Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson’s nine-channel video installation The Visitors (2012), drew throngs of rapt viewers during its extended run at Luhring Augustine Gallery in 2013. Many viewers took in the entire 64 minutes of the work; that’s most unusual for such a lengthy video. Quite a number (I was one of them) did so repeatedly. I visited five times, and extolled the work in an Art in America review. After my text was written and sent, I visited again. I took one step into the gallery and burst into tears. That was surprising. I’ve since learned that something similar happened with very many others.
The Visitors is, to put things simply, one of the best and most moving contemporary artworks that I’ve encountered anywhere, at any time, in any medium. This is art that really, really matters. It can make you feel at once joyful and mournful and leave you shaken and changed.
Now Kjartansson’s new seven-channel, 77-minute long video installation Death Is Elsewhere (2019) is having its world premiere at the Metropolitan Museum, as part of the Met’s escalating focus on contemporary art. While there are some similarities with The Visitors — notably, musician friends performing the same song in a lengthy video shot in one take — this new work is not at all a sequel. It is set in a very different location, namely Iceland, and has different themes. For me, this is one of the most compelling, do-not-miss-it artworks in New York of the season.
In the court of the Met’s Robert Lehman Wing, seven large video screens are arranged in a circle with gaps between them. You can hear the work from afar, and you are lured by its music. (Before he became an art star, Kjartansson was the front man in the Icelandic electro-pop, post-punk band Trabant, which makes his deep engagement with music and musicians a natural fit.)
The video features two sets of identical twins: Kristín Anna and Gyða Valtýsdóttir, both founding members of the seminal, atmospheric Icelandic band múm, and both riveting performers and singers in The Visitors (Gyða on cello, the ethereal Kristín Anna on accordion and acoustic guitar) and Aaron and Bryce Dessner of the renowned alt-rock band The National. The Dessner twins have collaborated with Kjartansson before. In his A Lot of Sorrow (2013-14), a concert at MoMA PS1 that was later turned into a video, The National played their tremendous song “Sorrow” over and over, for six hours in a row, 108 times in total. Sorrow was pervasive. It was in the honey; it was in the milk (if you know the song). So too were joy and exhilaration.
Death Is Elsewhere was shot at 2am in South Iceland around the time of the summer solstice. It’s set on a grassy field, adjacent to a looming lava escarpment. Kristín Anna has paired off with Bryce, and Gyða with Aaron, slowly parading in a circle, singing in absolutely beautiful voices as the men strum acoustic guitars. With the two couples on opposite sides of the circle (and on opposite sides of the installation), Kjartansson films them as a slow, minimalist carousel far out in nature, going around and around, not getting anywhere in particular. Seven video cameras, all facing outward, were used to create, in effect, a panoramic view. Each camera was accompanied by three microphones, capturing the sound as it traveled.
It’s hypnotic to watch them move from screen to screen: troubadours on the loose, minstrel poets wandering through the landscape, couples in love strolling through a meadow. The two couples become mirror images of each other; that they are two sets of identical twins makes things even more mirrored. The repetitive song, essentially a love song (although it has a dire refrain) with lyrics culled from several sources, including Alexander Dumbadze’s book Bas Jan Ader: Death Is Elsewhere (2013), which tells the story an artist lost at sea, is entrancing. It seems timeless or unstuck in time, a contemporary song that could be from, say, 600 years ago, and it insinuates itself deeply into your psyche. You may find yourself singing and humming it for hours and days after. Here is an excerpt:
In the dark
In the dark
By the stream
By the stream
Death is elsewhere
Very effective is how the seven screens function as landscape “paintings” — moving, sonic paintings sans paint. The landscape displayed on each screen is stark yet lush, with the dark volcanic mountain, thick, swaying grass, and an eventful, cloudy sky glowing orange and yellow on the horizon.
The images recall Dutch and Flemish 17th-century paintings, and in a happy coincidence Dutch painter Jacob van Ruisdael’s “Wheat Field” (ca. 1670), showing a flat, tawny and soft green landscape, is nearby, in the Met’s exhibition In Praise of Painting: Dutch Masterpieces at the Met. Kjartansson’s video images also recall various 19th-century Romantic paintings, for instance by John Constable and Caspar David Friedrich.
There are, however, no 17th-century Icelandic landscape paintings, and no 19th-century Icelandic Romantic paintings either. The country was too poor and remote, and too hobbled by Danish colonial rule and oppression, to develop its own visual art. Now, centuries later, using video, Kjartansson has slyly insinuated Iceland into the history of painting; he’s made 21st-century, new media, Icelandic versions that evoke famous art historical genres.
And Iceland is at the core of this work. The landscape frames the walking singers; their elemental song — with its lyrics evoking the wind, and the dark, and the stream, and sleep — responds to the elemental surroundings. But that’s when things get surprising. Judging by the sky and the light, you may well think that these singing couples are ambling about at dusk or just a bit after dawn. Actually, they are walking in the middle of the night, in Iceland’s extreme summer conditions when it never gets dark.
That looming, dark, and powerful lava escarpment in the video is quintessentially Icelandic, as anyone who has been to this part of the country readily knows. It is actually the remnant of the Laki volcanic fissure eruption of 1783-84 that destroyed nearby villages, contaminated the soil far and wide, and decimated crops, leading to a famine that eventually killed 25 percent of Iceland’s human population and more than 50 percent of its livestock.
That eruption also wreaked havoc elsewhere, as far away as Syria and the Sahara, spreading poisonous haze and drastically affecting the global climate. Thousands died in England. There was famine in France, which led to social and political upheaval; it is likely that the eruption in Iceland was at least partly responsible for the French Revolution. The “death is elsewhere” refrain in the song suddenly assumes dramatic historical connotations. Kjartansson’s work is also especially relevant right now, given climate change and environmental mayhem.
Death Is Elsewhere, like many of Kjartansson’s works, is frankly romantic and emotional, but also ironic and quite comical. These thoughtful, sensitive couples in their lovely Icelandic landscape are taking an absurd walk in a small, circumscribed circle, and doing so for a very long time. They are also frolicking at the epicenter of what was once a whopping ecological disaster, one which not only could, but at some point will, happen again.
It is best to absorb the video for its whole duration, despite its length; surrender to the flow and let it work its slow magic. As the singing couples move around and around, you notice ever-changing details: the distinctive movements and gestures of the performers, the emotions that play over their faces; the complex, unscripted and unspoken, communication occurring between them, registered by touches and gazes, glances and smiles; the slight alterations of the song over time, as the performers change their intonations and emphasis. This is all mesmerizing.
At the end of the video there is a breathtaking moment. All four singers just disappear, as if they have faded into the ether, dissolved into the vastness of the world and time. In their startling absence you hear the wind and the rustling grass, and you see the grass swaying. You see and absorb the landscape, minus humans. You are alone with Iceland, or rather with a video of it. We are left with the understanding that humans — relatively recent additions to a 4.5-billion-year-old planet — will come and go; the planet will remain. Then the singers reappear and their song commences and the cycle renews: life into death and death into life, in humankind and in nature.
While working on Death Is Elsewhere, and no doubt many other projects as well, the much-in-demand Kjartansson was also developing his Reykjavik-based record label with the hilarious title Bel-Air Glamour Records — hilarious because for most of its 1,100-plus-year history, the remote, rugged, often poverty-stricken, staggeringly beautiful country of Iceland had nothing whatsoever to do with glamour.
This record label seems to be not at all a normal one, as you divine here.
While Bel-Air Glamour has released work by the musical genius Kjartan Sveinsson (formerly a member of the Icelandic mega-band Sigur Rós, and a performer, on piano, bass, and vocals in The Visitors) and by Kjartansson himself, a driving purpose behind the label, as Kjartansson revealed to me in an email, was to produce the first solo album with instruments and vocals by one of the twins in Death Is Elsewhere, Kristín Anna Valtýsdóttir (previously Bel-Air released her experimental a cappella album Howl).
That album, I Must Be the Devil, is out now. It is thrilling and transportive and includes songs from 2005 to 2017 — private reflections, really — involving crisis, hope, whimsy, desolation, acceptance, and joy (among other emotions) in response to a life that can be messy and turbulent but also full of grace.
But first, I have a confession: I am not a music critic and there are many, including many Hyperallergic readers, who are much more versed in contemporary music than I am. So I will write not as an expert but as an avid listener, and really as an ardent fan.
Ever since I first encountered Kristín Anna years ago when she played with múm, (going by the stage name Kría Brekkan) I have been enthralled by her total musicianship: her rugged-crystal, high-pitched voice, at times wispy and at times fierce, quickly moving from a whisper to a shriek; the delightful, sometimes tumultuous sounds of her instrumentation; the potent (yet often mysterious) emotions that she ushers not just into her songs, but into a single word in the song, and oftentimes a single note.
For me, Kristín Anna has long been not entertainment, but nutrition. I go to her music (and I do this a lot) for strange wisdom. This is a brilliant, soulful artist bringing complex life into complex music and frankly I am grateful.
The nine songs on the album are piano-based ballads fleshed out by an all-star, mostly Icelandic cast: Gyða Valtýsdóttir on cello; Kjartan Sveinsson on bass and other instruments, including glockenspiel and vibraphone; María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir, Hildur Ársælsdóttir, and Edda Rún Ólafsdóttir (all three from the wonderful band amiina) on violin and viola; acclaimed composer Guðmundur Steinn Gunnarsson on guitar. Enormous talent is operating here.
The songs (in English) are confessional and intimate, but strangely large, almost mythic. You sense that they arose from deeply felt experiences of longing and loss, homesickness, wounded friendship, love, and alienation. Nature is a constant: ocean waves and forest trees, the moon and wind, the sky and lightning.
Each song doesn’t really tell a story, but instead hints at one obliquely, often through inventive language (“sky above a palace joy/we beneath in un-ballast loving”). “Forever Love” is an impassioned plea for a lasting love, but also, one suspects, an ironic acknowledgement that it often doesn’t. Together with director Allan Sigurðsson, Kjartansson made the music video, which alternates between Kristín Anna at home, in some shots visibly pregnant, and also outdoors, torching a rickety construction in a stunning setting next to a glacial river.
“Girl,” the last song on the album, an amazing nine-minute meditation on a fractured friendship, encapsulates a world of feeling: passion, regret, sadness, curiosity, respect. The entire album is polished and exquisite but also charged through and through with raw, honest feeling.
The music can be orchestral and full, or airy and ambient, frequently in the same song. It is often melancholic, but seeded with buoyant passages and, at times, ecstatic flourishes. Kristín Anna’s piano is intoxicating. It’s as if she’s using it to summon invisible spirits of the earth and air while exploring the intricate nuances of her thoughts and emotions. And then there is her remarkable voice, so fresh and distinctive, but also somehow ancient, as if from a thousand years ago.
Ragnar Kjartansson’s exhibition at the Met opened on a Thursday. On the following Sunday at The Kitchen, there was a concert by Kristín Anna on piano and vocals, accompanied by her sister Gyða on cello; the concert celebrated the release of I Must Be the Devil, which was performed in full.
Kjartansson was the hilarious MC and opening act, on vocals and acoustic guitar. To counteract, as he told the audience, the devil in the title of Kristín Anna’s album, he sang three Christian country songs by the Louvin Brothers, Charlie and Ira, including “The Christian Life,” pointing out that the Christianity-promoting Ira was a hard drinking, brawling, despicable person prone to vicious bar fights and domestic abuse.
Kjartansson also disclosed that performing in The Kitchen had been his impossible dream back in art school in Reykjavik years ago. Now that he was in The Kitchen, he wanted to take full advantage of the opportunity, and so performed a ludicrous, yet again hilarious, piece of body art by stripping off his shirt and rhythmically flapping his slightly flabby male breasts. The audience went nuts.
Then the two sisters came on stage, in their glittering gold gowns.
It’s great to hear Kristín Anna’s songs on the album, but a different matter altogether to experience them live. She doesn’t just sing her songs, she lives them. She doesn’t just sing with her voice but with her whole body, from her larynx to her sinews, veins, and nerves, and especially from her heart. Each song felt like a voyage filled with cascading, layered emotions. Each was utterly transfixing.
It’s easy to see the connection between Kjartansson and Kristín Anna. For all his irony and antics, Kjartansson uncommonly and unabashedly deals in core human matters, in “heartly matters,” which is the title of one of Kristín Anna’s songs. Among these are love, friendship, sorrow, hopefulness, pain, joy, death, and our relationship with nature and the cosmos. Kristín Anna does too, in droves; it’s what helps make her music so meaningful and exceptional.
Here are the lovely opening lines to the first song on her album, also the opening lines to what was a magical concert:
the oceanwave rocks my kneeshells
that is why i am laughing
i do find leaving sad….
And you can listen to the song here.
Ragnar Kjartansson: Death Is Elsewhere continues at the Metropolitan Museum (1000 5th Ave, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through September 2.
Kristín Anna: I Must Be the Devil is released by Bel-Air Glamour Records.