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Dead Lives on in Reykjavik

The banks have collapsed but Jón Sæmundur Audarson forges ahead in 2009 with his Dead clothing and record label.

Down an almost imperceptible back-alley, tucked away from Reykjavik’s icy and tightening main-street, sits a small brick-built cabin. Its name is Nonnabúd and its windows project a square glow into the endless winter night. Set in front, is a small case of stairs which leads to double doors; on the right panel is a taxidermic cow’s head nailed fast, whilst painted in block capitals on the left is the word “DEAD”. This portal opens onto a front room, laid-out for use as a clothes shop; all vertical surfaces groan with t-shirts, vests and jackets, hung in neat rows of display.

The rear studio is a higgledy-piggledy maze of half-used paint cans, discarded silk-screens, press-clippings, stuffed crows, tea-kettles, guitar amplifiers, dismembered mannequins and mystic shrines. Sat in the middle, is the artist responsible; like a snake amidst a pile of its own discarded skin. This is Jón Sæmundur Audarson, creator of the Dead clothing label and spin-off, Dead Records.

The man works with unreal celerity. Jón claims that his fierce urgency is primarily the result of a personal philosophy that has run him though, for the past 14 years. He continues that when, in 1994, he was diagnosed with HIV and Hepatitis C he experienced a genuine moment of apocalypse (meant in its truest sense); a veil was lifted. The artist reports that, focussing on the old Spanish proverb “He who fears death cannot enjoy life”, he found strength in accepting the inevitability of the abyss.

The sheer quantity and scope of the things that Jón has gone on to achieve is astonishing. As way of intellectual preparation, he acquired a BA from the Iceland Academy of Arts and then a further MFA from Glasgow School of Art. On his return, he resolved on a career as “a full time artist”, the aforementioned axiom (which reportedly still works as his muse) was adapted into a mandala (surrounding an integrated skull logo) and the Dead clothing label was born. Jón’s heavily rock influenced designs very quickly became valuable social currency in the trendier parts of Reykjavik and now word has even spread across the Atlantic. Miraculously, Dead has become a cult brand amongst the many rock-stars and film icons that litter the Hollywood hills, cementing the brand a glittering list of repeat clients: Quentin Tarantino, Eli Roth and Metallica are all ardent fans.

Running parallel to these laurels are Dead’s ventures into music. The Way Down and Naflakusk are already firmly in place on Dead Record’s roster, with the latter due to release new material in 2009. Fanning out further still, Audarson has also very recently enjoyed musical collaborations with The Brian Jonestown Massacre. Having developed a particular camaraderie with the band’s infamous front man, Anton Newcombe, Jón contributed lyrics and vocals to the track “Golden – Frost” (from 2008’s “My Bloody Underground”) before synthesising many of his new confederate’s stylistic themes into a brand themesong, “The Dead Mantra”.

As the above summary attests, Jón has clearly spent just over a decade enjoying an incredible turn of productivity. But surely his exploits cannot stem purely from a loss of mortal fear? It can’t be that simple. When pushed for an elaborated explanation, Audarson does, indeed, concede that his motivation may be more complex; in fact, he reveals that his credo is now supplemented by a new personal agenda. Jón recognises that his brand and his illnesses are inextricably partnered in the eyes of the media, and so he is now keen to utilise his increasing profile to “confront people’s ignorance” about HIV. In an attempt to authenticate this gesture he denies any personal monetary interest, asserting that “it’s more like a concept - I’m getting a bit tired of the business side - it’s just a concept that’s not for profit.”  Reiterating this intention, Jón repeats that “the thing now is to hang in there and to get it more visible to the outer world” and then as a smile slowly smears across his teeth he summarises, “I feel a bit like I’m on an island here”.  

Part of this new push in 2009 will, of course, still involve the Dead fashion line.  Most notably, Jón has been experimenting with bleaching, and is set to release limited edition t-shirts that have been laid out in tundra to “sun-bathe” beneath randomly obscuring stones (each shirt will be sold with its respective pebble). Furthermore, in a more directly effective effort, the artist is planning huge scale guerrilla canvassing. Jón explains that his “idea is to make a hot air balloon (with the Dead skull printed on it), just one, and then take it around the world”. He also divulges the epic intention to “make a skull building, a huge one”.

These claims are so bold, in fact, that the more churlish spectators amongst us might, in response, feel the need to scratch at their edges and mumble pompous critiques concerning ‘strategic nebulousness’ or ‘ethical overstatement’. However, we might be equally well advised to make note of Jón’s previous victories and realise that it would be similarly short-sighted to be so priggishly doubtful. For amongst the mess of Nonnabúd, the ceaseless industry buzzes on.  Jon continues to spend almost every hour absorbed by unblinking focus; jerking between stints at the computer, printing-press and shop-floor, whilst somewhere in the background the phone rings endlessly.