Emotional Landscapes by Ragnar Kjartansson at the Thyssen Bornemisza Museum

I saw Ragnar Kjartansson’s exhibition a week ago. I don’t usually write a review so long after seeing an exhibition. But circumstances dictate this. I’m afraid I can’t capture the momentary excitement when writing about a good exhibition one has just seen – this exercise is more distant. Although it was not something planned, fate was timely – it is an exhibition about distance (which is why I thought it was a good idea to make this introduction).

The exhibition begins quietly with The Man, one of several video installations in the show. Pinetop Perkins, one of the greats of American blues, plays the piano and tells us stories on a sunny day. There’s something deeply familiar and comforting about it – the dimensions of the screen put us in the action, it feels like the musician is playing just for us. To enter the room is to enter a parallel, intimate, yet cosmological dimension. In a continuous still, we see a portrait of an America in extinction – the America of the blues, of rock n’ roll, but also of rurality, of the abandoned agricultural farms (we see one on the verge of ruin, staring at the piano and the pianist), an America that got old in the 20th century. But which stubbornly persists, playing to the end. In the face of immediate rejection, it knows how to show us that it still must live. Pinetop Perkins died at 97, a year after the first show of this installation.

In the next room is The Visitors, Kjartansson’s most acclaimed work. It is housed in a large space, where we can see the screens from a single point, arranged around the room, facing each other. To walk through the space is to enter it. As you get closer to each, you hear the sound they make more closely, drowning out the more distant ones. The experience is moving. Even though the same lyrics are repeatedly sung like a mantra (Kjartansson assumes his interest in repetition), the music is sad but sweet and lulling. Maybe it was because I was far from home, but it seemed to sum up the meaning of homesickness. It reminded me of the pandemic’s recent past, rife with Zoom meetings: we see each musician locked in a particular space, obeying the same rhythm as everyone else. The good news is that, at least here, they all come together at the end: we discover they were in different rooms of the same house after all – the one on the first screen. It’s interesting to see that, in 2019, The Guardian newspaper named this the best work of the 21st century. Three years later, we seem to live in a different world: we are going through a pandemic and, more recently, a war has broken out in Europe. I wonder what it would be like to have seen this work 3 years ago (or 10 years ago, the piece is from 2012). I think it took on more meaning. It was a painful premonition – like a medicine discovered before the disease.

Scattered around the museum’s first floor, part of the contemporary art collection, are the remaining works in this monograph by Kjartansson. To find them, we must find the rest of the museum, always motivating our search and interaction.

On one side of the floor, we have The End. On the other, God. On the first, we see a set of screens where, in the American Rocky Mountains, a group of men play guitar and piano, in the manner of The Visitors, but in a country composition. Here the scenery is not intimate, but icy and distant: many characters appear distant, almost submerged in the immensity of the mountains. The music is the main warming source – as is the dense clothing covering each performer. The drawings exhibited before we entered this room, the series From The Valley of the World – Weariness in British Colombia, also describe an icy, desert-like vastness, where trees fall in landscape abstractions – but small plants sprout. Unfortunately, the room’s salmon colour distracts us from such delicate compositions.

In God, Kjartansson embodies a Frank Sinatra-like American crooner with a humorous tone, something key in understanding his work. The post-romantic epithet often attributed to him fits nicely, especially when we listen for thirty minutes to the artist singing the same line (“Sorrow conquers happiness”), under rose-red curtains (an even more exaggerated colour than the intense theatrical scenography), which cover the entire room. The phrase is dramatic, resonant, but quickly becomes absurd. It’s not just the repetition, but the increasingly artificial and somewhat cynical set. How does drama survive in the world of irony? – someone once wondered. That may be where post-irony came from. Here, it appears sweeter than ever. However, for Kjartansson, it is not a criterion, but a consequence. Whether in comedy or drama, he wants to make us feel something. Irony is just a personality trait or a necessary inevitability in today’s context. Because Kjartansson is above all an artist-actor. Each piece (video or object) is a trace of a performance. Often art is literal and irony is what we consider reality.

The works touch us not so much through their mysterious and seductive beauty (although we find it in the interstices of repetition), but through an immediate emotion, an empathic exercise that allows us to readily enter these “landscapes”. A kind of utopia where we would like to stay.

Emotional Landscapes by Ragnar Kjartansson is at the Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum until June 26.

Miguel Pinto (Lisbon, 2000) is graduated in Art History by NOVA/FCSH and made his internship at the National Museum of Azulejo. He has participated in the research project VEST - Vestir a corte: traje, género e identidade(s) at the Humanities Centre of the same institution. He has created and is running the project Parte da Arte, which tries to investigate the artistic scene in Portugal through video essays.

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