Metropolitan Museum of Art, Met Fifth Ave.
Gallery 963, Robert Lehman Wing court
1000 Fifth Ave. at 82nd St.
Through September 2, $25 suggested admission
Multimedia Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson has an affinity for durational installations that push the boundaries for both the audience and the performers. In A Lot of Sorrow, the Ohio band the National played their song “Sorrow” repeatedly for six hours at one of MoMA PS1’s Sunday Sessions. For his immersive New Museum show My, My Mother, My Father, and I, a group of musicians played the song “Take Me Here by the Dishwasher: Memorial for a Marriage” for two months, alongside personal videos involving Kjartansson’s parents. And for his contribution to “Drifting in Daylight” in Central Park, the SS Hangover wooden fishing boat sailed on the Harlem Meer, carrying a brass sextet performing a dirgelike composition by Kjartan Sveinsson. Kjartansson’s latest work, Death Is Elsewhere, premiering at the Met through September 2, combines elements of those pieces in a beautiful presentation in the Robert Lehman Wing court.
A stone fountain sits in the middle of a circular tiled floor, around which seven large screens depict two sets of twins singing the title song, which Kjartansson wrote on a summer solstice with brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner of the National and sisters Gyða and Kristín Anna Valtýsdóttir from múm. The lyrics take words and phrases from such books as Alexander Dumbadze’s Bas Jan Ader: Death Is Elsewhere, about the late Dutch performance artist, Anne Carson’s If Not Winter: Fragments of Sappho, and poetry by Robert Lax and uses them to explore poetic ideas of love and the rebirth of spring. The siblings form two couples, each man playing an acoustic guitar, as they walk across a grass-covered landscape surrounded by lava fields near the volcano Laki — which wreaked havoc when it erupted in 1783-84 — singing “Death Is Elsewhere” for seventy-seven consecutive minutes, as if an endless rehearsal of a movie scene. The ballad includes such lines as “In the dark, in the dark, my love, my love” and “By the stream, by the stream, my love, my love.”
Inspired by cycloramas and a theater production staged by his father, Kjartansson shot the video in real time with seven cameras arranged in a circle, “like a high-tech Stonehenge,” he says in a Met blog post; the film is directed by Kate Ferrell, with cinematography by Rick Siegel. There is empty space between each screen, so sometimes the couples disappear from view, only to appear again on the next screen as if nothing happened. The screens are like paintings come to life, but Kjartansson leaves it up to visitors to flesh out the details. “I’ve never wanted to make a narrative film,” he explains. “I make films that have no stories, but there’s the idea of a story around it. They’re these open, poetic things that you can relate to in an ironic or sentimental way. The audience can create their own narrative around my works. There’s no wrong way to understand the piece.”
Watching Death Is Elsewhere, which Kjartansson dedicates to Carolee Schneemann, the groundbreaking performance artist who passed away in March at the age of seventy-nine, is a lovely, beguiling experience, filled with the beauty of nature, the love of family, the pain of loss, and the innate power of music to invade our soul, all tinged with nihilism. Spend as much time as you possibly can in the installation’s lush yet simple and evocative grandeur; there is no beginning and no end. It just is.