Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Beautiful, Bizarre End

by Stephen Cummings

Ragnar Kjartansson, The End, 2008

No praise for the Carnegie Museum’s summer programming would be complete without mentioning Ragnar Kjartansson. Having gotten some attention representing Iceland in the 2009 Venice Bienniale, Kjartansson was brought to Pittsburgh this year for his first U.S. solo museum exhibition. Song collects four of the artist’s video works (as well as one limited run performance which I unfortunately didn’t catch) and sprinkles them throughout the museum to offer their often comedic and occasionally moving experiences.

The videos variously display a half-buried, unclothed guitarist (Kjartansson), a triptych of one expectorating mother (Kjartansson’s), and the captivating nonagenarian pianist Pinetop Perkins (now deceased), whose performance deserves mention for its unadorned directness if nothing else. Perkins is mesmerizing in this piece. Sitting at his piano working his way unhurriedly through a well-worn repertoire, the man may as well be tickling a dusty old stand-up in some bygone saloon or speakeasy. He’s a hold-out from an era that’s slipped away, a time capsule in himself. Kjartansson’s The Man is as much a document of Perkins as it is a piece in its own right, highlighting the tension in mechanical reproduction between what is made and what is observed.

Whatever the case, the prize of the show is The End, which featured at that little biennial mentioned above, and is here unencumbered by any painting performance. With four guitars, two amps, a bass, one drum set, one baby grand, two bottles of bourbon, and ten furry, skin caps, this performance is assembled in the only way it could be: on video, in five projections. Kjartansson and his collaborator and fellow musician Davíð Þór Jónsson play every part in the thirty minute concoction, the only members of an eight piece ensemble uncollected in a snowy Canadian wilderness and filling the gallery’s four walls. It’s brilliant. The song, a patient, folksy kind of thing, ambles along as it pleases until those points where it builds into a great cacophony, piano or drums taking control, before settling back into its regular, leisurely warp. The mood is easy, but affecting, and the odd collection of instruments makes for a wriggling, intriguing texture, here bluegrass, there classical — now an electric guitar squawk?

Kjartansson seems to thrive on upending expectations. The setting in this piece would appear to indicate a reverence for sublime nature, but then there’s all that recording equipment, as though this great outside were actually just some inside somewhere. And of course there are the performers themselves, clearly committed when it’s their time to play, but when it’s not, hey, it’s cold outside. They warm their hands, they look around. Sometimes they take whiskey breaks. On separate walls, both of the nonperforming bystanders just walk away. There is no decorum in this group, a nonchalance which bends the enthralling audible and visual components toward something equally laugh inducing.

If you haven’t seen this piece, it’s well worth the visit. And hey, it’s in the lobby, so you didn’t hear it from me, but just wander in. I guarantee Kjartansson wouldn’t mind. And if you’ve ever wondered why art should be taken so seriously, go see for yourself that it’s not always supposed to be.

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