Artist who never tires of repetition

By Hilarie M. Sheets ( China Daily/Agencies ) Updated: 2013-01-22 09:14:50
Artist who never tires of repetition

images from Ragnar Kjartansson / Luhring Augustine, New York and i8 Gallery Reykjavik

Artist who never tires of repetition

Ragnar Kjartansson in his video installation "The Visitors." A scene from "Song," top, on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston.

In "The Visitors," a nine-screen video installation by Ragnar Kjartansson that will have its first American showing in February, the artist lies in a pedestal bathtub almost in a trance, strumming a guitar as he repeatedly sings a refrain, "Once again, I fall into my feminine ways." Over the course of an hour his voice falls and rises, on its own and in unison with performers on the other eight screens - each seen as if in a painting, playing an instrument in a different room of a beautiful, run-down mansion and singing the same enigmatic refrain at a dirgelike pace.

Artist who never tires of repetition


Last August the nine performers gathered in a room of the mansion, two hours north of New York City, to rehearse. "The Visitors" would be shot later that week in a single take, with nine cameras distributed around the house, but that day they simulated being in separate rooms by avoiding eye contact.

To one onlooker what was most striking was the extraordinary emotional range and intensity of their performances. Limited to just a few simple lyrics, which they repeated dozens of times, the singers created an absorbing ensemble piece that was alternately tragic and joyful, meditative and clamorous, and that swelled in feeling from melancholic fugue to redemptive gospel choir.

It was not the first such work for Mr. Kjartansson, an Icelandic artist who, at 36, has spent more than a decade exploring the potential of repetitive performance to yield unexpected meanings. He has become one of the most celebrated performance artists anywhere. In 2009 he was the youngest artist ever to represent Iceland at the Venice Biennale, and two years later his piece "Bliss" won the Malcolm Award for the most innovative work at Performa, the performance art biennial in New York. His traveling museum survey, "Song," is at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston through April 7, and his second solo show at the Luhring Augustine gallery in New York, featuring "The Visitors," will run from February 1 to March 9.

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His wide appeal, many admirers say, lies in an ability not just to invoke the deep existential concerns of much endurance-based performance art - anxiety, ennui, other discomfort - but also to push beyond them, toward joy.

"He's someone who understands theater, who understands drama, who understands pleasure," RoseLee Goldberg, the director of Performa, said. "Most of us think of performance based on the 1970s - difficult, politically engaged." But a work like "Bliss" - in which Mr. Kjartansson and a group of Icelandic opera singers repeated the final aria in Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro" for 12 hours with full costumes, set and orchestra - represents "endurance at a level of sheer ecstasy," she said.

Mr. Kjartansson said: "My works are all kind of anti-storytelling. They're always about a feeling, but there's no story."

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Mr. Kjartansson made his first video performance piece, "Me and My Mother," in 2000, while studying painting at the Iceland Academy of the Arts in Reykjavik. In it he and his mother stand side by side as she spits into his face. He accepts the abuse, occasionally giggling. Mr. Kjartansson restaged the piece five years later, and then again in 2010 after deciding to continue the cycle every five years. The series, in which he shifts from boy to man, undermines the idea of the doting mother while also showing her love in acquiescing to her son's unconventional vision. And it is a gift from a son to an aging mother.

Mr. Kjartansson is dedicated to what he calls the "divine boredom" of marathon performances. "I hope it will offer some kind of a religious moment in a humanistic way," he said.

In staging the last aria from "The Marriage of Figaro" for Performa he gave the audience much to take in visually - from the sumptuous costumes to a feast of suckling pig. While some singers showed strain over the 12 hours, Mr. Kjartansson never flagged as he sang of repentance and forgiveness at a delirious pitch. "The word 'endurance' is a little bit too athletic for me," he said. "It's so much harder to be a waiter than to sing opera for 12 hours."

The New York Times

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