Interview with the artist Húbert Nói Jóhannesson:
Painting is the core of Húbert Nói Jóhannesson’s creative work, but one would underestimate his diversity if one would only call him a painter. The educated natural scientist recently released a CD with real-time music for astronauts and cosmonauts (with Björk’s producer Howie B); he developed explanations for the form of the Egyptian pyramids; he shoots videos of geothermal sites; and GPS is a conceptual part of his paintings. For Húbert Nói, art today is a form of contemporary alchemy. Christian Schoen talked to Húbert Nói in his studio in Reykjavík.
Christian Schoen: You were showing me a painting you did age 16. It is quite interesting that it already reflects the characteristic atmosphere of your later work.
Húbert Nói: That originates from the
Icelandic landscape, and today’s paintings carry the memory
of the impression the landscape had on me. But I was also very much
touched by the atmosphere of De Chirico’s metaphysic paintings
on one hand and Duchamp’s works on the other. De Chirico represented
more the emotional or sensual approach, Duchamp the intellectual—both
with a strong mythological undertone.
In fact this duality still dominates my work: the intellectual or rational approach when I measure the position of myself, my body, e.g. with a GPS system and an emotional one.
My works are emotional—where I’m measuring emotional impressions—and the intellectual approach (where the science comes in). And these are measured on a human being in the sense that I measure with a GPS instrument as well as I measure with my emotions and senses.
CS: Who else has influenced your work?
HNJ: During my studies it was definitely the Swiss painter Helmut Federle who was teaching at the art academy of Iceland in 1983. It was partly the technique, less his theoretical approach towards painting but surely the atmosphere he created in his painting through its many cross-layered colors. Though I too followed geometrical forms, I hardly ever painted abstractly but started from reality.
CS: What is most striking for the spectator is the strong impression of a wide landscape with a very low horizon. The rational approach is more visible at second sight when one realizes the data describing the geographical position on the frame.
HNJ: Yes, this element is of course very important. I am coming from a scientific background. I was educated as natural scientist; I studied chemistry, biology and geology and worked as a geological scientist. I was located in the highlands, where I was confronted with this really impressive landscape that confronts you with the whole spectrum of emotions: it takes the whole scale from being frightened and being in a sort of ecstasy. And I was approaching this landscape with high-tech machinery. I was measuring the earth supersonically to find water-filled cracks and with magnetic sensors, etc.
This experience is still recognizable in my work—this synthesis of rationalism and emotion as I could find it in De Chirico and Duchamp. But additionally my work has a strong reference to alchemy. Alchemy as a scientific approach to the spirit. With alchemy I don’t refer to medieval times of dark science as a cliché. I think every time has its specific symbols for phenomena. Although we might not understand the symbolism of the Middle Ages because the visual and intellectual language has changed, the basic feelings and themes still remain the same. We just carry what we inherit. But perhaps the field where an examination of alchemy takes place has altered: What might have been in the hands of scientists or philosophers in early times is now perhaps in more in the hands of artists. Maybe at the same time where the importance of religion is fading out, the arts come in there to trigger your emotions—like in music, films and visual art. I see my work as a part of this dialogue—like in the series “Above and Below”, where the “Above” is your moving part, the intellect, and the one “Below” is the emotional, stable part. This dialectic relationship is essential for my work in general. This is very obvious in the installation “Gravity”, which shows a lead hanging perfectly still because there is a moving force working on it…the gravity. And my paintings are absolutely still. The atmosphere is silent and motionless. And you have the moving element with the boxes.
CS: With these boxes you pick up the idea of Duchamp's “Boîte en valise”...
HNJ: Yes, somehow. The boxes symbolize the moving element. Sometimes I present the paintings within these boxes, and sometimes I exhibit them separately: the boxes standing and the paintings hanging on the wall. “Measuring Points” is the title of this series, a series that I started in 1996…and it is an ongoing project. Each painting is part of a bigger fieldwork so to say. I am selecting viewpoints in the Icelandic landscape—but not by chance. I just follow an inner mechanism of harmony, looking for specific compositions in landscape. I make a very rough sketch, an emotional snapshot captured with pencil on paper. Later in my studio I transfer my impression into another medium—painting.
CS: What you captured with the drawing is rather the shape of the landscape from a specific point of view. The atmospheric (or emotional) aspect is added afterwards with choosing the colors.
HNJ: Yes, and of course it is not about freezing a specific moment or feeling like the Impressionists were aiming at. I am more interested in timeless phenomena. There is no weather in the landscapes, and the colors derive rather from a general memory than a specific one. Generally speaking I think of this project as an emotional investigation. I am interested in the exact location where your intellect and your spirit meet.
CS: With the precise references of each location one could get the impression you work on an encyclopedic archive of the unspoiled Icelandic landscape.
HNJ: Well, it has an angle to this. There is this environmental factor. I am conscious that maybe the Icelandic highlands or specific areas at the coast are disappearing. But nevertheless I aim on something different. I am conscious about the chemistry in our bodies. When you look at a painting like this, it sort of calms you down. And I am interested in why it is like that. I do works named painting of a painting, and each of them is a question mark: Why does a painting have a chemical effect in your body? Why does your body confronted with that sort of painting produce a chemical reaction with the result of calming you down? I am curious about art having an effect on your consciousness and your subconsciousness, on your emotions and on your inner chemistry.
CS: And your videos have the same approach...
HNJ: You are right, but without doubt: The paintings are the core of my work. I see the other works as mirrors to my paintings. Like the video of the geothermal steam I shot with a professional thermal-camera, that device visually turns water into fire and thus reflects an alchemical approach. These videos and the installations, for example, surround the core and reflect on it.
CS: Tell me about the “rotated canvases” that seem to turn the landscape into a rather abstract form.
HNJ: “Geometry” is the name and context
of my next exhibition, due in Reykjavik in May 2008 concurrent with
the art festival. There I will show the rotated GPS landscape paintings;
from the rotation they turn out as geometrical works. The title also
refers to the actual “geo-metry” in my works in general.
I’m going to have two big canvases of 230 x 360 cm, two measuring-points
series in black boxes, and a video I once showed you of geothermal
steam mirrored horizontally and vertically, an homage to Franz Graf,
and field sketchbooks. The perspective behind this are my former city
landscape/horizontal geometry works and some dialogue with Gerhard
Richter’s abstracts where I always sense a realistic painting
under the layers.
The two rotated canvases opposite each other I connect to the two
hemispheres of the brain, as well as to the two aspects of “Geometry”,
calculated on one hand and composed on the other.
(Interview December 2007)
LIST Icelandic Art News. Page last updated 20 March 2008. Texts and images copyright © 2008 by the authors. For inquiries and contact information see about us.