NEW YORK — Is Ragnar Kjartansson, one of contemporary art’s shining lights, an artist in the commonly accepted sense? Or is he more of an impresario — a figure like the failed artist and Ballet Russe founder Sergei Diaghilev, whose special genius was to convene other talents and to bring forth his vision through them?
Well, he is both. But Kjartansson’s success reminds us that such distinctions — a hangover of our romantic obsession with the idea of individual genius — have something wheezing and exhausted about them. Yes, there is a difference between making it happen and doing it yourself. But what matters in the end is that it gets done.
Kjartansson is best known to the world for his multi-screen video installation “The Visitors,” a collaborative musical performance presented as a nine-screen video installation. The work was declared in 2019 by the Guardian as the best artwork of the 21st century. (I recently spent nine months compiling an oral history of the making of “The Visitors.”)
His latest show at Luhring Augustine, his Chelsea gallery, is titled “There Is a Song in My Heart and a Hammer in My Brain” and it features another gorgeous video installation, “No Tomorrow.” This, too, emerged from a performance — eight guitar-wielding dancers from the Iceland Dance Company. Presented on six large screens that surround the audience, with music emitting from 30 sound channels, the work unspools, with its own swelling dynamics, over about 30 minutes.
Where “The Visitors” was set in a gorgeously rundown, richly atmospheric bohemian mansion on the historic Hudson River, “No Tomorrow” plays out on a gleaming stage that reflects the turquoise-and-white-striped curtain backdrop. The look of the piece is taut, clean, very Nordic. The dancers, all women, wear uniforms of blue jeans with white T-shirts and white socks. They move across the stage, and from one screen to the next, as they strum their guitars.
It’s a classic Kjartansson production in that it seems slight at first, verging even on silly, but before you know it you are completely under its spell.
“No Tomorrow” was choreographed by Margrét Bjarnadóttir, an Icelandic artist, writer and choreographer, and set to music by Bryce Dessner, a guitarist with the American rock band the National. (Kjartansson has collaborated with the National before, including on a repeating, six-hour performance of their hit song “Sorrow.”) The music here is played by the dancers, who also sometimes sing. Kjartansson and his wife, the artist Ingibjörg Sigurjónsdottir, took the lyrics from the Greek poet Sappho and from Vivant Denon, whose exquisite 18th-century novella “No Tomorrow” gives the piece its name.
Bjarnadóttir’s account of how “No Tomorrow” came into being is worth relaying — not only because it’s hilarious, but because it also offers a glimpse into Kjartansson’s Diaghilevian DNA:
“[Kjartansson] called me,” the choreographer said in a statement released by the gallery, “and asked if I’d have lunch to ‘discuss ballet.’ We met in a restaurant in downtown Reykjavík and, as always, Ragnar was dressed for the occasion, wearing a pink ‘ballet scarf’ (these were his words) around his neck. It was an elegant meeting: we ate deviled eggs, had some wine, and I think Ragnar also ordered a salad because that’s what he imagined ballet people would eat. And he showed me a drawing he’d made of a ballerina with a guitar and asked if I’d be interested in creating this piece with him. I can’t remember if there were really any more meetings to discuss the work.”
If this is an account of how one particular, collaborative artwork came into being, it’s also a sly description of social life itself as a state aspiring to art, or to something like aesthetic bliss — defined by Vladimir Nabokov as “a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.” To live such a life, Kjartansson seems to have intuited, you have to do it with conviction, but also with a sense of absurdity, futility, silliness — like a self-aware libertine cavorting on plump, satin pillows as Jacobins oil the guillotines.
Somewhere between the seriousness and the absurdity, you will, with any luck, find the key to everything. (You will then, of course, go searching for the lock, and never find it.)
“No Tomorrow” premiered as a live performance in Reykjavik in 2017. It toured, won awards and was subsequently filmed. Bjarnadóttir describes the piece as “an ode to love, youth, music and beauty” and “to fleeting moments of love and transcendence that we wish would last forever.” It evokes, in other words, the spirit of the 18th century, a period with which Kjartansson (like Vivienne Westwood, the founder of punk fashion) has long been infatuated.
He has paid homage to 18th-century Europe in other works, including “Scenes From Western Culture” and “Bliss,” in which an opera company repeated the exquisite, three-minute “Contessa perdono” finale from Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” for 12 hours straight.
“No Tomorrow” particularly recalls the paintings of Antoine Watteau, whose modestly sized pictures, designed for the salons run by France’s most influential women, feature young lovers and characters from the commedia dell’arte, often cradling stringed instruments, in enchanted settings. Watteau’s bodies, leaning into one another, huddled on benches or picnicking on the grass, speak a delicate language of love — and so do the dancers in “No Tomorrow.”
Many of Bjarnadóttir’s dancers had never played the guitar. They had to learn to strum their instruments and, at intervals, sing dreamy melodies, rounded out with harmonies and subtle dynamics, all while performing an elegant sequence of shifting formations. Dessner’s music matches their movements. His minimalist impulses combine with complex patterns to create a sculptural feeling, with spaces for silence, shifting rhythms and sound emitted from changing locations.
Rehearsals took place as Donald Trump was beginning his four years as president. According to Bjarnadóttir, “No Tomorrow” had nothing to do with him. But the new situation in America became, she said, “an anti-guiding light for the piece.” It evolved into “everything that Trump is not” — a collective expression of “grace, listening, tenderness, and inner strength” not to mention “empathy and sensitivity.”
Watteau is beautiful. But he is also full of longing and preternaturally sensitive to the fact that everything beautiful must end. His art is shot through with the kind of poignant self-mourning known only to the young. It is at once sad and in love with its own sadness. A similar sensibility informs “No Tomorrow,” which is alive not only to its own artificiality, but to the fragility of art’s hold on reality, too, including the political sphere.
A second work in the exhibition, “Guilt and Fear,” is a wallcovering installation of 1,000 porcelain salt and pepper shakers made in the Netherlands (where the installation was first shown). Instead of “salt” and “pepper,” they are labeled “guilt” or “fear.” Kjartansson acknowledges that both emotions are playing an ever-greater role in political life, but he also wants us to see that they’re not entirely negative — that guilt and fear have a role to play in pulling us out of ourselves and adding a bit of seasoning to our social existence.
As an artist, you can make art with dancing and songs and beautiful women, but then, as Kjartansson has said of another of his projects, “you realize, ‘Oh, Goebbels would have liked this piece!’ ” There is nothing inherently good, that’s to say, about supercharged beauty. Kjartansson uses very 21st-century modes of irony and humor, as well as repetition (his aesthetic calling card) and boredom, to draw our attention to this. He is 100 percent committed to art. But he is an enemy of solemnity. And a friend, it would seem, to all kinds of talent.
Ragnar Kjartansson: There Is a Song in My Heart and a Hammer in My Brain Through Dec. 17 at Luhring Augustine, Chelsea, New York. luhringaugustine.com.