Gallery Review | Ragnar Kjartansson’s ‘Song’ surprises audience at ICA Boston
Video installation exhibit incorporates theatrical elements
Published: Friday, March 1, 2013
Updated: Friday, March 1, 2013 02:03
Tucked away in ICA Boston’s galleries, the video installation exhibit “Ragnar Kjartansson: Song” is easy to miss at first. But it would be a shame to overlook this particular exhibition. Organized by the Carnegie Museum of Art, the exhibition transports its viewers to a variety of extreme environments, using repetition of sounds, tunes and gestures to play on the line between recorded and live performance, and between fiction and reality.
“Song,” which came to Boston last December and runs through April 7, showcases the work of Ragnar Kjartansson. The son of two theater professionals, Kjartansson demonstrated an interest in the performing and musical arts at a young age and formed a band in his teenage years.
The videos cleverly incorporate theatricality: they are generally funny, but are at other times melancholic, sincere and rife with emotion. For the most part, though, they are enjoyable to watch — to immerse and lose yourself in. Kjartansson remarked on his work, “I try to take a theatrical approach to make it look easy. Like: “Ha ha ha! I’m enjoying myself, in opera!’”
Kjartansson entered the contemporary art scene at the 2009 Venice Biennale, during which he spent six months in a crumbling palazzo painting portraits of a friend. Repetition is a theme that appears throughout his work, and manifests itself audibly in the current exhibition at the ICA. The repetition of sounds and gestures create intense and transcendent beauty. At other times, they might express skepticism or self−aware disenchantment.
The star of the show, “The End” (2009) is a five−channel installation piece displayed on four walls. With the Canadian Rockies as their background, Kjartansson and his musical partner David Thor Johnsson play American folk music. Sporting cowboy boots and fur hats, the pair swig whiskey as they nonchalantly strum their guitars beside a collection of rocks and fir trees. On another wall, Kjartansson sits at a black baby grand piano, contrasting starkly against a towering mountain. On a third, Johnsson plays a pink electric guitar.
It quickly becomes evident that the notes, chords and beats in each video come together to form a single track. But this track is only available in the gallery, transporting you to the snowy mountainous wilderness of Canada.
A more subversive voice emerges in “Satan is Real” (2007). In it, Kjartansson is shirtless and buried waist−deep in the ground at a public park in Reykjavik. As youngsters play unwittingly in the background, Kjartansson strums a folksy tune on his guitar, repeatedly singing, “Satan is real, and he’s working for me,” for more than an hour. The piece mocks the self−seriousness of the folk genre. Kjartansson doesn’t seem to be taking himself seriously here, but he sure does look like he’s having fun.
Perhaps the most self−aware piece is “The Man” (2010), the sole video in which Kjartansson does not appear. Inherent in “The Man” is Kjartansson’s reflection on the legacy of American blues. The performance intentionally excludes the white artist, who is conscious that white musicians have reaped many of the benefits of an originally African−American tradition.
In “The Man,” the late blues artist Pinetop Perkins plays an upright piano in a field beside a dilapidated farmhouse. As he enters the screen and walks toward the piano, Perkins seems as frail as the structure in the distance. Perkins, who died last year, was 96 when Kjartansson recorded the video, but the liveliness of his music fills the performance. Whether he’s tapping his toes or muttering about the out−of−tune piano, what shines through is the combination and repetition of musical tunes that will take you straight to the Mississippi Delta.