BY Dominikus Müller in Features | 09 AUG 11
Featured in
Issue 2

The Digital Stone Age

Using music, performance and animation, Egill Sæbjörnsson creates hybrid stages, where analogue and digital worlds collide

BY Dominikus Müller in Features | 09 AUG 11

What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There, 2011, Performance at the Hamburger Bahnhof- Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin

Stones are everywhere in the room. Large, small, round, fat, pointy. Red, green, grey, blue. With thin stripes, with fat stripes, with winding cords or leopard print. Some have faces. Eyes, mouth, nose and wrinkles, bushy eyebrows. They begin to speak. A flint stone languishes after his beloved Rosalinda, a large round boulder (the leopard print one). He worries that they might be sepa­rated after more than 400,000 years of happy union. Meanwhile Skint, another stone, mistakes a long, narrow companion by the name of Cigar for an actual cigar. He would really like to smoke him. And then there are the two little stone children Thomas and Bingo, who chat about how there is nothing better than spending your life in the middle of a mountain. At some point, they all lapse into a kind of babbling stone language, and at the end they sing a song together.

However you look at the exhibition 'The Egg or the Hen, Us or Them' (2011) by Egill Sæbjörnsson at Künstlerhaus Bremen, it initially leaves you with the impression of pleasant and irradiating naivete. Of course, you could make various attempts to wrest a meaning from this garden of jabbering rocks. You might try to seize on a reference to Sæbjörnssons Icelandic origins in the shows emerging obsession with both stone and light, and in those origins discover similarly stony trolls and a yearning for light in the pitch black polar winter. Yet that explanation — being far too biographically anchored — would be an illegitimate one. Conversely, any attempt towards a larger, more abstract contextualization of this work would simply strip away its peculiar naivete, more or less claiming that the point here is to demonstrate realitys many-sidedness. That, too, would be a mistaken effort at 'assessment' by means of a standard argument about what art should achieve. This argument grew stale long ago and would buy into these works anarchist charms of subversion. It simply would not live up to the stupendous complexity of these works which unfolds from their seemingly under-complex stupidity.

The Egg or the Hen, Us or Them, 2011, Installation view

So you have to get down with this art. You have to sit on the floor with it and ask very direct questions. From a purely technical point of view, the work comprises of an open stage where Sæbjörnsson uses a projector to lend his mostly papier mâche rocks a digital skin and a human countenance. He has written dialogues on their stony bodies which grant them a certain kind of interiority: problems they can mull over again and forever. At its core the work has to do with projection in a double-sense: a casting of light upon a background and a psychological principle of transference which results not only in bringing dead stones to life but also in grandly anthropomorphizing them. To that end, animated images are not cast onto a screen or a comparably neutral and ultimately disappearing background, but utilized to animate concrete objects with a physical character. Image and object fuse together into something new. And, just as the stones from the Bremen exhibit finally break into a chorus which is more than the sum of its separate parts, the two spaces  analogue, open, real space and digitally projected imagined pictorial space converge into a third entity. A kind of hybrid stage, where these things can shuffle freely, opens up in its own right.

The Egg or the Hen, Us or Them, 2011, Installation view

This continuous jumbling and fusion of different registers grows even more complex whenever Sæbjörnsson integrates himself or other human actors into the framework of the performances in these spaces and acts out small stage plays. Consider What Got You Here, Wont Get You There (2011), which he realized together with the director and actress Marcia Moraes as part of the series 'Musikwerke Bildender Künstler' (Works of Music by Visual Artists) at Hamburger Bahnhof Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin. According to Sæbjörnsson, it was about the history of the trumpet, about its ancestral line which could be traced from the prehistoric mammoth to the alphorn and finally to various sorts of flutes. Furthermore as the title already suggests this writing of history cannot proceed so easily after the advent of technical and above all digital media; it has reached a kind of plateau from which it can no longer go forwards but only sideways. That also has to do with the fact that the potential for acousmatic music music that no longer depends on the actual presence of instruments for its production but rather can only proffer a black loudspeaker as a visual analogy has complicated the relationship of sound to its source.

At the same time, What Got You Here, Wont Get You There began relatively stringently, almost classically even if an anarchist humour might have seemed to reign from the start: musicians performed a series of extremely short and unrestrained miniatures and fragments and took gratuitous bows in-between which quickly dragged the New-Music-seriousness of the performance into the absurd and into slapstick humour. After that, the performance turned into a tumultuous yet extremely precisely synchronized back-and-forth between animations, which flitted across all three video screens, and the musicians and actors, who seemed to interact directly with the animations. Animated alphorns gave birth amidst loud blasts to small copies of themselves, and together they began to give a joint concert. Sæbjörnsson played little pop songs on the guitar atop the stage, while a stuffed mammoth behind him lay its trunk on top of his shoulders. Then the artist let several of his own heads tumble out of a prop fashioned like a rudimentary hurdy-gurdy on the screen behind him and subsequently sang in chorus with them. Duplication everywhere, copies with lives of their own. Thanks to their simulative autonomy, the animations seemed to achieve a kind of vitality not unlike the stones in Bremen just as the actors, in turn, were gradually transformed from flesh and blood into caricatures.

What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There, 2011, Performance at the Hamburger Bahnhof- Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin

For Sæbjörnsson, the goal of What Got You Here, Wont Get You There was to set in motion what he calls the pseudoinstrument: to substitute the instrument absent in the era of acousmatic music with a projected one and to put it into a kind of rudimentary synchronization with its corresponding sound. Alongside the blasting of the alphorn, there is now a cartoonish image of an alphorn. It is clear that no obligatory relation exists between the actual sound produced and the presented image. Equally clear is that this short-circuit functions nonetheless.

Again and again, Sæbjörnssons work bridges different spaces: the acoustic and the visual, the two-dimensional and the three-dimensional, the organic and the technical. Again and again, prefabricated animation and pre-recorded music intersect with live-performance music. Yet all these convergences are, for their part, only temporary and not meant to be fixed. Instead of hard boundaries, there are permeable membranes between the different realms through which these things can float freely if you only let them. Here, everything shifts continuously through a space which is itself perpetually mutating, mobile, and turning itself inside-out.

Yet just as Sæbjörnsson pushes the collapse of the most divergent dimensions, he makes the intended synthesis visible through the seemingly naive clumsiness and the grotesque exaggeration of his animations. The not-too-terse humour of his works arises here. Something is literally put on a stage that distances; something is being performed and therefore always to an extent demonstrated: a hidden didactic piece, an alienation effect in disguise. And here those complexity-reducing defence-mechanisms, mentioned at the beginning, take hold. Because the notion of living stones is neither an archaic natural religion, nor an artfully imagined parallel universe, but has been possible all along, here and now. It is not for nothing that Sæbjörnsson claims his stone garden, as well as his trumpet theatre, deals with evolution.
Translated by Scott Roben

Dominikus Müller is a freelance writer based in Berlin.