The Museum of Modern Art, June 17, 2008
On June 17th, Iceland’s Independence Day, the Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Rós played MoMA’s lobby in support of their forthcoming album Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust (With a Buzz in Our Ears We Play Endlessly) and in conjunction with Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson’s comprehensive exhibit, Take Your Time. Sigur Rós, who write harrowing and ethereal songs sung in a made-up language called Hopelandic, once declared as their aim “to change music...and the way people think about music forever.” Eliasson’s installation is a collection of atmospheric light projections, sculptural maquettes, and scenic photographs that attempt to reveal the degree to which reality is constructed. The event was known on the blogosphere as a “hot ticket,” and it sold out in less than two minutes online.
Viewing installation art and live music in an overcrowded modern art museum—at night, with free beer and vodka—presents a number of obstacles to the ambitions of the artists on view. “How do cultural institutions mediate our perception of natural phenomena?” Eliasson’s curators ask on the exhibit’s website. Well, they sometimes make it tough to see and hear what’s going on. Inside the amniotic glow of Eliasson’s “360° room for all colours” (2002), someone shouted, “God, it’s so nice to be out of my fucking apartment!” At the show, pony-tailed photographers cavalierly forced their way to the front of the stage, a young man in a fedora danced as if swarmed by bees, tall rock journalists scribbled with pen caps clenched between their teeth, and a girl wearing an all-access lanyard and a shirt that read “Used, Abused and Confused” stood on a monitor waving her arms. Even the band itself, which included a string quartet of wackily outfitted Icelandic girls and a brass section clad in all-white, was distracting—a shortcoming Sigur Rós overcame in a 2006 show at Madison Square Garden by playing behind a shadow-casting Robert Irwin-esque scrim, blurring the visual to enhance the aural.
Walking through Eliasson’s exhibit before the concert, however, did help to clarify this reviewer’s perception of natural phenomena. Particularly powerful were “Room for one colour” (1997), a hallway of monochromatic bulbs that cast everything in dead yellow, gray and black, and “Your strange certainty still kept” (1996), where strobe lights illuminate the droplets in a curtain of water, seeming to suspend them in space, not unlike the voice of Sigur Rós’s lead singer Jónsi Birgisson, whose falsetto hovers angelically on the verge of actual words, excusing you from trying to interpret his lyrics.
These circumstances enabled an entrée into the primitive Nordic landscapes Sigur Rós’s music conjures up. Played live, the group’s “Untitled Track 8,” a rumbling glacial wall of reverb from 2002’s untitled ( ) album, felt equal to the experience of cresting a fjord in 10,000 bc to find a pack of saber-tooth cats ripping your Neanderthal spouse and children to pieces. Cut to a swooping aerial shot of yourself—swaddled in animal skins, fallen to your knees, hands raised, screaming at the sky…! Just then a Grolsch bottle shattered near the back and everyone turned around, but the moment was strong while it lasted.
JED LIPINSKI used to play tambourine in the band Hexa.