Reflections on Finnbogi Petursson and the pedigree of artistic correspondences
Artists have long dreamt of merging different branches of the arts in such equal proportions as to create a “third branch of art.” Although it might not be openly advocated very often, this dream has nonetheless accompanied art ever since Orpheus roamed the Thracian plains. Orpheus was at once a poet, singer and musician, although sources differ about whether his poetry, song or lyre music took precedence.
Orpheus is said to have left wild beasts spellbound and appeased the rulers of Hades with his singing or playing, or both. Once again, conflicting sources leave the question unanswered as to which of the poet’s gifts were most effective against the brutality of natural forces. Was it the combination in its totality, or one element above all others, that proved decisive?
While such questions remain mere speculation, it is common knowledge that after Orpheus had been torn to pieces by the Thracian Maenads, his head was washed up on the shores of Lesbos where lyrical poetry would later flourish in the age of Sappho and Alcaeus. This must surely invite us to ask whether Orpheus’ poetry was the dominant element, even though his song and music possessed the power of enchanting savage beasts.
There are further examples of a special synthesis of arts from the classical world. The words “choir” and “chorus” are familiar terms for an indefinite number of singers who sing together in a group. A composer or designer of ballet is also known as a choreographer. Divergent etymologies suggest that choruses in the ancient Greek city states did not confine themselves to singing, but also danced and perhaps even played accompaniments on various instruments. This may be consistent with the diamond-patterned floors found in the ruins of a number of theatres, which are interpreted by some Hellenists as a pattern or frame — “graphikos” — for the dance steps of choruses in ancient Greek drama.
It is now thought almost certain that theatrical performances and drama developed from the musical choruses at the end of the sixth century BC. The primeval actor — the semi-mythological Thespis —was also the first solo singer. Thus the chorus is seen as having spawned dialogue in the form of song, somewhat akin to a cantata, which developed into musical drama but continued to change until it had developed into the fully fledged play.
All the subtle mingling of branches of art in ancient Greece during the sixth and fifth centuries BC — around the time art was becoming art in the sense in which we understand the word — unconsciously spring to mind with the exhibition of the work of Finnbogi Petursson at Kjarvalsstadir. For in the modern age we have been told so repeatedly that the classical sense of form flatly rejects mingling of branches of art such as that which Petursson practices, that we are beginning to accept such statements as inviolable truth.
It tends to be forgotten’ that the classicism which insists on an unqualified division between the different branches of the arts is not the original classicism of the ancient Greek city states, but rather the neoclassicism of the age of absolutism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Aristotle, admittedly, pioneered analysis and categorization in the fourth century BC. But the analytical method and specialization that established themselves within science, the arts, philosophy and politics around after the era of Descartes — and would afterwards be systematized by Kant — were a positive force, greatly speeding up the triumph of clear logical thought over the superstitions of earlier times. Our notion of democracy, for example, derives from the ideas of John Locke in the latter half of the seventeenth century about the separation of the powers of the state. One of the realizations that emerged with analytical thought was that different arts are by no means automatically compatible. Numerous attempts to fuse different branches of the arts were found, in practice, to verge on the futile and the sterile. The analytical approach thereby become established as unqualified truth and thrived right up until the mid-twentieth century. As late as the middle of this century, the French aestheticist Etienne Souriau asserted, in his book La correspondance des arts (Paris 1947), that synthesizing two or more different branches of the arts was unproductive, even though the dialectical process of evolution always ensured an open flow between them. Souriau also cautioned against mixing the terminology of different arts, for example by using musical terms to describe the visual arts or literature.
What Souriau neglected to mention, however, was that numerous “impure” concepts have already been firmly established in aesthetics. In music, for example, it is possible to talk of the chromatic scale without considering that “chromos” is the Greek word for color. Combinations of tones and colors are common in many contexts, such as the accepted phrase “to tone down a color” from the world of painting.
In fact, it was no less a figure than Isaac Newton who used the laws of the harmonic tone scale to determine the number of colors in the visible spectrum. His conclusion that there are seven colors is pure fancy, simply aimed at imposing some kind of order on emissions of light. Newton based this fiction on experiments dating back to the Renaissance, when an interest was first taken in transferring the harmonic scale to other branches of the arts, for example by dividing up space according to an octave pattern. This was done by measuring the tonal vibration of strings of varying lengths and dividing them into areas according to given rules of perspective.
This brings us extraordinarily close to the world that Finnbogi Petursson has been exploring with his work. But between him and Newton stands the era of Romantic experimentation when various artists absorbed themselves in the relation between different branches of art in an attempt to realize the influence of such syntheses on the perceptual world.
The restoration of the notion of artistic synthesis can be said to begin with Shelley in his Epipsychidion from 1821:
And every motion, odour, beam, and tone,
With that deep music is in unison:
Which Is a soul within the soul — they seem
Like echoes of an antenatal dream.
As in so many of his earlier poems, Shelley based this ode to the superior “soul within the soul” on Plato. The lines quoted above are an exhortation to the senses to act together and enable the soul to partake of all the complex stimuli of nature, and become one with it. Charles Baudelaire, who was born the same year that Shelley composed Epipsychidion, transferred this correspondence of the senses into the urban environment to guide the new savage there in a jungle teeming with unexpected, cryptic symbols. His poem Correspondancesinvites an understanding and reconstruction of the disjointed reality of modern urban life, with the aid of coactive senses:
Like echoes that linger somewhere remote,
merging in a oneness opaque and profound,
as vast as darkness and enormous as light,
the perfumes, colors and noises correspond.
Arthur Rimbaud, one of the main precursors of symbolism, moved a step closer to this goal by linking together vowels and colors in his poem Voyelles, which begins:
A black, I white, I red, U green, 0 blue: vowels
This is of course an archetype of synaisthesis or “cross-perception” whose explanation lay then, as it still does, in the fact that Rimbaud was taught at school to distinguish the different vowel sounds by associating them with respective colors. That notwithstanding, Rimbaud’s experiment in broadening perception by synthesizing sounds and color had an immeasurable impact on succeeding generations of poets.
Is it mere coincidence that Richard Wagner completed his epic Ring Cycle at the same time as Rimbaud wrote his poem about vowels? Wagner was fully aware that his operas were synthetic works of art that would cause a revolution in notions of the links between branches of art. When Alexander Skryabin was scoring hisPrometheus in 1910 he envisaged that, in addition to a choir singing without words, an organ, orchestra and piano would play, along with an instrument which he called a “clavier a lumière.” Individual notes struck on the “clavier a lumière” would light up a series of colors throughout the concert hall, paving the way for the familiar “son et lumière” performances of later times.
If Skryabin built on the foundation laid forty years earlier by Rimbaud and Wagner, it was to his friend and admirer, the Russian painter Vassily Kandinsky, that he handed over the torch of these new theories. Kandinsky’s original light, motion and musical work Der gelbe Klang from 1912 — which Schoenberg exalted so highly in a letter to the composer and saw as a step beyond his own Die gluckliche Hand from 1910-13 — was certainly one of the most progressive artistic turning-points from the pre-World War I period. Although the “yellow sound” did not publicly premiere until 1975, Kandinsky’s associated theories of the synthesis of human voice, bodily motion and the sound of colors prompted Hugo Ball, the well known Zurich proponent of Dadaism, to declare in 1917 that Kandinsky was the incarnation of the modern avant-garde movement.
The history of coactive art and artistic correspondences would certainly merit an in-depth study, if only to prove that Finnbogi Petursson, Iceland’s leading synthetic artist, did not simply fall to earth from a remote planet in outer space. His art builds upon on a foundation that can easily be traced to the first notions of art in ancient Greece.
Finnbogi Petursson is no Orpheus, of course, but the difference between their art is technical rather more than ideological. The word “technical” is here used in the modern international sense, although the Greek word “tekhne,” interestingly enough, happens to mean “art” in the language of Orpheus. In fact, one feature of Petursson’s works is that they can scarcely be divided into technical and artistic parts without losing something from each. His technique is therefore perhaps tekhne, when all is said and done. It is easy to forget that the most radical dreams of Skryabin and Kandinsky about the correspondences between different branches of art have, in many cases, already been realized.
Doubts that dogged any kind of attempt to produce convincing artistic correspondences until the middle of this century — and even later in many places — are now retreating rapidly. We only need to recall Korean-German multi-media artist Nam June Paik to see what has been achieved during the past two decades. Although his attempts in the I960s to harness modern technology in the service of art have long won Paik a place of honor in the history of artistic evolution, his works reveal everywhere the technical problem faced by his generation. The formal sophistication of the work suffered at the expense of its technical elaboration, tending to produce clumsy results. These drawbacks could clearly be seen in his contribution to the recent Venice Biennial, where he was one of the two German representatives. Finnbogi Petursson, on the other hand, enjoys the benefits of the recent revolution in digital technology, which allows him to fine-tune all the elements of his works and balance technology and formal structure. A large part of his work as an artist involves keeping abreast of technological innovations. In this respect he is cast in the same mould as everyone else in the modern age, and is at home in the jungle of continuous information and technological progress.
Admittedly, Petursson began his career using an ordinary tape recorder as a medium around the time that the mechanical age was rapidly yielding ground to digital technology. In 1985 he set up a work in the Dominicanerkerk in Maastricht together with Dutch artist Leidi Haaijer, which consisted of 25 stereo cassette players and 750 wooden chairs. Titled Situation and well recorded on video, this performance gave an early indication of Pétursson’s feeling for space and its potential. At Easter, the sounds — a mixture of human voices and electronic reproductions of a Gregorian chant and ringing of bells — were played through loudspeakers screwed to the cushions of golden chairs. Most of the loudspeakers where located in the quire and the flow of sound resounded constantly to transform the church into a single, all-pervasive musical sculpture.
This is an important point to bear in mind when trying to identify which side of the dividing line between music and visual art Pétursson stands. Without the sensitivity he displays towards the settings of his works, he could safely be branded as a musician. But the Maastricht video shows that the harmony which Petursson released with his 25 tapes and loudspeakers was not intended to leave the audience hypnotized in their seats. Like the 750 chairs spread across the floor of the Gothic church, the harmony was clearly intended to influence the spatial properties of the nave and flow through it like a river. When the space was activated in this way, the 750 wooden chairs acted as a multiple resonator on the giant instrument which the nave itself formed.
The same year, Petursson set up a sonic composition called Waves. Three V-shaped aluminum rods, suspended at regular intervals from the roof, struck heavy blows against the walls of the exhibition room, with such force that they left deep marks in the coating. The blows and their echoes were amplified through 12 loudspeakers, six and six in series, in another hall. The rhythm between the voices most closely resembled the deep resonance of church bells punctuated with a clearer, metallic undulation. In 1988, Petursson created a second version using bronze pipes, which was performed at the Living Art Museum in Reykjavik and yielded a much smoother sound. The visual aspect is also worth considering. From the outset, his approach seems to have been governed by a strict simplicity. A common feature of the rod composition and the church performance was that he used nothing more than what was needed to start the work and keep it going. Another characteristic of his art is that nothing on the technical side is concealed. Petursson takes a clear and candid approach towards the finish of his works. Wires and cables, plugs and mountings are an inseparable part of each work and are therefore allowed to be visible. This implies a definite aesthetic attitude, raw and honorable, but also “American” in its most positive sense, rejecting all the dramatic illusions which characterize most postmodernist art.
In 1985, Petursson also set up the work Certain Rhythms for Space in Time Based Arts, Amsterdam. A slightly modified version, the third, was later shown at Birgir Andrésson’s gallery on Vesturgata in Reykjavik. An old gramophone with no record on it stood in the middle of the floor connected to ten loudspeakers which lay closer to the walls all around and either supported cardboard tubes of various widths or stood on top of them.
This remarkable work was important insofar as it brought the loudspeaker to the fore as Finnbogi Petursson’s favorite medium. The gramophone controlled and evened out the rhythmic interval between the modulation control and each respective loudspeaker, sending tones colored by the different lengths of cardboard tube back and forth across the room. The result was a prosodic
rhythmical concert that the audience was completely unable to locate or relate to. Perhaps Petursson came closer to music in this work than any other. But at the same time it clarified his spatial conception, which he calls “sound drawings.”
Indeed, the sound signals from the loudspeakers can be seen as different ends of invisible lines drawn in the space around the work. This idea is in fact very prominent in his Drawings from 1989, which was composed of 12 slender rectangular loudspeakers and a programmer and, unlike Certain Rhythms for Space, was presented in profile. The loudspeakers were arranged into four regular vertical series of three each. The irregular sound drawings formed when the sound jumps between such a configuration of loudspeakers can form more than 1,700 different patterns.
This idea was developed in a slightly different fashion in Line from 1990-91 which Petursson exhibited at the Living Art Museum in Reykjavik in 1991. In this work, 34 rectangular loudspeakers were arranged in a straight row along the wall, but their sounds were adjusted in different ways to give the impression they were swinging back and forth, although this was actually just a trick of the hearing caused by the audience’s own movement. In Line, the piercing sound signals from Drawings gave way to a peculiarly haunting series of sounds that gave the impression of seeking out the audience/spectator and changing their behavior according to his movements.
At the same Living Art Museum exhibition, Petursson installed a large loudspeaker suspended over a darkened pit filled with water. The work was titled Circle, since the loudspeaker formed a sound wave whose frequency was boosted to 0-200 hz and rippled the surface of the water so that the wave motion formed regular circles at certain moments of the process. As the pitch of the wave rose the pattern on the surface of the water changed, and was projected on to the wall. Aided by the water and the projector, the artist managed to make the amplification of sound visible.
Pendulums, produced early in the summer of 1993 for the “Borealis 6” exhibition at the National Gallery of Iceland, is a logical continuation of Circle from 1991. Three large loudspeakers were installed at the bottom of long pipes and made to swing like pendulums over tiny microphones, producing a haunting frequency to the rhythm of their pendulous movement.
As in most of his earlier works, Finnbogi Petursson bases his new creation in the corridors of Kjarvalsstadir on the correspondences between the production of sound and tangible form. The idea is so clear that the technique is almost transparent. On a 25-metre wall, he has mounted a series of seven large plastic pipes, cut through diagonally to create two giant sets of pan pipes, one larger than the other. Naturally, the larger set produces deeper tones. Two eight-pulse programmers are connected to the speaker at the back of each pipe, while a short-wave radio transmitter produces sounds which are knocked through the pipes by percussion. Short-wave sounds are fuzzy during the day but become clearest when it begins to grow dark.
The sound is not far removed from the hollow natural resonance of the Andes pipes or the drum, although such a comparison is of course a mere shot in the dark, made completely at the expense of the enjoyment of the work itself. Such a reflection is only worthwhile if it enhances our understanding of spatial turbulence. Just as “the hills are alive with the sound of music,” Finnbogi Petursson’s pipes transform the space of the corridors in two senses: visually with three-dimensional emphases and audially with four-dimensional emphases, the extra dimension being supplied by time. Synthesis and correspondence in Finnbogi Petursson’s works become something different from and larger than fancy. He has succeeded convincingly in breaking down the walls that separate the different branches of the arts.
- HaIIdór Björn Runolfsson, 1994