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A Roving International Art Fest Kicks Off with Ragnar Kjartansson in Toronto

Ragnar Kjartansson and Davíð Þór Jónsson performing "An Evening of Misery" at the Art Gallery of Ontario as part of Villa Toronto
Ragnar Kjartansson and Davíð Þór Jónsson performing “An Evening of Misery” at the Art Gallery of Ontario as part of Villa Toronto (courtesy Art Gallery of Ontario)

TORONTO — If pain can be funny, and funny things are sometimes painful, then Villa Toronto was off to a hilariously macabre start on Friday night. Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson held court at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), offering “an evening of misery,” complete with sad songs and black humor. It was a fascinating launch for what could prove to be an important, if fleeting moment in the ever-growing Toronto arts scene.

On view at Villa Toronto: Derek Sullivan, "Endless Kiosk" (2005–ongoing) (courtesy the artist and Jessica Bradley Gallery, Toronto) (click to enlarge)
On view at Villa Toronto: Derek Sullivan, “Endless Kiosk” (2005–ongoing) (courtesy the artist and Jessica Bradley Gallery, Toronto) (click to enlarge)

Presented by Raster Gallery (located in Warsaw, Poland) together with the Toronto-based Art Metropole, Villa Toronto has gathered 19 international and local art galleries showing works in the Great Hall in Union Station. Choosing the city’s downtown transit hub is an inspired promotional move; the station sees over 200,000 train and subway commuters every weekday and is currently in the midst of a $1 billion revitalization. People who might not normally venture to Toronto’s many downtown galleries can be exposed to their rosters of artists via morning and evening commutes — an effective way of reaching the many suburbanites who use the station on a daily basis.

Together with an opening ceremony at Union Station, Kjartansson’s performance marked the start of the weeklong Villa Toronto, which hopes to create what it calls “a temporary, ongoing art community that is dynamic and ever-expanding.” Rather than having an overarching theme or a larger message, the event’s focus is on engagement — with the city’s artistic community and with the public. Villa Toronto is free, and in addition to the main display at Union Station, there are performances, panels, and screenings. Highlights of the full agenda include artwork by Derek Sullivan, Dean Drever, and Patricia Dauder, talks by German photographer by Jochen Lampert and Swiss artist Reto Pulfer, and the screening of Babette Mangolte’s documentary Edward Krasiński’s Studio. The fact that Art Metropole is a partner bodes well for the event’s creative credibility; the nonprofit center, founded by artist collective General Idea in 1974, specializes in multiple-format and multimedia contemporary art, and has a large art footprint within the city. 

The Villa Toronto installation at Union Station (photo by Ann Webb)
The Villa Toronto installation at Union Station (photo by Ann Webb)

Villa Raster, the parent organization, emphasizes that the event — which has previously been held in Poland (2006), Reykjavik (in 2010), and Tokyo (in 2011) — is not an art fair. “Villa aims to use the curatorial experience of private galleries to create encounters with the general public and local art communities that are innovative, stimulating, and not merely market driven,” the press release says. Judging from the photos, however, the organization’s claim seems disingenuous; it certainly looks like one, and local reviews have described the Union Station installation as “underwhelming,” “intrusive,” and compromised by the restrictions by imposed by current renovations, while still praising Villa Toronto’s diverse, off-site programming.

Kjartansson’s appearance at the AGO Friday night was a good example of that more free-spirited approach, with the bearded, tux-wearing artist performing — together with pianist Davíð Þór Jónsson — before an enthusiastic, encouraging crowd. Featuring a range of songs inspired by the morbid and tragic, including works by Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, and a selection of German lieder by Strauss, Schubert, and Schumann, the evening’s melancholic tone alternated between heart-rending beauty and the blackest of humor, with Kjartansson’s delicate tenor veering from panged desperation to schmaltzy emoting. An encore piece, Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You,” featured a saxophone solo from a muscle-bound, shirtless man, while another part of the evening saw the Icelandic artist stripping down to a pair of black bikini briefs.

Despite (or perhaps owing to) these antics, there was something about Kjartansson’s approach that was so sincere, so child-like, it made the other effects (broad gesturing, a confetti gun, fake flowers) merely window dressing for a more compelling truth about the nature of our relationship with sadness (and sad songs) in popular culture. Are they great sources of healing? Things that exacerbate pain? Kjartansson’s performance seemed to affirm both these ideas by mixing the somber and the silly in equal measure.

Kjartansson performing "Misery"
Kjartansson performing “Misery”

Villa Toronto may prove a nice complement to other Toronto arts events peppered throughout the year, including June’s mammoth Luminato festival and October’s Nuit Blanche. Both of those have obvious corporate ties — Luminato, cosmetics giant L’Oreal; Nuit Blanche, Scotiabank — but provide (mostly) free and welcoming environments for art world newbies and veterans alike. Villa Toronto has received support from the Polish Ministry of Culture, the Toronto Arts Council, and real estate company Osmington, Inc. — which, suspiciously enough, is managing Union Station’s new retail space. Corporate help often provides the means to offering a more internationally flavored art experience, but the long-term cost on smaller organizations and independently minded artists remains to be seen. 

It’s hard to say if Villa Toronto’s impact on the city’s arts scene might move beyond the merely temporal, but if it leads to higher-quality conversations between the city and other international arts organizations, that’s only a good thing. If it involves citizens from outside the city proper becoming more excited about art, specifically the Canadian kind, even better. Considering how often the term “world-class” gets thrown around in relation to Toronto, it would be good for the city to actualize this with further cultural programming that reaches across borders while celebrating the talent within them.

Villa Toronto continues at various venues around the city of Toronto through January 23.

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