Cod is Dead
Instead of “Hello?” Magnús Sigurðarson answers the phone by saying his own name. “Magnús!” His accent is hearty and angular, friendly and Icelandic. Born in Reykjavik in 1966, Sigurðarson says his first memory of melancholy is from when he was seven or eight years old. It was a winter Sunday, and little Magnús went out to see if his friends wanted to play. But nobody was home, and those who were, had to tend to the little chores required of children.
So Magnús retreated, alone, to the living room of his family’s townhouse. He stared out the large window onto a field. Made weak by latitude, the Icelandic sun struggled to stay above the horizon. Long deep shadows covered the gelid landscape. “I’m looking at the winter sun and feeling very, very gloomy,” Sigurðarson remembers. “And I kind of love it too.”
One of Sigurðarson’s recent artworks, titled Process & Pretense (2016), is a four-channel video offering different perspectives inside Hallgrímskirkja, Iceland’s largest, most iconic church. If you look at pictures of the church, you’ll see a fantastical building, a house of worship that belongs on a different planet. Wings fashioned from pillars, a curved spire, it looks like it’s about to blast off into the heavens. The architecture inside is austere but no less striking.
In the video, Sigurðarson can be seen standing in the center aisle between the pews. He is wearing a towel around his waist and his body is painted a grayish white. He’s performing as a full-size figurative sculpture; a bit of vine grows from his shoulder to his ribs. Sigurðarson holds a classical pose, his palm to the sky in Socratic gesture. He spins slowly atop a round platform. “They had absolutely no concerns about it,” Sigurðarson says of the church. “I told them, ‘I’m gonna be almost naked there, rotating on a platform,’ and they said ‘Yea yea, that’s up to you.’”
Process & Pretense (2016) by Magnús Sigurðarson
The idea for a spinning platform was inspired by an exhibition of sculptures he saw by Charles Ray. It included “a flower pot, a plate, maybe a glass, and a salt shaker or something.” It took some time for him to realize that they were slowly, almost imperceptibly spinning.
The massive pipe organ, which takes up a significant portion of the church itself, is played by an organist. A 13th-century medieval Icelandic hymn, titled “Heyr himna smiður” (which translates to “Hear, smith of the heavens,” or, perhaps more accurately, “carpenter of the universe”) reverberates throughout. The organist, on Sigurðarson’s direction, is playing the hymn with one hand and improvising with the other.
For the first two minutes, the organist is pumping ethereal, dainty spurts, while Sigurðarson hums along, his voice growing in throaty volume. Then the sound turns cacophonous—a devilish interval is struck. Sigurðarson begins to sing in earnest, and one of the video’s four channels suddenly lifts in the air. You realize one of the cameras is a drone, bobbing up and down before flying through the church, revealing the sublime awe of a space that is designed to produce exactly such a sensation.
Sigurðarson studied art at Studio Cecil and Graves in Florence, Italy, then at the Icelandic College of Arts and Crafts, and finished his formal schooling at Rutgers in New Jersey. Sigurðarson moved to Miami in 2003, a place where sun and thunderstorm are forever locked in battle. There, he searched for his old friend melancholy—but abandoned it with his exhibition Adios Melancholy, in 2018, which included massive paintings of parrots. In 2020, he and his family moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Wherever he is, the United States—and American identity, that slippery notion—has always been an object of fascination for Sigurðarson.
Adios Melancholy print by Magnús Sigurðarson
“I wanted to be in America, because I had, first of all, a lot of prejudice against America,” he says. This prejudice grew from watching the war in Vietnam, and the U.S. government’s support for violent, far-right forces in Latin America throughout the 20th century. Sigurðarson never really fit the mold of the typical or ideal immigrant. “My main thing is about the failure of becoming American,” he says. “It’s about trying, but failing.” Foreign and domestic relations, how they’re entwined with people’s identities, is a key concern for Sigurðarson. “There are familial connections that connect everyone in Iceland,” Sigurdarson says. He describes genealogy as Iceland’s “national sport.”
The artist is close friends with Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson, who Sigurðarson has been a mentor to. Opening in 2021, Kjartansson curated the inaugural show for the GES-2 House of Culture, a massive center for contemporary art in a converted power plant in Moscow. The space is run by the V–A–C Foundation. Sigurðarson laughs when he explains that V–A–C is an acronym for “Victoria: The Art of Being Contemporary.” Leonid Mikhelson, one of Russia’s billionaire oligarchs, a close confidante of Vladimir Putin, is the founder of the foundation, and Victoria is the name of his daughter.
Kjartansson’s show, titled To Moscow! To Moscow! To Moscow!, included a piece by Sigurðarson. It was simply a pile of pedestals. Instead of sculptures, some of these pedestals held inflatable tubes with the words FABULOUS, TERRIFIC, and SUPER. Putin visited the exhibition a few months before he ordered the brutally expanded invasion of Ukraine. Sigurðarson’s installation contained these words printed on the floor near the pedestals: IT’S MUCH MORE THAN MAGNIFICENT, IT’S MEDIOCRE! It’s unclear what Putin thought of Sigurðarson’s jokes, but it is hard to imagine his face cracking a smile. One of the many pathological things about men such as Putin is that they are incapable of tongue-in-cheek. They are all tongue.
A recent work by Sigurðarson, “In Cod Liver We Trust” (2022), is a converted rain lamp. Rain lamps were kitschy decorative objects popular in the 1960s and ’70s. They have the shape of a lantern but the middle is occupied by a sculpture, usually a female figure. A series of latticed filaments connect the two ends of the lamp, and droplets travel down, a trippy optical effect à la lava lamps and other objets d’art of the era, designed to be looked at while high or to create nostalgia for the activity. For its centerpiece sculpture, Sigurðarson’s readymade lamp contains a bottle of cod fish oil. Cod oil travels down the filaments as well; figuring out how to make that happen, which took countless frustrating hours in the studio, nearly drove Sigurðarson to madness.
Cod was crucial to Iceland and many North Atlantic civilizations. It enabled Viking expeditions across the sea and was a key staple of the medieval diet throughout Europe. The cod has become a vulnerable species due to overfishing and warming waters. Derived from its liver, cod oil is consumed for retinol, vitamin D, and omega-3 fatty acids. By placing the bottle of cod oil on a pedestal, Sigurðarson emphasizes the transition from physical fish, which was cured and consumed by seafarers, to alienated fish, whose organ is processed for a concentrated substance in a plastic bottle. The oil traveling in the lamp suggests the intricacies of industrial process, the gears of a system distilling a commodity from the animal body.
Humor and melancholy swirl together in Sigurðarson’s work. His fetish for pedestals betrays his reverence for art, but also his keen awareness of the pretentious ways we elevate art above other things. As Sigurðarson tells me over the phone, “What is holding up this whole pyramid of the art world?” Too often art feels like a scheme rather than pursuit of the sublime. Sigurðarson pokes fun at the role of the artist, but in doing so, reminds us of the very crucial function the artist plays. Silliness is serious business.
In one early iteration of Process & Pretense, a work titled The Artist is present, But Rotating—part of the exhibition “Trading Places” at MoCA, North Miami—people had conversations with him as he spun on his platform, walking in circles or waiting for him to make a full rotation before continuing their thought. There’s something about the rotation that draws him—“I mean, it’s the planets and blah blah blah”—but it’s something he has trouble identifying when we speak.
The difference between cosmic and comic is ever so slight. “Humor goes beyond language,” Sigurðarson says. “Humor, it’s a very good tool of communicating.”
Rob Goyanes is a writer and editor. He runs THE PROSE WORKSHOP, a virtual writing workshop for fiction and nonfiction.