Opera and Contemporary ArtBy COC StaffPosted in Key Change
A look at the boundary-busting work of Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson
Toronto, as a city, is an incredible cultural hub, home to countless creators and artistic organizations. In typical times, this has led to a dynamic, creative ecosystem but, throughout the pandemic, that sense of solidarity and partnership has deepened across the arts and culture sector. Continued collaboration has helped keep us all connected to our art forms and to each other.
This week, on Key Change: A COC Podcast, co-hosts Robyn Grant-Moran and Julie McIsaac dive into the cross-section of two art forms that, as it turns out, are more alike than one might expect: opera and contemporary art. The episode focuses on the genre-defying work of Icelandic contemporary artist Ragnar Kjartansson in a candid conversation with the artist, as well as through added context provided by Adelina Vlas, Associate Curator of Contemporary Art at the Art Gallery of Ontario; Kjartansson’s seven-screen video installation, Death is Elsewhere, is currently installed at the AGO.
You can also catch an Artist Talk with Ragnar Kjartansson and Adelina Vlas on Thursday, April 15 at 4 p.m. ET, hosted by the Art Gallery of Ontario, focusing on Kjartansson’s Death is Elsewhere. (The video will also be accessible online within a week of the live event).
Kjartansson’s videos, performances, drawings, and paintings heavily reference the history of film, music, visual culture, and literature. Immediately noticeable across many of his works is his deep interest in opera and signature use of repeated musical elements.
With Kjartansson, the repetitive elements can feel almost extreme, a feeling he openly acknowledges while simultaneously inviting audiences to lean into the discomfort. In a collaboration with The National entitled A Lot of Sorrow, the band performs their 3:35 song “Sorrow”, over and over, in a six-hour marathon.
A Lot of Sorrow (2013-2014) by Ragnar Kjartansson, performed by The National (seen above)
In Bliss, Kjartansson takes a two-minute excerpt from the finale of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, and has it performed for 12 hours in a row!
And in Death Is Elsewhere at the AGO, two sets of twins stand across from each other in the vast, Icelandic landscape. They’re repeating a song in unison, without beginning or end.
A still from Death Is Elsewhere by Ragnar Kjartansson (2018)
For Kjartansson, repetition in his live art takes on a “painterly” quality, providing the viewer with as much or as little time as they require to fully engage with the piece–the idea being to take something narrative-based and turn it into something more like sculpture:
Kjartansson is also an audiophile with an encyclopaedic knowledge of music, and remains enthusiastically open to all possible sources of inspiration–whether that’s opera or rock or the work of fellow artists. His broad appreciation is perhaps best illustrated in his response when asked to recollect some of his earliest musical influences: Danish-Icelandic soprano Engel Lund, the soundtrack to the 1984 film Amadeus… and Chris de Burgh with “Lady in Red”!
Adelina Vlas adds that one of Kjartansson’s most remarkable abilities is his intuition for selecting exactly the piece of music that will have the maximum impact for what he’s trying to say:
While Kjartansson finds immense joy in the act of creating, he does not presume to have an opinion on how his art should be interpreted. Music and contemporary art are one and the same when it comes to mediums that inspire and serve as canvases for his creativity.
Hear the full conversation on Key Change: A COC Podcast
Key Change Episode 12: Opera and Contemporary Art
Please note: the two Soundcloud links included above are clips from an unedited version of Episode 12: Opera and Contemporary Art
Photo credits (top to bottom): Ragnar Kjartansson (photo submitted by artist); Ragnar Kjartansson and The National; Courtesy of the artists, Luhring Augustine, New York, and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik. (photo by: Elísabet Davids); Still from Death Is Elsewhere, 2019, Seven-channel video with sound, 77 minutes (installation by: Ragnar Kjartansson).
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