PORTLAND, Maine — For a composite sketch of so-called late capitalism, look no further than Ragnar Kjartansson’s “Scenes From Western Culture,” a cluster of nine videos rife with emblematic cliche, now on view at the Portland Museum of Art. In one, a well-dressed couple dines in a gilded restaurant; in another, a young man and woman grope and loll naked in bed, their environment a lightbox of soft, uninterrupted white. Over in the corner, one screen displays a small wooden shed violently aflame, its inferno licking past the top of the frame’s view. These things could be connected. More on that later.
Kjartansson — a superstar contemporary artist from Iceland, much-loved by biennials and art fairs the world over — built his reputation on “The Visitors,” a bonafide masterwork made in 2012 (and a fan favorite around Boston; the Institute of Contemporary Art acquired it in 2013). “The Visitors” is everything “Scenes From Western Culture” is not: Its nine screens capture a group of friends converging in an empty mansion deep in a snowy mountain range. It’s somber, elegiac, and slow: Each person plays an instrument in some far corner, connected by cables and nothing else. Out of sight from one another, the song nonetheless coalesces; they come together, alone. A paean for disconnection and loss, “The Visitors” is both warm and withering. The piece was named for Abba’s last album, before divorce and emotional fractures tore the band apart. Kjartansson went through a divorce of his own shortly before making the piece; he appears in it a bathtub, mournfully strumming a guitar. Cue the heartstrings. It’s a weeper.
Should we be surprised that there’s something icy and lifeless about “Scenes From Western Culture,” an array of disconnected moments that barely live, even on their own? (Hoping to glean something from the stiff, standoffish couple at the restaurant — played by the artist Jason Moran and his wife, Alicia Hall Moran — I all but pressed my ear to the monitor; I still couldn’t make out a word.) Maybe, but I don’t think so.
With “The Visitors,” Kjartansson meant to convey something real, something raw. Almost like an antidote, “Scenes From Western Culture" features an array of slickly produced images, familiar like advertising might be, and every bit as empty. This is critique, not paean, expertly plied, of a culture bloated with self-regard.
Kjartansson proves his fluency in the language of moving images: A swimmer in a sleek lap pool, tracked stroke by stroke by a yappy terrier, could be a scene from “Dynasty"; the canoodling couple, Antonioni. Another capsule, featuring a boat gliding across an alpine lake to drop a young woman off at a dock, over and over again, has a vaguely Hitchcockian air — though the bubble of suspense blown by the artist never actually bursts (watch it long enough and you’ll see the driver miss his step off the dock, falling headlong into the water).
Together, the videos feel like tools in a toolbox — mechanical vignettes of vaguely opulent ideals pitched your way via TV commercials and YouTube pre-rolls. To me, there’s the sense of an exposé — Kjartansson laying bare a suite of visual techniques designed to convince, to provoke, to arouse. It’s cold and calculating. It’s too perfect.
When you learn that Kjartansson’s inspiration was the 18th-century French painter Jean-Antoine Watteau, it all comes together. Watteau was famous, if for anything, for coming up with the baroque genre of “fête galante” — bucolic scenes of the rich lolling in sumptuous gardens. Watteau painted not for aristocrats but the growing ranks of the bourgeoisie, merchants and bankers ascending the class ranks by money alone.
Watteau’s paintings helped position his buyers in a pictorial tradition that had been reserved largely for the high-born. Watteau’s paintings were a megaphone for the nouveau-riche to trumpet that money now spoke as loudly as lineage — or louder. Watteau’s enterprise dovetails neatly with Kjartansson’s “Scenes” — constructed privilege, put on public display. We haven’t even talked about the tuxedoed gent, fidgeting idly in an empty ballroom, or the children skittering playfully about the manicured gardens of a neo-classical pavilion (merci, Watteau). Meanwhile, there’s that fire, the anomaly, raging higher and more furiously just as wine is poured, bodies are fondled, a boat putters slowly away. Can there be any question how it all ends?
Ragnar Kjartansson: Scenes from Western Culture