Ragnar Kjartansson at the Carnegie | Program Notes

Ragnar Kjartansson at the Carnegie

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The Icelandic performance and video artist's first-ever Pittsburgh exhibit debuted last night at the Carnegie Museum of Art. The traffic-jamming crowd of hundreds was probably due at least in part to the museum program that makes Thursday-night visits in March free. But everyone seemed curious about Kjartansson, the centerpiece of whose show was a "long-duration performance work" starring his three nieces, in the museum's Hall of Sculpture.

Kjartansson is in his mid-30s, with a fuzzy beard and the manner of a friendly bear. He's known for video works like one in which he stands bare-torsoed and buried to the waist in a field, while he strums an acoustic guitar and sings a song called "Satan is Real." Another work, this one live, found him dressed like a viking in an abandoned rural theater, singing all day for weeks at a time, regardless of whether anybody came by. It was called "Scandanavian Pain."

For the opening reception, he dressed with ironic formality in a brown double-breasted suit and bow tie, his blonde hair slicked down. In a conversation with Carnegie curator Dan Byer, Kjartansson was charming and wry. In one of his videos, he and his mother stand side-by-side and she repeatedly spits on him; it's a triptych, with the ritual repeated at five-year intervals. "It's a nice tradition," said the artist last night. "It's super-duper Freudian."

Another topic of discussion was the new work, "Song." It involves his three nieces, lovely young blonde women, reclining on a large pedestal in the Natural History Museum's Hall of Sculpture, harmonizing the same fragment of a song their uncle has written, over and over, all day, for three weeks. The lyrics go, "The weight of the world is love." Said Kjartansson last night: "The Hall of Sculpture becomes a temple of love!" Then he raised his fists overhead, like a champion boxer.

Some tips about the show:

-- Most of Kjartansson's work is located in or around the Forum Gallery, right behind the reception desk. The "spit" video's on the wall outside, another video work inside.

-- "Song" is down the big hall linking the museums. You can see and hear it from the first floor, but while the girls are miked, they sound much better -- heavenly, in fact -- from the Hall of Sculpture's second-floor balcony.

-- One piece folks seemed particularly interested in was "The Man," Kjartansson's long-form video portrait of 97-year-old blues-piano great Pinetop Perkins. In it, Perkins plays his upright piano positioned in a Texas field, takes cigarette breaks and cracks jokes at the cameraman. The installation itself is similarly remote physically from the rest of Kjartansson's work -- it's up in the CMA's Scaife Galleries (walk up the main staircase and turn left).

-- "Satan is Real" is hung on the wall by the museum's first-floor bathrooms.

Another climax of the exhibit is a live musical performance by Kjartansson and friends, on March 24, at the Carnegie. Last night, he described it as "an Ingmar Bergman-style vaudeville show."

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