Repetitive Affect: Ragnar Kjartansson at the Reykjavik Art Museum

Ragnar Kjartansson, God I feel so bad, 2008

In addition to the many treats of my recent trip to Iceland, the Reykjavik Art Museum had the exhibition Ragnar Kjartansson: God, I Feel So Bad on view, the first museum exhibition of the performance artist in his home country. The extensive exhibition ranges over time and medium, from early drawings to elaborate recent performances. Its title, selected by the artist, comes from a 2008 drawing that is on display and suggests the mood of playful pathos that finds more performative expression in other works on display. Kjartansson says: “I like that title a lot. It’s both true and ironic, precisely the way I feel everything is. Duplicity is everywhere. The works all revolve around how bad I feel and how everybody feels bad, and how you try to giggle when you face the abyss.”

Woman in E, 2016-7 

Woman in E, 2016-7 

Cue the music. The tenor of the show is struck–literally–in the live performance Woman in E. I could hear the E-minor chord, resonating through the space, when I first entered the museum. As I made my way toward it, in one of the first rooms of the exhibition, I was confronted by fluttering gold steamers. They obscured my view of the plaintive noise source. Parting the gold curtain and entering, I discovered a woman in a gold-sequined gown standing on a rotating plinth of more gold streamers. At regular but not rhythmic intervals, she struck the E-minor chord of her gold Fender electric guitar. The jolt from each note is strong and individual rather than forming a melody. E-minor has thoughtful, melancholic connotations. The statuesque presence of a women on a pedestal and the title suggest a synesthesia between music and visual art, between the works of classical composers and classical sculpture. A rotating cast of local performers enact this spectacle until September 3, when it will be replaced by another performance.

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Kjartansson is an increasingly well-known artist internationally, with solo exhibitions at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., Palais de Tokyo in Paris, New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, and the Guggenheim Museum Balboa. In 2009, he became the youngest artist to represent Iceland at the Venice Biennale, and his S.S. Hangover project sailed across the Harlem Meer as part of Creative Time’s 2015 “Drifting in Daylight: Art in Central Park” exhibition. Kjartansson’s work has been said to combine theater with experiments in repetition and endurance, as a piece like Woman in E suggests. Affect can mean an instinctual reaction to stimulation rather than the result of a complex intellectual process, and it suggests the sensory and emotional realms. The works on view in the exhibition are often repetitive but always affective. The combination productively undermines, intensifies, and calls into question the relation of the one quality to the other. Does the repetition nullify the affective qualities? Or does it mount to an ever more intense catharsis? Is the work of art a saving grace or a hollow gesture?

Installation shot, World Light – The Life and Death of an Artist (2015), Four-channel video

Installation shot, World Light – The Life and Death of an Artist (2015), Four-channel video

Kjartansson himself has said: “All the longing to make something great — but it’s never great; it’s always mediocre. And I just love that. I just love it when human beings are trying to achieve something and it sort of doesn’t happen. I think it’s the ultimate human moment.” That ethos is on view upstairs, in the most complex work in the show, World Light – The Life and Death of an Artist. Filmed in Vienna in 2015 with a crew of friends and family, the four-channel video installation documents some twenty hours of an attempt to perform Halldór Laxness’s novel World Light. Against handmade backdrops, we see actors waiting, idle chatter, the rap of the clapperboard starting a scene, the performance of the scene until finished–or until a line is flubbed, a laugh erupts, and the scene begins again. Kjartansson is there too, seen in shots directing or interrupting the scene, in a trademark white tux, with hair slicked back, like a 1950s crooner. Happening concurrently on four large facing screens in a darkened room, its impossible to watch them all, much less discover the plot. The action is that of the group filming rather than the novel itself, but even that lacks a narrative arc. Rather, it shows the seemingly endless process of filming. It’s point is perhaps that flawed striving for an elusive transcendent, in this case the transformative art experience. The human realm reaches up for the exalted work of art, but it lies just beyond the grasp, like the plot of the novel for the viewer.

In the final room of the show, whose noise echoes out into the hallway where it competes with the softly throbbing E from the other part of the building, is an ongoing screening of A Lot of Sorrow (2013-14). It is a recorded performance of the band The National playing their 3-minutes song “Sorrow” for six hours in front of a live audience at MoMA PS1, and it solidifies the idea that endurance is required. The experience of watching it is like having an earworm (a song that gets stuck in your head). You kind of like it, then you tire of it, but it keeps popping back up. It begins to sound different and you start to hear all the possible nuance and inflection. Sorrow is a conceit that Kjartansson has tackled before. Is it cathartic to repeat the exploration of such full-fledged emotion? The emotive lyrics of the song become emptier, as with repetition one is reminded that they are sung by rote rather than by real feeling. It reminds how lyrics are indexical, a pointing back at some original feeling, even if they feel real when performed. And yet, to keep going, to keep singing, suggests a kind of faith in absolution, a belief in the act of singing and the artifice of catharsis as truly valuable.

On view at the Reykjavik Art Museum through September 24, 2017.

Bruce Nauman revisits Contrapposto at Phildelphia Museum of Art

Video still from Bruce Nauman’s “contrapposto studies, i through vii,” 2016. Credit Bruce Nauman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Sperone Westwater, New York

In 1968 American artist Bruce Nauman created an important early video work, Walk with Contrapposto, in which he walked down a corridor while jutting his hip out step by step, in an exaggerated and animated demonstration of the classical Greek sculptural pose contrapposto. In the past two years, Nauman returned to this subject matter in a series of seven works now featured in the exhibition “Bruce Nauman: Contrapposto Studies, I through VII” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The museum also exhibits the original 1968 video work, and the contrast between the earlier and later works is stark.

Installation shot at Philadelphia Museum of Art, Bruce Nauman, Contrapposto Studies, I through VII

Installation shot at Philadelphia Museum of Art, Bruce Nauman, Study in Contrapposto, 1968

The original experiment in contrapposto is shown on a TV screen in the center of a small, darkened room. On the tiny screen, a fuzzy black-and-white image of a youthful, lithe body is seen awkwardly and methodically pacing down a tall, narrow white corridor, one hip jut at a time. The viewer observes the figure’s back as Nauman walks to the end of the corridor away from the viewer as well as from the front as he walks toward the viewer. The spectacle is simple and slow, making sculptural conventions ridiculous and exploring how video could be used by an artist to implicate the audience in uneasy relation. The viewer is not confronted as directly as in some works Nauman would make in the following immediate years, such as Live-taped Video Corridor of 1970, but the voyeurship of watching the artist and his body presented in new terms the relationship between the viewer and traditional sculpture. Using the then-new medium of video makes the relationship more circumspect than that of, say, performance. That is especially true today, when such grainy small footage reminds the contemporary viewer more of security cameras than televisions. Overall, the impression is stilted and highly focused. Tension comes from the way the body fills the narrow corridor, which directs him along the only possible path he could walk on. The performance is durational; if you watch carefully, he tires over the course of the hour–the length of video cassette tape at that time. The only sound is that of his footsteps in the otherwise empty space.

In his recent works, Nauman again walks back and forth methodically jutting out an opposing hip, step by step. In both the early and later works, the same person walks in the same way in the same nondescript outfit of white t-shirt and jeans. If his earlier body resembled that of the classical Greek sculpture, his aged body is by comparison less nimble and heavier. But the more arresting difference is the technology used: Nauman has updated to large color digital projections that he manipulates. The simple moving image of 1968 becomes compounded into several similar but competing images in the same field, projecting across from competing images, sliced through horizontally more and more while the sound of footfalls is layered to build into a cacophony. In some of the works, Nauman shows the image in color and its negative. The overall effect is a blurring of action and sounds, complicating the action of a single body in motion as if someone had made video collages from a Muybridge strip of a man walking.

Installation shot at Philadelphia Museum of Art, Bruce Nauman, Contrapposto Studies, I through VII

Certainly, the works reflect the technology of their times. One could argue that these new studies as merely translating the original 1968 video into new technologies. However, the meaning of the work itself also splinters under such digital manipulation. Where before the viewer had to wait to watch Nauman pace first down the corridor, and then back, here he approaches the viewer simultaneously, rendering his movements in positive and negative, forward and backward, within a single field of vision. The relationship of the viewer to the artist is easier, somehow, because your vision is free to roam over the many iterations of Nauman’s figure rather than limited to an unending tunnel. The viewer is now immersed in the large-than-life projections, implicated in the scene by the presence of some stools scattered throughout the gallery. The change in setting from the corridor to wide room loosens the sense of constriction; in the newer work, there is a sense of freedom and play. Where the young body became tired, the aged body seems in perpetual motion of recombination. What you gain is a kind of humanity alongside the deadpan, unblinking honesty that characterizes much of Nauman’s work.

Bruce Nauman: Contrapposto Studies, I through VII” is on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through April 16, 2017.

A Schematic and Spiritual Early Abstraction: Hilma af Klimt

Hilma-af-Klint-studio-1895

Hilma af Klint in her studio, 1895

Swedish painter Hilma af Klint is pictured above at age 33, looking entirely comfortable in her studio space in Stockholm among figurative works and wooden furniture. This conventional photograph does not hint at her other body of work: large and dynamic abstract paintings that preceded work by such pioneers of abstraction in modern art as Kandinsky and Malevich. “The Keeper” exhibition, up at the New Museum through September 25, boasts a beautiful gallery with 16 of these audacious, tactile, spiritually driven exercises in expressing the nature of a godly reality through reduced line and color. They make a case for a kind of abstraction not encompassed by the story of a move toward reduction and simplification in response to an increasingly chaotic modern world.

hilma-af-klint-newmuseum_install

Installation view, “The Keeper,” New Museum, 2016

Af Klint was in fact trying to express a complex vision of the world. John Yau describes af Klint’s exhibition history and context wonderfully in this essay on Hyperallergic. Yau clarifies how the artist arrived at the mystic belief that “painting was the best medium for bringing the invisible or occult world into the visible.” Her readings in theosophy led her to pursue schematic illustrations in which color has distinct emotional valences (for example, blue represented masculinity; pink, spiritual love). As the image below suggests, af Klint’s works are tactile and imperfect, as if the artist was unconcerned with rigorous line for its own sake, but rather pursued form to make visible the underlying order she found in the world. Her abstract paintings were not shown publicly until 1986, writing her out the history of modernist abstraction that she pre-dated. Since then her work has been increasingly shown.

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The Swan, No. II, Group IX/SUW, 1914-15

Why did Massimiliano Gioni and the other curators include these paintings in “The Keeper”? They don’t suggest an interest in preservation in themselves. Rather than small sketches or drawing diagrams on paper, af Klint choose to work in paint on large canvases, despite the fact that she did not show or sell these works as she did in her concurrent figurative practice. Instead, she preserved these works at home until her death in 1944. Gioni, Artistic Director of the New Museum, also included af Klint’s work in the Central Pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale. At that time, he defended her mystic occultism, which to many people would separate it from art as such, saying:

“placing a work [of art] next to materials that are difficult to classify [such as af Klint’s], thus repositioning it in a narrative dimension, the reinterpretation of the piece is reactivated as both the trace of a personal experience and a different means through which to conceive our image culture. Thus the work of art returns to its former existence as a mysterious object charged with multiple meanings, and returns to presenting a view on the world.

…What really interested me was to reveal the mysterious and, at time, even mystical fascination with art….To escape from the definition of a work’s quality according to its market value. I believe it is essential that works are inserted into a discourse that embraces the entire system of images, including pieces that do not conform to the rules of the market”

I Dream of Knowing Everything: An Interview with Massimiliano Gioni on the 55th International Art Exhibition, by Christina Baldacci (Fondazione La Biennale di Venezia, 2013)

Perhaps one can interpret preservation more generously, in which case these images display a need of the artist to preserve a vision of inner reality of the world. Their size is impressive. Yet, the square format does not recall the human figure, as is sometimes ascribed to vertically oriented canvases. They remain removed from the human experience in their non-figurative imagery as well–for example, in the dynamic composition of radial swirls spiraling across a red background as in The Swan, No. 9 below. Af Klint also used recognizable elements at times, such as birds or astrological signs. In her hands, these elements serve a symbolic purpose rather than an attempt at illusionism.

The Swan, No. 9, Group IX/SUW, 1914-15

The Swan, No. 9, Group IX/SUW, 1914-15

Af Klint’s paintings do an amazing job of unsettling notions of abstraction in art history and the role of mystic diagrams in high art. The paintings do not confirm to the rules of the market, certainly, but they don’t confirm to the story of high art either. I, at least, experienced them as powerful and challenging images. Even at the overwhelming Central Pavilion at the Biennale, af Klint’s few contributions exercised some kind of magnetic appeal. Seeing a larger group of her paintings at the New Museum now is rewarding, as they easily slip into the Modernist, white cube context but still resist clear categorization. It is touching to see the fragile application of paint and imagine the strange tenacity which drove a young Swedish women to create such unconventional works that operate even today on several registers.