Jónsi's Toronto Exhibition 'Hrafntinna (Obsidian)' Is His Most Immersive Musical Landscape Yet
The Sigur Rós frontman's 2021 piece is making its museum debut at the Art Gallery of Ontario
Published Jul 19, 2023Sigur Rós could make shopping for groceries sound like a cinematic experience. With their music on the stereo, wiping the kitchen counter becomes sublime, turning anyone into the lead character of a vibey arthouse film.
Their music holds such inherent gravitas that it's hard to imagine anyone better suited to evoking the terrible majesty of a volcanic explosion than frontman Jónsi, who attempts to do just that in his gallery installation Hrafntinna (Obsidian), which premiered in 2021 and is now making its museum debut at Toronto's Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO).
Obsidian is the artist's interpretation of Icelandic volcano Fagradalsfjall's eruption in 2021, which the Los Angeles-based artist wasn't able to witness first-hand due to COVID restrictions. He set about bringing that eruption to life for himself with an immersive, experiential exhibition, using a 16-channel composition (played through 195 speakers arranged in a circle) as well as light and smells.
Walking into the AGO, Obsidian was surprisingly not advertised anywhere, and it wasn't even listed in the special exhibitions section of the gallery map. I only heard about it because a friend had tipped me off, and I briefly wondered if I was in the right place — maybe he meant the Royal Ontario Museum, not the AGO? But upon climbing the staircase in the AGO's lobby, there was no missing the dimly lit room on the second floor, with spooky ambient sounds emanating from the open doors.
I'm almost willing to bet that some people have sustained minor injuries walking into Obsidian; even signs warning me to go slowly and let my eyes adjust to the light didn't quite prepare me for just how dark it was in there. The room is illuminated with a single white light directly overhead of a circular bench; even when it's illuminated, which happens only intermittently, the room remains very dim, and the times when it's off are practically pitch black. It sets the mood nicely once you've found your spot, but it's a little alarming getting settled in.
The piece runs for about 25 minutes, with no clearly defined beginning and end. I'm not totally sure at what point in the piece I walked in, except that it was during one of many passages of droning choral singing, which were majestic and largely without melody. The voices were solemn and mournful, making full use of the 360-degree sound as an occasional voice spun fully around the room, an enveloping sound that ensured this exhibition was a very different experience from listening to the accompanying album Obsidian at home. The web of small circular speakers is sure to traumatize anyone with trypophobia.
The main attraction, however, were the explosions of sound that came in between the choirs — deep, resonant rumbles that vibrated the bench I was sitting on while scarcely making a discernible noise. Sigur Rós have frequently conjured expansive vistas with reverb and bowed guitars, but the sounds in Obsidian were harder to pin down. One very, uh, wet passage sounded like rain or possibly bubbling magma; another resembled raspy breathing and rustling.
Luckily, I timed my arrival in Obsidian perfectly. The piece was in a quiet part, and went through several different passages before crescendoing in what I must assume was meant to be the volcanic explosion itself. Sudden flashes comes from from the caldera-like light overhead as a smokey scent filled the room, a bit like the smell of burning palo santo or diving nose-first into a bag of mesquite barbeque potato chips. The room physically vibrated from blasts of noise that didn't quite sound like guitars or synths — or, in a way, like anything at all. Like witnessing an incredible natural phenomenon, Obsidian was disorienting and even a little bit scary.
I lost all sense of time, which was both the entire point of Obsidian as well as its most frustrating element. I found myself trying to tell if the music had looped yet, or guessing what time I had arrived in order to figure out how long was left. If I had been alone, maybe I could have totally immersed myself, but I was with my cousin visiting from out of town, so I started to worry about being a good host. That's probably my issue rather than Jónsi's, but it did mean that the experience ended not with a bang but with whispers of, "How are you feeling — are you ready to go?"
For an artist who has spent his entire career receiving ponderous reviews about how his music evokes Iceland's majestic landscapes, or whatever, Obsidian was a culmination of everything he's great at: a quite literal representation of the natural world through music, and a chance to create an immersive experience far beyond the stereo sound of a normal album.
Hrafntinna (Obsidian) is on at the AGO until August 7. For fans who weren't able to get ticket's to Sigur Rós's sold-out show at Roy Thomson Hall on August 15, it's an unmissable chance to wander through Jónsi's singular sonic universe.