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.”
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.
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?
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.