Anyone who experiences all thirty-plus minutes of “God” (2007), a video installation by the Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson currently on view in the artist’s retrospective at the Hirshhorn in Washington, won’t soon forget its fundamental teaching, “Sorrow conquers happiness.” The piece’s only words, they are sung hundreds of times by Kjartansson, who plays frontman to a small jazz orchestra in a garishly retro make-believe ballroom. The artist’s repeated crooning of an eight-bar minor-key melody, which crests on a major chord before looping back to its beginning, remains modest in its expressive range. A half-hour-long vamp would seem to all but mandate some vocal gymnastics from the singer, but Kjartansson, whose boyish, unassuming presence and somewhat ungainly body suggest a studied amateurism, refuses to transform or even vary the simplicity of the phrase being sung.
What variation there is comes from the orchestra behind him, which shifts the musical ambience ever so slowly, like a kaleidoscope being turned. The musicians’ quite ordinary acts become suffused with suspense: it seems noteworthy when, say, the harpist finally picks up her instrument after an extended rest and begins playing. The change from waltz time to a passage in 6/8 comes across as a veritable event, even as Kjartansson himself holds firm to the reiteration of his mantra, the still point in this turning world of his own devising. Kjartansson, whose parents were deeply involved in the theater in Iceland, is the most blatantly theatrical of artists, but the drama he is acting out here is one of restraint, of emotion that has settled itself in a circumscribed space and won’t move beyond it.
Kjartansson’s sense of limited, I’m-only-human scale — made evident partly through the piece’s offbeat nostalgia but mostly through the vulnerability that he expresses in his performance — is of course at odds with the work’s grandiose title and those three weighty words, “Sorrow conquers happiness.” But we’re not really breathing the rarefied air of philosophy or formal theology here: everyone thinks about God, or a kind of transcendence and providence that serves as an analogous concept, and everyone has those occasions when the whole of life seems to boil down to a pithy maxim, grim or uplifting depending on the circumstances. Most of us toggle between such pronouncements, even if we make them only to ourselves. There’s an everyman quality to “God,” which extends even to its baroque big-band-era conceit: its musical repetitiveness and gaudy setting may be products of Kjartansson’s singular imagination, but the performance also seems like high-concept karaoke, enabling a Frank Sinatra fan from Reykjavik (as Kjartansson is) to imagine himself as a performance-art avatar of his idol.
Not all my fellow museumgoers at the Hirshhorn sat through the entire piece, but sticking it out for the duration really is worth one’s time. (Against the odds, Kjartansson’s repetitive works can be strikingly un-tedious: the hour-long video installation that catapulted him to art-world stardom in 2013, “The Visitors,” also on view, provided one of the most beguiling and joyous hours I’ve had in a museum this year.) Much of the pleasure of watching “God” in its entirety comes from the full gamut of associations that the piece calls forth. As the single musical phrase recurs, it begins to possess a solidity, a thingness, as if it were etched in the air, but the viewer — this viewer, at any rate — is not so centered, being lulled instead into a mood where the mind can wander fruitfully where it will. In its repetition, “sorrow conquers everything” becomes at once an absurdly reductive dictum and quite possibly a hard-won truth; a snippet of folk wisdom; a subtitle in a grainy art-house offering of the 1950s or ’60s; an angsty adolescent’s diary entry; or the second line of a melancholy haiku. Banality takes its place beside profundity, irony beside sincerity, and if one’s impressions of the piece contradict one another, all responses seem nonetheless valid. At one point, watching Kjartansson’s facial expression grow increasingly blissed-out and almost absent, his eyes directed heavenward, I sensed an echo of Bernini’s ecstatic St. Teresa. I wasn’t sure what to make of this connection, but I felt happy to have it come to me, and let it simply linger.
Kjartansson’s own gloss on “God” casts the piece as a way of coping with a spiritual crisis. “I’d stopped going to church,” he told Calvin Tomkins, whose profile of the artist was published in The New Yorker earlier this year. “And it was very freeing, somehow, to know that bad things were going to happen, and sorrow would conquer happiness, and we’re going to die, but that it’s all right, it’s all fine.” The unlikely mise-en-scène notwithstanding, Kjartansson has given us in “God” a mantra that bears kinship with Edgar’s stark pronouncement in King Lear: “the worst is not / So long as we can say, ‘This is the worst.’” The gloom about sorrow’s ascendency is joined, through repetition and song, by a countervailing, almost tender sense of consolation. In its inviting, oddball, post-Romantic way, “God” spans the grandest of contradictions: the intertwined truths that sorrow holds dominion over our happiness, but we might yet find ourselves liberated from its thrall.
“God” (2007) can be seen in Ragnar Kjartansson, on view at the Hirshhorn Museum (Independence Ave SW, Washington, DC) through January 8, 2017.