Contemporary Art /
There are certain words that Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson bandies about frequently, like the indefinite adjective “maximum,” used to qualify just about any statement. (Example: “I am a total maximum feminist.”) Maybe my favorite of these Ragnar-isms are “vaudeville” and “troubadour,” two performance anachronisms that crop up as often as you might expect to hear “punk” or “glam” from ex-rocker Kjartansson, whose band Trabant was well known for its outlandish onstage behavior. At An Evening with Ragnar Kjartansson and Friends, Thursday, March 24, at 8 p.m. at Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland, the artist’s penchant for theater of old will perhaps begin to make sense.
Just a few days into Kjartansson’s month-long residence in Pittsburgh, another vaudevillian troubadour sauntered into town in the form of veteran singer and songwriter Jonathan Richman. Watching the bard of suburban Boston at Mr. Small’s Funhouse, Millvale’s deconsecrated church turned mid-sized music venue, was awe inspiring. Watching Ragnar Kjartansson watch Jonathan Richman was enlightening. Richman’s performance style is all-consuming in its honesty—to the audience, to the singer, and to the song itself. Situated practically in the audience, with only an acoustic guitar and faithful percussionist Tommy, Richman sings about a brutish beatnik need for the moment. He straddles pretention without falling in, thanks in part to a broad paahk-the-caahr accent, but largely because Richman is that rare performer able to disarm even the thought of dishonesty with an unconscious flick of his neck, flex of his fist.
Kjartansson and his three nieces—Ragnheidur, Rakel, and Iris Leifsdóttir, here to perform as a part of their uncle’s piece Song—slinked through the audience, drawn closer and closer. They were enthralled—artists turned autograph seekers, encircling Richman after the show. And upon viewing his video performance pieces in Kjartansson’s exhibition, it’s obvious why. This impassioned denial of pretention, in even the most grandly sublime moments, is at the heart of his artwork. As is collaboration, not merely in particular artistic settings, but over a lifetime—such as Richman’s commitment not only to his sole musical partner, Tommy Larkins, but to his audience. And that, perhaps, is the meaning of the vaudevillian troubadour.
Despite its eponymous title, An Evening… isn’t about Ragnar Kjartansson so much as it’s about …and Friends. Kjartansson’s constant collaborator (and wife) Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir is a highly regarded writer, visual artist, and performance artist. Davíð Þór Jónsson is Kjartansson and Gunnarsdóttir’s frequent musical complement, and a collaborator in The End, the five-channel video showing at Carnegie Museum of Art as part of Ragnar Kjartansson: Song.
The trio has worked together on projects such as their joint residency at the Watermill Center in Long Island, creating a series of “radio dramas,” and on an upcoming performance residency at the Banff Centre in Canada, as well as numerous performances in Iceland and Europe. Kjartansson promises a mixed music and theater performance akin to Samuel Beckett writing vaudeville—in other words, he’s keeping us a little bit in the dark.
One piece that we do know about is Piece for Eight Guitars, a new performance composition created by Kjartansson and Kjartan Sveinsson (of Icelandic art-rock group Sigur Rós) and performed by eight Pittsburgh “troubadours.” These guitarists, including well-known Pittsburgh musicians such as Daryl Fleming, John Purse, and David Bernabo, will create a “heavenly strum” in the foyer before, after, and even during the show, allowing their sound to seep in between onstage lines, songs, and actions.
Ragnar Kjartansson’s artwork always seems to fall back to his family’s establishment within the theater. At An Evening… we will see him in his native element: onstage with friends and family (including the Leifsdóttirs). As Jonathan Richman would say, “We’ll be the noise, we’ll be the scandal … come with us, you won’t regret it.”