Jónsi (gesture, installation, voice)
April 16, 2010

Yesterday evening at Berkeley's Zellerbach Theater, Icelandic musician Jónsi (of Sigur Rós) performed. The show was spectacular, perhaps the most compelling live performance I have experienced. It was spectacular in no small measure because of Jónsi's voice—a preternatural sound that music critics routinely describe as "ethereal"—as well as the musicians who accompanied him on stage (most notably, drummer þorvaldur þorvaldsson who played percussion on everything from drums to a coarse stone).

As virtuosic as Jónsi's voice is, the performance was in some sense not about his musical talent. As the show unfolded, it became clear that the go tour is inventing a new form of performance, one that straddles the margins of theater and art installation. Recalling The Black Rider revival of 2004-2006, the show's set is the product of London-based 59 productions (figure 1 and 2). While difficult to describe, the set combines light boxes, avant-garde animation and video projection, choreographed—how is difficult to parse—with each of the band's sets.

The content of Peter Stenhouse's animation—a montage of a folkloric forest populated with skeletal animal figures, TV static, ocean waves, junkyard debris, scraps of paper and abstract shapes—was itself quite stunning. For now though, I would like to comment on the form of the installation, which might be described by Claire Jarvis's concept of a "somatic medium": a relative to aura that, as Claire explains, generates "a medial space around the body, evidence not of art or authentic work, but of embodiment." We can certainly read the animation allegorically (according to one source, Stenhouse's animation represents a taxidermist's shop after an inferno). Yet, as installation, the light boxes and stage backdrop—on to which the video animation is projected—work against narrative. And here again, I found myself thinking about Claire's wider discussion of gesture on Arcade. For what made the show so compelling was its embodied, theatrical and, perhaps most aptly, gestural qualities. (The gestural qualities of the video installation echoed eerily in Jónsi's own gestural "tics"—shaking his head at irregular levels while singing, in particular.)

I will try to elaborate on what I mean in a subsequent post; let me just say that the Jónsi set seemed to realize Antonin Artaud's theater of cruelty. "Not décor," Artaud writes in the First Manifesto, but rather "hieroglyphic characters, ritual costume, thirty foot effigies of King Lear's beard in the storm, musical instruments as tall as men, objects of unknown form and purpose" will produce a theater in which the audience does not watch a drama on stage but rather is "encircled and furrowed by" {C}performance. The language of manifesto, no doubt; but Artaud's aspiration that theater become at once participatory and conceptual has of course intrigued directors, actors and playwrights since the 1930s.

A theater that accomplishes the cultural work of narrative and yet is somehow non-narrative, gestural and kinesthetic—it is perhaps this that Jónsi's go tour and 59 production's set accomplishes. And beyond all that, it is, simply put, an exquisite show.


Figure 1. Model of Jónsi go tour set design, 59 productions


Figure 2. Light boxes / video art installation, Jónsi go tour, 59 productions

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