Artist Profile / Museums

Montreal Art: Ragnar Kjartansson

Ragnar Kjartansson is no new kid on the block in the art world. In 2009 the Icelandic artist was the youngest of his countrymen ever to represent Iceland at the Venice Biennial. His creative endeavors have found success in music, theater, and in the visual arts. His video installations explore time, endurance, and place. Some of his works tap into the beautiful spiritual mythologies of Icelandic culture and others lean heavily on popular culture, political ideologies, or theatrical experience.

At the end of May the Musee d’art Contemporain de Montreal just closed Kjartansson’s first major solo show in Canada. This nearly seven month run featured three of Kjartansson most widely known video works: The Visitors (2012), A Lot of Sorrow (2013), and World Light – The Life and Death of an Artist (2015). Each of these works testifies to Kjartansson’s cinematic strengths, and his interest in temporal and spacial experience.

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The Visitors is comprised of nine projection screens staged throughout a single room. Some screens line the outer walls, others are suspended mid-room creating barriers which must be navigated. Each screen invites the viewer into a different room of a New York farmhouse where musicians synchronously perform a single song. The effect is like floating in a dream where the rooms are arrived at through physical movement yet remain out of reach. The sound is broadcast through speakers resident with each screen so that it fades and emerges with the viewer’s movement in and across the gallery space. The simultaneous aspects of the performances contrast with the viewer’s own movement through the room and inability to accept all experiences at once. Continuous separation and re-entry into imagery and sound builds both an interest and anxiety for being in all spaces at once.  Kjartansson’s limited edition vinyl release of ‘The Visitors’ soundtrack was released earlier this year through Kjartansson’s label, Bel-Air Glamour. The dust jacket neatly unfolds to create a miniature stage mimicking the Icelandic artist’s multi-projection room installation, almost (well, not really) as good as the real thing.

A Lot of Sorrow documents a 2013 performance by the Nationals arranged by Kjartansson at MOMA PS1. Comprised of a continuous six hour repetition of the band’s song Sorrow, the musicians visibly and audibly deteriorate of the as the video progresses. One reads a sense of delirium in the exhaustion of both performers and audience as they begin to sway and sweat through the marathon.

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World Light – The Life and Death of an Artist is the most engaged in narrative of these three works. This four-channel video is simulcast in a single room on four screens. At times the bombardment of sound is disconcerting. More traditionally theatrical, this work incorporates sets, actors, and a directed cast. Kjartansson maintains his interest in documentation seen in A Lot of Sorrow and his behind-the-scenes approach felt in The Visitors.  World Light is shot continuously, showing all takes and conversations between actors and Kjartansson who directs the work. The viewer experiences a performance as well as a creative process in action. Here the sensation of the simulcast fights the linearity of the narrative creating a desire to move through the protagonists four phases of life with an awareness that to live this life all at once is to move more rapidly toward death.
If you missed Ragnar Kjartansson’s recent video installations at University of Buffalo Art Gallery, or at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, breath a sigh of relief. Kjartansson is on view across the spring and into the summer in New York, Tel Aviv, Massachusetts, and London.

Article by Tania O’Donnell
For more about Tania and her work see our Contributors Page

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