fire and water appear and then air. The triplet replaces the duo; one begins to see light, then comes a strong reference to the creation of the world, from a visual standpoint. There is a definite lifetime in this work, as if every star has its own lifetime. The later part of the work consists of a person going in reverse through the process. He/she drags out the light and then the air. In the end, everything has become black and lifeless; these are the finales, some sort of black hole will result. Time is important in his works, because one cannot experience the artwork unless one stops for a while, as the work never shows a constant image but rather constant movement. “It is always working with the interplay of time and space.” **

Finnbogi Pétursson is one of the leading Icelandic artists. He has shown his work all over the world and has also taken part in exhibitions in Germany. Finnbogi was born in Reykjavík in 1959 and lives there. I visited Finnbogi and interviewed him about his work. First I asked him what had sparked off his interest in art.

My interest in art has always existed. I enjoyed drawing as a child and was thought good at it, which of course played its part in my decision to go to the Icelandic College of Arts and Crafts (Myndlista- og handíðaskóla Íslands) in Reykjavík, where I originally went to learn graphics. Two well-known artists were at the school at that time, Dieter Roth (born 1930) and Hermann Nitsch (born 1938), whose teaching had a great effect. Both of them had an effect on me, and showed me that there is more to art than drawing.


What appealed especially to you in Roth and Nitsch’s work?
It was the power in their art, also the coincidence in the conception (Spontanäitätið); no boundary lines are drawn, the art has no limits, its possibilities are endless. Although I wasn’t one of Roth’s students, he had a great influence on all students at the school as a whole. This also happened with Herman Nitsch, who went toGermany with a group of students from the school in 1980, if I remember correctly. I was a hair’s breath away from going on that trip, which was a great learning experience for the group and the experience left its mark on others. Recently I went to Roth’s studio in Basel and re-experienced the period back then. The utility of the objects is unchanged. Everything gets a new meaning and is extremely well thought out.


Where did you go after your art course in Reykjavík?
 After completing my studies at the Icelandic College of Arts and Crafts in Reykjavík, I went to the Netherlands and studied at the Jan van Eyck Academy in Maastricht from 1983 to 1985. There I discovered my own artistic style. The interest I had had as a child in sounds, electricity and speakers increased. I became much better acquainted with sound art in the Netherlands, as there was much better access to references there and I threw myself into this field of art. I had in fact worked with a group in Reykjavík called Bruni BB which mainly covered happenings, so I was no novice to such events which had been common in the Netherlands and in which I had taken an active part. However, I felt that a few students were too narrowly constricted in the Academy; their professors advised them to stick within a particular framework and make sure they did not stray too far from it. I have since seen that this did not work for all students as they were in danger of stagnating later on, which has indeed happened with some of them. They became isolated and “painted themselves into a corner”.


But you discovered sound art there?
In the Netherlands I became very interested in sound art, although the interest had always been there as I played various musical instruments and I have absolute faith in music as part of a child’s upbringing. We got the loan of a Catholic church, Dominicanerkerk, which had been deconsecrated – it was in fact consecrated again later on and used for a while. That was around Easter 1985. We advertised in the papers for chairs and tape recorders and got 750 chairs and 25 tape recorders as a result. We painted the chairs yellow and distributed them around the church. I saw to the sounds and controlled them from the altar where the tape recorders were; I imitated religious sounds, Gregorian chants, Tibetan throat songs and other religious sounds, from memory. The speakers were in the chairs and formed an acoustic image, or rather an acoustic environment in the church. In the work Drawings it is as if Finnbogi draws invisible lines in the air by using 12 little speakers that give off a random noise – the viewer never knows which speaker will be next, it is completely random. The reason for the name is that he felt that two speakers called to one another by chance as if they were drawing lines in the air, like a line that an artist doodles randomly with a pencil. Here, the sound draws invisible lines in the air.


Since then you have dealt with sounds
After I came home I worked at a TV station for a decade, especially with graphics, although I also pursued art as much as I could, but in the last decade I have dedicated myself to art. My artistic thoughts became formed into what they are now from 1990 onwards. I work a lot from symbolism and from the basic forms, a square, triangle or circle, but the basic forms of the sound are the same – square waves, triangular waves and sine waves – as well as noise, which contains all the frequencies of the spectrum. I use RGB, which is the basic light form or the colour spectrum. I use medium-wave  wave interference. Sound waves have an effect on light waves in that they flicker at specific frequencies. Recently I have worked a lot with water and fire, for instance ripple waves that result from sound. They form ripples, lines and patterns from various frequencies. The work Line, shown at the LivingArt Museumin 1991, is a row of 34 speakers, a dead-straight 12-m-long line that people look at, but when the viewer walks past the speakers a broken line or curve forms in the mind. That’s the landscape. ***


Describe for us the installation you set up in the Ásmundur Sveinsson Sculpture Museum
That work is called “Sphere 2003” and it is now owned by an Austrian collector. I began by measuring the frequency of the space or sphere, which turned out to be about 55 Hz, and decided to work with the frequencies around it, i.e. 50-60 Hz. In the middle of the space (focus) I put a bowl containing about one litre of water on a column. The halogen lamp inside the column shone through the bowl and threw the circular surface of the water onto the dome of the sphere. The waves on the surface are continually changing according to the blend of frequencies that hit them. I am working with medium-wave wave interference, which means that if I have, for instance, a 50 Hz tone and I play a 53 Hz tone beside it, getting a 3 Hz halftone which in reality is the third tone, resulting from the other two.


Your work at a power station in the highlands has aroused a great deal of attention
Icelandic nature shines through my work; although I do not work directly with a mountain range, it still appears in the work. I sense nature a lot and it comes across strongly in my works. Current 2005 is located at Vatnsfell Power Station, on the way to Sprengisandur. It is a manmade 20-m-long concrete “organ pipe” with the opening 3 m wide. And it is 4 m high. It tapers to 50 cm wide x 250 m high at the end. Deep inside the pipe is a tone producer, a whistle that is driven by northerly winds and emits a 50 Hz tone, the same frequency that the alternating current vibrates to and is therefore its heartbeat. The work is some distance from the power station itself but is within viewing distance of it.


At the centenary anniversary of Nobel prize-winning author Halldór Laxness you set up a sound installation at the Reykjavík City Theatre 
The work Conversation 2002 is dedicated to the Nobel prize-winning author Halldór Laxness on the 100th anniversary of his birth in 2002, in association with the Reykjavík Arts Festival, and was installed in the Reykjavík City Theatre that year. I got astronomer Gunnlaugur Björnsson to find a constellation for me that was 100 years away from the Earth. He found a constellation for me that was 99.4 light years away from Earth and is called Draco Edasis. Gunnlaugur provided me with a buzz from the constellation through a radio telescope. This buzz has been on its way to Earth for almost 100 years, or almost the whole life of the novelist. I led the buzz into a speaker that swung over the viewer’s head in a passageway between two stages in the theatre. The passageway is only 1.50 cm wide but the height is 8 metres. I got a recording of a reading by the author of one of his works to work with, and decided to cut out all words and leave behind only the silences and the breathing that followed. I put the silence into a swinging loudspeaker and opened for the sound in the constellation for a split second on one side of the corridor, while on the other side the speaker went over a microphone that was cyclically connected in the speaker and produced a “feedback” sound. I use feedback for emphasis in the present or actual time, current time. By mixing this sound together with the sound from the constellation, with the silence of the novelist as a contact between the centuries, I managed to work with the life of Halldór Laxness.


What does your work focus on when looked at as a whole?
My works are an acoustic image of the present. They look at time. What is actually happening now when movement occurs? The feedback phenomenon is used as a very decisive time factor in my work. I have been preoccupied chasing things that one doesn’t notice but are present nevertheless, such as radio waves, light and sound. I attempt to obtain these and make shapes out of them, directed at specific, previously-decided routes which I choose, to a particular space and in a particular arrangement in the space. Wave transmission is so much a part of the air that we see nothing else if they are made visible, as the air is packed with these waves.

Finnbogi approaches this phenomenon from the person; he tries to interpret a person’s reactions to these waves. From the surroundings, which he senses, he makes a new environment from his own feelings and thoughts, among other things. He tries to obtain the sound on its own grounds. He does not create a sound here and a sound there, he tries to obtain the sounds as they are from the environment and gather them together so a new tone is formed. He is always searching for new types of microphones and goes out of his way to learn more and more about how sound works, at the same time making himself as independent from outside equipment as he possibly can.


* Friða Björk Ingvarsdóttir in the radio programme “In Sound” (Í hljóði)
** Friða Björk Ingvarsdóttir, same reference.
*** Halldór Björn Runólfsson: radio programme “In Sound”, March 2002

- Gunnar Kristj√°nsson, 2006