Ragnar Kjartansson exhibition marries song and video

In Ragnar Kjartansson’s videos, Pinetop Perkins played in a field in Texas.
In Ragnar Kjartansson’s videos, Pinetop Perkins played in a field in Texas.

On paper, it sounded dreadful. An Icelandic artist would perform Franz Schubert’s “An Die Musik” for four hours as part of his new exhibition, “Ragnar Kjartansson: Song,” at the Institute of Contemporary Art.

“An Die Musik,” a piece for voice and piano, is roughly two minutes long. That adds up to 120 repetitions of the same music.

Yet when you see the video installations in “Song,” an exhibit organized by the Carnegie Museum of Art, you begin to understand what Kjartansson is aiming at in his music-oriented work, which raises questions about performance’s strange cocktail of artifice and authenticity. Kjartansson grew up around performance. His parents are both theater professionals.


The videos, like the “An Die Musik” concert, are full of repetition. But, as in visual art or jazz improvisation, you can hang a lot of shifting expression and technical adornment on one simple, repeated structure, and the repetition of a single tune becomes the backdrop for something much larger.

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This is most vividly evident in a five-channel video on four walls, “The End.” In it, Kjartansson and his performance partner, David Thor Jonsson, play American folk music in the snowy Canadian Rockies, decked out in cowboy boots and Davy Crockett fur hats. In one video, Kjartansson sits at a baby grand. Another shows Jonsson with a pink electric guitar and an amp. In a third, the two strum guitars in the falling snow.

As the music rises, it becomes clear that every video contributes to a single soundtrack, a twangy tune full of sweet harmonies that, over 30 minutes, alternately strays into riffs and tuneups and coalesces into a song of mournful beauty. The music becomes immersive, part of the environment. The videos, with their snow-capped peaks, are inevitably majestic, and the whole thing is a celebration of an expansive American idiom that includes Albert Bierstadt and the Carter Family.

Charles Mayer
David Thor Jonsson (seated), Kjartansson (standing) in “Ragnar Kjartansson: Song” at the ICA.

Yet there’s something funny, even a little bit snarky, going on with all the electronic equipment out in the snow, with the costuming, with the show of it all. The Beauty-with-a-capital-B has been jacked up with theatricality, technical wizardry, and an outdated, corny motif. Does that make it any less transcendent? Turns out, no, because there’s no irony in the music.

For “Satan Is Real,” Kjartansson buried himself waist-deep and shirtless in the earth in a public park in Reykjavik, strummed a guitar, and sang “Satan is real, and he’s working for me” over and over for more than an hour. In the video, children frolic and even picnic around him.


The scene recalls Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days,” although Kjartansson’s brooding lyrics distinguish him from the Pollyanna character half-buried in that play. The words come from the artist’s mishearing of the Louvin Brothers’s gospel song, which isn’t quite as bleak: “Satan is real, and he’s working in spirit. . . . He can tempt you and lead you astray.”

This is much harder to watch than Kjartansson’s hootenanny in the Rockies. He is at times brash, at times earnest, and at times weary as he sings. Yet all the different takes on the same line make him continually compelling, even as he’s trapped in the dirt.

He does not appear in “The Man,” a toe-tapping, endearing, occasionally bollixing video of the late blues musician Pinetop Perkins sitting at an upright piano in a field outside a decrepit farmhouse in Texas. Perkins, who died last year, was well into his 90s when Kjartansson videotaped him in 2010. Although this, like the artist’s other videos, plays on a loop, there’s further spiraling as Perkins repeats himself, playing songs over and over, flourishing “Jingle Bells” and “Shave and a Haircut” endings, and complaining about the out-of-tune piano.

Kjartansson’s fascination with American music and its cultural underpinnings — Perkins was present in the early days of the Delta Blues, an African-American tradition that white musicians have capitalized on ever since — is layered in here. But it’s tangential to his works’ central theme, in which music and its repetition can be seen as a model for life’s daily rituals and variations, even as it can be a channel for the transcendent.

Which brings us back to “An Die Musik.” Kjartansson did not perform it alone. He had Jonsson on board, and eight singers and eight pianists, students and teachers at Boston Conservatory, scattered throughout a room. The audience was invited to wander among the musicians, who were either performing at slightly different tempos, or had begun at different times.


Yes, it was cacophonous. The bass notes on the pianos and those of the trilling sopranos trumped many of the notes in between. The musicians competed for attention.

The song praises art’s ability to transport a listener from “gray hours” to “a better world.” I wandered through the concert watching the naked emotion on the singers’ faces. Was this the artifice of performance, or sincerity, or both? Listening to their pure, individual voices, and seeing them tire and lean against a wall, or sit and rest as they sang, I felt gratitude well up in me for their brave and good work, and that feeling mingled with the surges and retreats of the music itself.

The audience was not expected to stay for the full performance. I had to go after just under an hour, and I was sorry for it. The concert tested physical endurance and the aesthetic and emotional challenge of being present to the same song, over and over again. Four hours would be grueling, but to finish would be a high unlike any other.

Cate McQuaid can be reached at