The opening exhibition in BERG Contemporary presents the art of Finnbogi Pétursson, featuring work he has created especially for this occasion. The exhibition pulls together many of the key ideas that Finnbogi has developed in his art in the last three decades. This work shows the core of his practice, turning mainly on the exploration of sound and waves, expressed through various methods and media. His main goal is to expose for us the close relationship between visual presentation and the world of sound, between tonal perception and spatiality, the material and the invisible. In one of the artworks, he places speakers in a circle on the wall and then makes sounds run around the circle, redrawing the space in front of the viewer. In another work he uses sound to create ripples on a pool of water, using light to reflect them into the room, creating a hypnotic, pulsating flow throughout the space.
Finnbogi often engages the exhibition space in this way, incorporating it – and the viewer – into the artwork. When he represented Iceland at the Biennale di Venezia in 2001, he transformed the pavilion into a huge resonance organ pipe, where the audience could move about to experience the dissonant tritone known in medieval times as Diabolus in musica, the devil expressed in music. This rare musical interval forms the core of a strong tradition in Icelandic song. Spatial perception was also a central feature in his installation for the 2005 Reykjavík Arts Festival, where he exhibited in a large, disused water cistern, using gas flames to illustrate a standing wave of 58 Hz, while ripples on water illustrated 7.8 Hz, the base frequency of the earth’s magnetic field. Installations like these exist somewhere at the intersection of art, music, science, and our own perceptual faculties. In the exhibition at BERG we can see how these different approaches come together.
Finnbogi studied at the Icelandic College of Art and Crafts and at the Jan Van Eyck Academy in Maastricht, the Netherlands. Radical new ideas were brewing in art at the time and both schools were at the forefront in exposing students to conceptual art, sound art, performance, and other cross-disciplinary expressions. In Iceland, such art became known simply as New Art, and Finnbogi first exhibited in 1980 at the main center for New Art in Reykjavík, the legendary gallery Suðurgata 7. A key concern was to erase the boundaries between art fields: visual art could become music, performance, film, or just an idea. Such notions clearly appealed to Finnbogi, and he began to experiment, mixing art, music, and performance, and this work soon led him to the minimal presentations that he has continued to develop in exhibitions around the world.
In the early 1990s, Finnbogi began to work on a larger scale, expanding his study of sound and wave forms into environments and installations. Experimenting with modern electronics as well as old, analogue equipment, his works extended into the surrounding space, filling the exhibition venue with sound and movement. He had found a way to merge these in a spatial experience that reveals sound, vision, and movement as one – not only in art but in all our perception and in reality itself.
There is a lot of science behind Finnbogi’s work, though he always manages to present it in such a way that we understand the principle without further explanation. His subjects are the wave forms that scientists have come to see as the all-encompassing and central character of our universe. Aristotle explained that sound was in fact a movement of the air, but centuries would pass before people realized that waves also explained light and other natural phenomena. Quantum physics finally showed us that this applies even to subatomic particles. Waves are the building blocks of the universe, creating a vast and complex harmony of different frequencies and amplitudes that flow and meet, are transformed and modulated, amplified or silenced. If we could hear all this we would perhaps experience what the ancient philosophers called musica universalis – the music of the spheres.
The movement of waves is the primary force in our world, but much of this is normally hidden from us. We see pulsating light as colors, and we perceive solid matter in what physicists would tell us is a whirling mass of moving electrons. The magic of Finnbogi’s art is that he allows us to experience this pulsing, moving reality in new ways, helping us to understand the wonderful force and interaction of waves at different levels. There is definitely magic to the movement of waves. In the exhibition we see sine waves form in vibrating strings stretched on the wall, we see vibrating sheets of metal transform sound into reflective images, and ripples on water morph into pulsing light. Each artwork is an experiment in which an aspect of this universal mechanism is exposed, and each one is striking because we perceive and understand the underlying harmony. Though most of us have only a basic understanding of calculus, we understand what we see and hear in the exhibition. The more time we spend with Finnbogi’s art, the more clearly this harmony is imprinted on our mind.