Author: Turri, Scott
Date published: November 1, 2011
Regnar Kjartansson: Song
Carnegie Museum of Art
March 11-September 25, 2011
It is always a thrill to experience some form of music in a museum or gallery, but rarely do the two intersect. Popular music, the egalitarian medium, does not often fit into the more elitist gallery and museum setting. Fun and humor are also often missing in this environment as well. Yet artists like Bruce Nauman, Richard Prince, and David Shrigley bring humor to the table. Laurie Anderson successfully combines performance and music, and the Talking Heads did so on a commercial scale with Stop Making Sense (1984). Phil Collins's video installation "the world won't listen" (2004-07), which featured karaoke of the Smiths, with its ability to reflect pop culture, and blend high and low art and humor perhaps has the most relevance to Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson, who taps into the spirit of the aforementioned artists, combining music, performance, and humor in his installation "The End" (2008), one of four pieces that make up "Song," his first solo museum show in the United States and the 66th installment of Carnegie Museum of Art's "Forum" series.
Unlike the traditional music video, in which the viewer is bombarded with a frenetic pace of edited sequences of pseudonarratives and/or images of band members from a variety of camera angles slickly packaged into a S'A-minute ADHDinspired bitter pill, Kjartansson's work defies these conventions. "The End" features five large projections assembled from footage of musicians, including Kjartansson himself, performing in fur hats, coats, and boots in remote snow-covered locations. He and the musicians play a variety of instruments in four of the five projections, including guitars, banjos, and drums; in the other, a lone piano player bangs away in a snowcovered valley before a majestic mountain. In the installation, the viewer could see and hear what each musician is playing in each projection, and although the projections feature the same people playing in different locations, all play the same song synchronized to form one large band. At the center of the room, one could hear all of the parts as a whole. The song labors on at times, seemingly about to end on a number of occasions, but it is not until a guitar is tossed down a snow-covered hill, as if raising the white flag of surrender, that the piece finally comes to its conclusion. All of the footage is shot from one static vantage point devoid of any cuts. Watching the performers without the distraction of editing reinforces the feeling of a live performance. Kjartansson enables the viewer to become the editor, free to make decisions about how to consume the work based on positioning and how many projections are viewed at once, alone, or in combination.
Kjartansson effectively engages the viewer with his lush, remote, romantic winter landscapes and the mountain men musicians - who occasionally break to take a swig from a whiskey bottle - inhabiting them, conjuring up nostalgic images of Jack London's The Call of the Wild (1903). One almost expects to see a wolf or coyote enter the space, ŕ la Joseph Beuys. The viewer is caught off guard with odd juxtapositions of human intrusion into this world, from electrical cords and microphones to a grand piano dropped in the middle of nowhere. Advanced craft or technical ingenuity can often interfere with artistic experience, overshadowing the content of the work or masking the lack thereof - but this is not the case here.
Kjartansson's innate ability to work within a variety of conventions, while simultaneously stepping outside them and consistently challenging the viewer with his technical expertise, leads to a richly layered piece that successfully combines multiple elements of pop culture. The piece challenges conventions: do we see it within the framework of a music video, a live performance, a performance piece, or a museum piece? This is integral to the work because so many of our experiences aré shaped by context and convention, which in the case of music and film derive from the commercial industry. Because there aren't many developed models through which to position or compare the work in this setting, there is a tendency to use familiar conventions from the commercial industry - but they don't always fit. The ability to navigate our convention is undermined. Because Kjartansson has made a technically proficient work that is formally comparable to what we might see on TV, in commercial film, or at a recorded live music performance, but does not comply with all of their standards, he creates a conceptual disjoint. The intersecting and blurring genres confound attempts at experiencing the piece through a predetermined framework, inviting us to break down our systems of classification, ultimately leading to a more complex and satisfying experience - one that is not solely dependent on context, yet at the same time conforms to what an authence might expect in a museum setting.
SCOTT TURRI is a Pittsburgh-based artist and teaches in the studio art department at the University of Pittsburgh.