It is rare that I feel strongly about a piece of contemporary art, at least enough to encourage others to go see it. For the most part, I enjoy contemporary art, particularly when there is a strong element of craft or experience involved – that is, I don’t buy the blank canvas, or the crumbled piece of paper placed on the floor. My favorite kind of contemporary art is, and always has been, performance; something that I can experience spatially, audibly, and most importantly, with others.
Quick aside: Iceland has become of recent fascination to many North Americans. The country, which experienced a massive economic collapse in 2008, is tiny in population but rich in culture. It is impressive with its landscapes that have become the backdrop for films such as Prometheus, Interstellar, and Walter Mitty. This country is going through a bit of an economic and artistic revolution as many industries begin to move on the natural, untouched country. I too have become fascinated with the Icelandic people, who see the world from a different perspective than the rest of the world. This is very much reflected in their art.
Back in the spring of 2015, my wife and I visited the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York while Bjork, the Icelandic Singer/Songwriter, had a temporary exhibit hosted there. The exhibit, much like the artist, was surrounded by mystery. Guests are asked to enter a dark “Icelandic Cave.” It is pitch black as visitors shuffle through an ominous hall into a dark, soft chamber. After a few minutes of uncomfortable brushing with other guests trying to figure out where we are and what we have gotten ourselves into, a low rumble presents itself. On either end of the room, bright projections emerge. Suddenly we realize we are in a anechoic chamber, complete with pyramid shaped sound-reducing foam projecting from all sides of the room. Bjork begins to sing as projections of her dancing throughout the Icelandic landscape appear on the screens.
The sound is overwhelmingly powerful – it is emotionally moving, like a cleansing of the senses. After a few minutes, myself as well as other visitors, begin to realize that the two screens at opposite ends of the room are showing different images. Beyond that, the images begin to complement each other, encouraging the viewer to constantly look back and forth. On one screen we see Bjork disappear behind a rock and on the other screen we see her come into view, subsequently realizing that the second screen’s camera must be behind the very rock Bjork just disappeared behind. There is a spatial quality to the two-dimensional art – the exhibit isn’t just about the music and the intense visuals, it is also about the experience.
Fast forward to a few weeks ago, at the end of March 2016, I visited Montréal with my wife for a long weekend. While in town we visited the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (MAC) to see their temporary exhibit by Ragnar Kjartansson – we had no idea what to expect, but I knew he was Icelandic so I’m in. In short, it was amazing – one of the best pieces of art I have ever experienced.
The exhibit, known as The Visitors, begins much like that of Bjork, mysterious and sensorial. We come into a rectangular room. The room is not small, perhaps 50 feet long and 30 feet wide. Hanging from the ceiling are nine projectors casting images on the walls that define the room, as well as two on the front and back of a wall positioned in the center. On the screens, we see a series of musicians alone in various rooms, each wearing headphones and playing the same steady melody. On one screen there is a man sitting in a bathtub playing an acoustic guitar, on another there is a woman sitting in a chair playing a cello, another shows a man strumming on a banjo, a woman playing an accordion, a man tapping on drums, a man playing the piano. Eight musicians occupy eight of the nine screens leaving the final screen to be occupied by a crowd of about ten people sitting on a porch, of course singing along to the melody. The headphones of each musician are playing a live stream of the other musicians. The experience is enchanting.
As I stroll around the exhibit, which is designed to encourage movement about the space, I began to notice the first layer of spatial consciousness on the part of the exhibit – as you get closer to one of the screens, you begin to hear that screen’s musician more clearly then then rest. Suddenly there is an audible notion that I am standing right in front of that musician, as if I am in the very room where he or she is recording. As I continued to move around the exhibit this experience continues, I listen for the subtleties in each performance. Then something happens which presents another layer of spatial awareness – the musicians begin to leave their recording rooms. While continuing to play, we see a man pick up his guitar and walk out of the room, only to see him reappear on the other side of the exhibit as he walks past another musician – it becomes clear at this moment that the recording rooms projected on the walls of the exhibit are all in the same house. Slowly, the musicians begin to converge around the grand piano located in what looks like a large grand living room. The screens remain on, recording each of the now empty rooms. The musicians, who we learn are close friends through their non-verbal banter and smiles, leave the grand piano and exit though a large French door. The exhibition viewers, now realizing that the art work is about moving around the space, hear sound coming from the other side of the gallery. We all move around the center wall to find out what happens next. We see the musicians join the others on the porch, then after a few more minutes, begin to walk into the distant field, all while continuing to play the same melody and sing along together. The empty rooms remain visible, the occasional cat walks in front of one of the cameras. The exhibit is surreal and exhilarating. It is both impressive and deeply moving at the same time.
What I find most fascinating about both exhibits is the disorientation produced by the use and location of video screens. There is a notion that the screens provide a window into a room that may not have any relationship to its physical location in the exhibit, or more importantly to the location of other screens in the exhibit. We can all imagine having two computer monitors side-by-side that haven’t been properly setup. You move the mouse on your left screen to the far left and it suddenly appears on the right side of the right screen – backwards and discontinuous. This is analogous to how each projection is orientated throughout the exhibits. There are, in effect, three layers of space. First and most obvious is the gallery with its defined walls, floor, and ceiling. Second is the arrangement of the recording rooms in the house as we can understand them from watching the musicians move about. And third is the discontinuous spatial relationship produced by arranging the projections in the gallery – if Room A is next to Room B in the house, Room A’s projection might not be anywhere near Room B’s projection. This spatial distortion, along, of course, with the beautiful music and powerful images produced, is the mastery behind the exhibit and for me, what keeps me wanting more, as if I am tasked with solving this Escher like work.
1. STILL FROM INTERSTELLAR, 2014. PARAMOUNT PICTURES. HTTP://WWW.THELOCATIONGUIDE.COM/BLOG/2014/11/NG-FILM-CHRISTOPHER-NOLAN-FILMS-SCI-FI-EPIC-INTERSTELLAR-IN-ALBERTA-AND-ICELAND/
2. STILL FROM “BLACK LAKE,” 2015. BJORK.
3. VIEW OF BLACK LAKE EXHIBIT, 2015. HTTP://MOMA.TUMBLR.COM/
4,5,6,7,8,9. RAGNAR KJARTANSSON; COURTESY OF THE ARTIST, LUHRING AUGUSTINE, NEW YORK, AND I8 GALLERY, REYKJAVIK. PHOTO: ELÍSABET DAVIDS
10. THE VISITORS BY RAGNAR KJARTANSSON, 2012. VIDEO: TÓMAS ÖRN TÓMASSON, SOUND: CHRIS MCDONALD, VIDEO COURTESY OF MUSÉE D’ART CONTEMPORAIN DE MONTRÉAL (MAC)