The phone was ringing. I knew it was her. I remembered standing stupidly on the pier in spring, the rain almost hard, cold, thinking I might actually be swept into the water, and looking desperately into the dark and asking God to deliver her to me. I had written a letter to my future, promising everything of me. I was to be with her, know her forever. Yes, I did that. I thought it was some kind of rite into adulthood when it was just delaying it instead. I waited in the thick leather chair some year later and watched an old movie on television. There was something wrong with the sound. She was hiding in the shadows. She had been dead for years. I was happy when she came out, almost a lion, her shoulders moving high on her back. After all of these years, her travels and disappointments, the magic of our days suddenly back in reach. She was aloof. Worse. And I thought she was going to go. It looked like she was. But then she was holding me and said, “I want this too.” The words were only half formed, but they were clear. It was a promise. She was sprawled across me, her entire body there, and I held her just to feel what it was like to touch a body I had loved and find the tremor gone.
Ragnar Kjartansson’s latest work, S.S. Hangover, offers peaceful music and quiet, a journey that goes nowhere, yet never ends. Six musicians play a 5-minute piece (composed by Kjartan Sveinsson) in a mini-Viking ship that circulates two large slips at the back of the Venice Biennale Arsenale complex.
There is humor in the piece – the name of the ship, the seemingly pointlessness of the journey – but it is a contemplative work, offering the viewer a moment to think, to drift, to consider where we might be next.
I watched on the final day, a chill in the air, as everyone smoked – musicians, composer and artist alike – and the moment to disembark arrived and they set sail on the last tour of a six-month journey.The captain pushed off, pipe in hand, and steered the miniature vessel on its tiny course, and the musicians played, paused and played again, left a lone trumpeter on a dock, returned for him again, played and drifted on in silence, played again. Happily, it is an almost endless thing, something to remember as we look forward to Kjartansson’s next work, more time to think, at The New Museum in 2014.
Is thinking a specifically singular activity? Is existence utterly isolated? Is “to think and be” a thing to do alone? Is it at all possible that there be a “we” in this thinking, we as a collective of “I”s? Can we think of ourselves as a “we”, truly together, or do we just go along, watching the stupidity of each other and try to get away with what we can? Can we think – and be – together?
We certainly have a notion of a “we” in cities, laws, families and music. It is in the interplay between right and wrong, sense and chaos, lyrics and rhythm. Retribution Gospel Choir – on stage this week with Wilco’s Nels Cline at Brooklyn’s Knitting Factory – offered a number of connecting moments, long and straining, the guitars back and forth, Alan Sparhawk singing: Nobody put up a fight. Everyone out on the ice. You and I don’t lie. It is moments like these that there seems to be some sense to “we”, the intertwining sounds, like we’re going somewhere, wonder and excitement at every turn. Ragnar Kjartansson’s work The Visitors – at Luhring Augustine until March – develops this feeling of joy and unity as well. The communication between musicians, each alone in his/her own space, joined only by headphones, the music, flowing through crescendos and silence, until coming together, exiting the house into the wide misty expanse of what might come next. Hope looms. The same cannot be said of Andy Kaufman.Kaufman’s work – celebrated this week at the Maccorone Gallery in Greenwich – centered on the characterization of idiosyncratic individuals who didn’t fit in with the everyone else. Wide-eyed, smiling, Kaufman looked back like he wanted to be understood, waffling between child-like wonder and childish behavior, pushing us to reject him, which we inevitably did. “You could never like me. I always knew that.” That’s how he wanted it; if you weren’t in on the gag, so what?
As much of a cornerstone as the “I” might be in the work of Kjartansson and Retribution Gospel Choir, there is the invitation, a query as to what might be thought of next – not just the those on view – but the “we” in all of us “I”s too.
Ragnar Kjartansson’s new show The Visitors opened at the Luhring Augustine Gallery in Chelsea last night. Hundreds of visitors – including Bjork, Antony, dozens of project participants, not to mention the artist himself – filled a space not made for such a crowd. And so it was hard to digest the work, a 53-film displayed on nine different screens, all of them surrounded. The title of the piece is derived from the 1981 album The Visitors by Abba, their final work together. The film opens with isolated people in different rooms – kitchen, living room, bathroom – connected to each other only by headphones, humming, strumming and singing lyrics from a poem by Ragnar’s former wife, Asdis Sif Gunnarsdottir: Once again I fall into my feminine ways. The music is entrancing, the tone meditative, the desire to sing along hard to resist; it is at times ecstatic – Ragnar, in the bathtub, raising his guitar above his head, a wheel-less canon fired into the evening – and always inviting. Everyone eventually exits their disparate spaces to join together at the front porch of the house (Rokeby Farm), still singing, to walk down into the fields together.I was tired when I arrived at the gallery, feeling the flu coming on, and the crowds didn’t help. I wanted to leave, come another time, but stayed and was, once again, enveloped by Kjartansson’s work. It was not only the music, but the hypnotic quiet, in spite of everything, my tired knees, the inability to see much of anything, missing screens, unable to move, the anxious pushing around me, the chic personages. Indeed, I was privileged in the end to meet and thank Kjartansson for his work and expect to return – a few times, I imagine – to see what it’s all really about. It’s Bliss all over again!
I process many narrative difficulties through music: doing my workout on the elliptical, staring out the window from the couch or attending a live concert. Once I get through the problems of the day – Did I send that email? Did I buy that ointment? Is the lawsuit going well? – I find a better path, a more open space, and start to think. Music is my primary place of thought.
My favorite works include Fripp and Eno’s No Pussyfooting, Low’s C’Mon, My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, Off the Sky’s Cold Distances and William Basinski’s Distintegeration Loop #5. Each of these works help me shed the harsh light of this ‘sterile promontory’ to bring out the ‘excellent canopy’ instead. (That’s my spin on Hamlet.) Characters grow; the plot thickens.
Another recent inspiration has been the work of Icelandic performance artist, Ragnar Kjartansson. I was fortunate enough to attend his work Bliss at Abrons Auditorium in New York. A troupe of Icelandic opera singers – with full orchestration – sang the final arias of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, a two-and-a-half minute sequence repeated again and again over twelve straight hours. Please click on either the link or photograph below to see a six minute sequence from the production, featuring two renditions of the piece:
The above photograph is from the final hour of production; note the woman climbing out of the orchestra pit to go to the bathroom; full meals were also served on stage throughout the day. Assuming the same pace was maintained, they performed this sequence of arias approximately 240 times. I was there for only four hours and wish I had experienced more. It really was something to live in that music.