Magnús Pálsson and Gapassipi

Ben DuVall

I first learned of Magnús Pálsson’s work while organizing a weekly community radio show during a residency in Seyðisfjörður, Iceland. While preparing an episode on sound poetry, I was searching for some Iceland-based artists, and the first name on every Icelander’s lips, when it came to that medium, was Magnús Pálsson. But for an English speaker whose Icelandic is limited to takk (thanks), it was nearly impossible to find any recordings or audio samples of Pálsson’s work, most of which was in Icelandic and distributed via physical media. I have my own personal fascinations with obscurity, and so this unavailability, intentional or unintentional, was intriguing to me.

Iceland has become increasingly Anglophonic in the past decade, as tourism overtook the traditional fishing and sheep-raising economy, but its native language still captivates, boasting the most authors per capita of any linguistic community by a wide margin. The Icelandic language has a fascinating history, spoken by just over 300,000 people, it has stayed relatively close to its Old Norse origins, changing less than its mainland Scandinavian cousins, so that even today Icelanders can fairly easily read the classic sagas and Eddas nearly 1,000 years old. My experience hearing spoken Icelandic made me all the more curious to hear Pálsson’s work; to an outsider’s ear, there is a breathy, whispered quality to the language that dissolves syllables, reminiscent of the island’s ever-present wind.

Installation shot of Gapassipi at Reykjavík Town Hall, February, 1995. Photo: Frances Cowan

While Pálsson is one of the best known and loved artists in his native Iceland, he may require some introduction for outsiders. Born in 1929, Pálsson’s influence on the development of contemporary art in Iceland is impossible to overstate. His early artistic background was loosely connected to Fluxus, with forays into artists books, sculpture and performance. In 1978, he was instrumental in founding The Living Art Museum (Nýló), an artist-run space in Reykjavik, still active today, and in 1980, Pálsson, represented Iceland in the 37th Venice Biennale, where he showed a sculptural cast of the negative space beneath a helicopter about to land. Soon after, Pálsson turned his attention to sound poetry, founding The Icelandic Sound Poetry Choir (Nýlókórinn), which performed his own compositions as well as those of others. Pálsson’s output of the 80s and 90s was prolific, realizing many installations and performances, as well as releasing many of his sound works on cassette and CD. As an educator, his influence on artistic education in Iceland has been just as profound. He headed the experimental department at the Reykjavík Arts College, and founded a series of international artist workshops, called Mob Shop, which featured an international cast of Fluxus-adjacent luminaries.

Despite the international explosion in popularity Icelandic artists have experienced recently, Pálsson’s work remains little known outside Iceland and Icelandiphones, and so for my own investigation, I had some digging to do. After a long chain of email referrals, I surprisingly found myself sitting in Pálsson’s Reykjavik living room on a wind-whipped early November evening, at the gracious invitation of him and his wife, Frances Cowan. Also there was composer Adam Buffington, another American whose research has focused on Pálsson’s sound work. Buffington and Tumi Magnússon (Magnús’ son), are the founders of Mumbling Eye, an archival record label which is beginning the essential project of releasing Pálsson’s sound works. That evening, Magnús and Frances walked us through their archive of years of performance scores, drawings, sculptures, CDs, and tapes, accompanied by their own retellings of their production and dissemination. Only then did I fully realize the import of Pálsson’s legacy to Icelandic contemporary art, and the vast trove that Mumbling Eye is drawing from. Afterwards, on our walk through the Reykjavik night and in later email conversations, Buffington told me more about his connection with Pálsson’s sound poetry:

“I became interested in Magnús's work while I was conducting interviews and archival research for my dissertation in 2018. Initially, I was to write about interdisciplinarity and performativity in contemporary Icelandic art (focusing on artists including Ragnar Kjartansson, Margrét Bjarnadóttir, Haraldur Jónsson, Icelandic Love Corporation). But once I heard about the 1965 Nam June Paik-Charlotte Moorman performance, and the Icelandic group SÚM, I soon became fascinated by much earlier developments in the experimental scene, and Icelandic artists' close connections with non-Icelandic artists like Dieter Roth and Robert Filliou, amongst many others. If I remember correctly, I was interviewing Kristján Guðmundsson, and it was he who encouraged me to interview Magnús, and to explore the wide breadth of his work.”

Opening reception of Gapassipi, with Magnús Pálsson at center in blue jacket. Photo: Frances Cowan

And so from Buffington’s research, Mumbling Eye came into being. Last year’s inaugural release, Gapassipi, is a documentation of a 1995 installation of Pálsson’s at the then-recently constructed Reykjavik Town Hall, which featured a triangular formation of broken glass laid upon the floor, level with the lake visible outside through a large window; and eight loudspeakers positioned throughout the space, playing two vocal recitation tracks by Pálsson. These vocal tracks are not in standard Icelandic, but P-language, a child’s play variation on Icelandic, similar to the English Pig Latin, in which before any vowel a “p” is added, preceded by the same vowel. Hence gassi (gander), becomes gapassipi.

Nested in Gapassipi, are several events: first, and most enduring, the migration of the Graylag Goose, specifically their yearly return to Lake Bakkalág in Hafnarfjörður, Iceland, where Pálsson’s family lived until he was 7, and then on Lake Tjörnin in Reykjavik, where his family moved in the early 1940s. These migrations are recalled in a series of anecdotes from childhood about explorations on the lakes with friends and encounters with the geese, which make up the right channel of the Mumbling Eye release. They are episodes on the ice, symbolized by the floor of broken glass in the original installation at Reykjavik Town Hall.

Magnús Pálsson, Gapassipi. Mumbling Eye, 2021.

Second, is what Pálsson described as a “poem, an appeal or a prayer to the gander on the lake,” the Gapassipi in P-ified Icelandic (or Gapandeper in P-ified English translation), which makes up the left channel audio of the piece. The appeal is two-fold, a praise (but also sometimes mock) of the Gapassipi, and a request that it forward his petition to the global mind (apalvipitupundipinpa). This finds Pálsson revisiting the P-language of his childhood as an adult in 1995, much as the flock of geese return to their childhood milieu time and time again into adulthood.

The third event overlaid on Gapassipi is the meeting of the Nordic Council of Ministers at Reykjavik Town Hall, which coincided with the original commissioning of the installation. While the timing of the commission and conference may seem a coincidental “artwashing” by the Reykjavik municipal authorities (in this case, the Icelandic branch of the Nordic Visual Arts Association), it’s a key to unlocking some of the context which has been deftly concealed by P-langauge encoding. We see in the poem that the “Gopodlipike sapavapage gripiffipin” is really an emissary to the “glopobapal mapind” (apalvipitupundipinpa), on a mission to shower it/them with all kinds of requests, ranging from the childish (heavenly bonbons, bubblegum, ice-cream, sleep), to the adult (Brennivín, hash pipes, hedonism, masturbation). Through using P-language, Pálsson positions himself in conspiracy with the children of Iceland, making fantastic demands of the global mind via Gapassipi, in a letter-to-Santa Claus style.

In his own way, his own private language, Pálsson is disguising his delights and desires, sometimes innocent, sometimes illicit, beneath the very noses of the “adults” in the halls of decision. What a child may immediately understand upon visiting the installation, would no doubt be opaque to the adult Icelander, not to mention the consuls of international Nordic power. “Thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes.” Iceland, as the smallest and most isolated of the gathered nations, the “Anchorite of the Atlantic,” presents its requests, both humble and hedonistic, to the assembly, who descend on the island like so many befeathered air-slithering thunder-jets.

And yet, on a strictly sonic level, Gapassipi is eminently enjoyable in a child-like way. Pálsson’s voice is soothing and spell-like, the kind of utterances you would use to calm a ruffled gander as you approached him, and it best suits listening at a quiet time of day, preferably sunrise or sunset, when it is easiest to hear the gapandeper’s call. Its effect is a kind of reverse semantic satiation, as you listen on repeat, you somehow understand it more despite its initial opacity. After listening, maybe you, like me, will find yourself murmuring “Gap-aaa-ssip-iiiii,” whenever you spot a wandering flock of geese.