As Steven Matijcio, curator of the Contemporary Arts Center, puts it about the Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson, “Boy, he’s really taking Ohio venue by venue these days!”
That’s true — indeed, Kjartansson, not yet 40, has become one of the hottest contemporary artists, period. He’s a performance artist, a musician, a creator of fine-art videos that use music and musicians, and a painter. And his work is especially being embraced by Ohioans.
Starting Wednesday and continuing through March 20, one of his most acclaimed video creations, last year’s A Lot of Sorrow, will be screening during regular gallery hours in the CAC’s Black Box Theater. It is here in connection with the MusicNOW Festival, which starts Wednesday and runs through Sunday at Music Hall, Memorial Hall and Woodward Theater.
A Lot of Sorrow consists of the band The National, most of them dressed in black suits with white shirts, performing their three-and-a-half-minute song “Sorrow” — from their 2010 High Violet album — for six hours straight. Kjartansson used up to six cameras to record the 2013 performance at the Museum of Modern Art’s PS1 branch and showed it at the New York gallery Luhring Augustine Bushwick last September.
MusicNOW was founded by Bryce Dessner — guitarist with The National and, like the other members, a Cincinnati native. The band is playing live on Friday with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra at Music Hall as part of the festival. And Dessner wanted A Lot of Sorrow here.
I only have seen a 12-minute clip on Vimeo, and it was great, but Roberta Smith of The New York Times saw the whole thing and was deeply moved. “The delicate cooperation of The National’s members with one another to fill the space with sounds that gratify both themselves and the audience is perhaps both the subject and content of the piece,” she wrote. “Another subject, of course, is time, the way music changes and measures it, as well as the trancelike state the repetitions can induce.”
This Cincinnati debut of A Lot of Sorrow is occurring at the same time that another of Kjartansson’s videos, 2012’s The Visitors, is on display at the Cleveland Museum of Contemporary Art through May 24.
This is the prolific Kjartansson’s most well known work. A nine-channel video and audio installation, named after a 1981 ABBA album, it lasts just over an hour and chronicles eight performers — including Kjartansson — making music in separate rooms of an old country mansion while listening to each other through headphones. Museumgoers can move among the monitors that display the individual performers.
Actually, Kenyon College’s Graham Gund Gallery in Gambier, Ohio, already showed The Visitors from July 2013 through January 2014. In an unusual arrangement, Gund — a Kenyon graduate — purchased one of six official copies of the work (with another, The Man), and donated it in three equal shares to Kenyon, the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
“We were the first U.S. museum to exhibit The Visitors,” says Natalie Marsh, Gund Gallery director, via email. It is loaning the piece to Cleveland. (It has also shown at the ICA and Guggenheim Bilbao.)
Meanwhile, the Cleveland Museum of Art is preparing to show the high-definition DVD documenting Kjartansson’s 2011 Song, a live performance project at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art.
Truth be told, I’m a little worried that A Lot of Sorrow is going to get overlooked in its brief Cincinnati stint.
The CAC is busy with its own activities. On Friday night it has a members-only unveiling of its newly renovated lobby and related new art installations. And on March 20 from 7-11 p.m., the CAC is opening two new exhibitions — Albano Afonso’s Self-Portrait as Light and Daniel Arsham’s Remember the Future.
Since Kjartansson’s video runs during regular gallery hours, it will not be playing during the lobby reopening this Friday night. But since the March 20 opening of new exhibitions is for the public, A Lot of Sorrow will show that evening but be shut off from 7-8 p.m. for Arsham’s talk in the Black Box.
There could be more Kjartansson in our future. “We’re having ongoing discussions with Ragnar and his studio about an exhibition of one of the multi-channel works in 2016 or 2017,” Matijcio says via email. “We’re hopeful that Icelandic song of some sort will be ringing through the building in the near future. Ideally one of the videos would be paired with a new performance work to be premiered in Cincy.”
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