by Maria Porges
Showcasing the Icelandic artist’s enigmatic, wry wit and eye for elegant composition, Ragnar Kjartansson’s Scenes from Western Culture draws viewers into the age-old question of art’s timelessness. That it does so by enticing us into viewing it for far longer than we would a gallery full of paintings can be attributed to both the artist’s disarmingly hypnotic narrative skills and to the atavistic human need to find out what happens next — catered to in almost every culture by Scheherazade-like serial dramas of every sort.
The videos are presented like paintings in a gallery, painting being the installation’s insistent reference point. Nine flat screens are hung salon-style across two long, adjoining walls at varied heights and distances from each other. A different video plays on each one. Some tell stories with a beginning and an end; all are loops of varying lengths that repeat almost imperceptibly, implying that the events portrayed are eternal which, in fact, some are.
From left to right, we see: 1. A handsome midcentury modern interior inhabited by a dog and an incongruous grandfather clock. 2. A house in the woods that catches fire burns to ashes. 3. An attractive young heterosexual couple making love with affection and enthusiasm in a softly lit white bedroom. 4. An elegant African-American couple — jazz pianist Jason Moran and the mezzo-soprano Alicia Hall Moran — eating an elaborately presented meal in a New York
restaurant. 5. A man in a tuxedo standing in an empty white room, staring at things we can’t see. 6. A motorboat ferrying a well-dressed couple across a lake at twilight. After a prolonged kiss they part. The woman walks towards the camera; the man motors away. 7. A group of children in Easter finery playing by a garden pavilion, tossing eggs and trying to fly a kite. 8. Students taking a guitar lesson, playing the same chords over and over. 9. A woman swimming back and forth in a lap pool while a dog runs alongside, yapping.
The last of these is the only video in which the camera moves; it follows the swimmer back and forth, like a pendulum. In all the others, a fixed point of view turns viewers into a theater audience, watching nine scenes excerpted from longer dramas, over and over. The house appears intact, burns down, and catches fire again. Similarly, the actions of the man in the tuxedo and the dog start and finish, even if there seems to be no point. But it is hard to tell how long some of the other loops actually are. Close scrutiny reveals that the video of the boat coming to the dock contains multiple takes of the same scene. In one she drops her scarf. In another she wears the man’s coat as the boat approaches the shore. In yet another she leaves
her scarf around his neck. Once, he falls into the water. Oddly, the light doesn’t change. Watching this same-yet-different series of events alters how we see the other videos, making one wonder if some other subtle shift is taking place.
Kjartansson seems to be toying with the fact that, in a painting, events are forever suspended in a single moment. As a reminder of this, Jean-Antoine Watteau’s canvas, The Fortune Teller (ca. 1710), on loan from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, hangs in the adjoining room, along with a series of nine small sketches that suggest storyboards for the videos.
Scenes was inspired by images of 18th century aristocrats engaged in leisure activities. Kjartansson’s contemporized versions demonstrate how life is a succession of cycles, filled with a repertoire of repeated experiences or actions. There are, of course, singular events: a house will burn down only once, children will play with Easter eggs for a very short time before they grow up, and a memorable meal is quickly consumed. But each of these also stands for something that happens over and over—like falling in love or contemplating beauty (as the man in the tuxedo may well be doing). Even the burning house, if seen as spectacle, becomes a kind of ritualistic entertainment: the set piece of a drama rather than a catastrophe.
While the video loops vary in length from 19 minutes to nearly three hours, it doesn’t matter how long we watch. Such scenes, the artist seems to imply, have been taking place for hundreds of years, and will likely continue for hundreds more.
Kjartanssons’ parents are theater people — his father a director, his mother a famous actress — and he essentially grew up backstage, watching plays performed over and over, invested nightly with the same intensity. The power of repetition also animates The Visitors, the immersive nine-screen installation the artist presented last winter at SFMOMA in which a company of actors repeat same musical phrase for the one-hour duration of the piece.
Rather than creating that kind of rock concert/movie theater experience, Scenes offers a cooler, more considered view of theatricality by a slightly older artist. Still, its sober presentation is deceptive; hours can slip by watching looping narratives that hypnotize with their eternal Now. The experience mirrors that of listening to much-told tales that satisfy no matter how many times we’ve heard them because they represent life: the regenerative seeds for events that will make us laugh or cry, or maybe both, over and over again.
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Ragnar Kjartansson: “Scenes from Western Culture” @ McEvoy Arts through September 1, 2018.
About the author:
Maria Porges is an artist and writer who lives and works in Oakland. For over two decades, her critical writing has appeared in many publications, including Artforum, Art in America, Sculpture, American Craft, Glass, the New York Times Book Review and many other publications. The author of more than 100 exhibition catalog essays, she presently serves as an associate professor at California College of the Arts.