Carnegie Museum of Art recently presented Ragnar Kjartansson’s Song in the Hall of Sculpture. The performance work involved the Icelandic artist’s three nieces singing the same short verse over and over, all day for three straight weeks, an exercise in endurance. The lyric, a misremembered line from an Allen Ginsberg poem, came to Kjartansson when he was lying in a hammock in a commune in Poland strumming a guitar. Although the idea sounds discordant, the work was remarkably lovely; the pretty blonde young women in satiny nightgown-like dresses sat and lay (sometimes one of them seemed to doze off) on an elevated circular platform that was covered in a rich royal blue cloth and placed at the center of the otherwise empty Hall; they sang beautifully. Although its visual appeal was undeniable, some visitors probably wondered why Song was on view in an art museum, ordinarily the repository for objects, often painted portraits, genre scenes, and landscapes. Kjartansson’s videos that are installed around the building, of a renowned blues pianist playing in a field, and of the artist making music in unlikely situations or being spit on by his mother, should be less jarring to audiences accustomed to encountering video in museum galleries, yet they too are theater pieces.
In fact, art as performance has a long history. In 1916, Dadaists began staging events in Zurich cafes that were irrational and sensational, evoking madness in an attempt to disrupt conventional values. After World War II, Jackson Pollock exemplified the notion of “action painting,” a term coined by critic Harold Rosenberg, who—like the artists involved—saw the canvas as “an arena in which to act.” The emphasis was on the process of making art, rather than on the product, the resulting canvas. For Pollock and others, gestural paint handling provided concrete evidence of the physical activity that brought their work to fruition. This desire to communicate the experience of creation occurs among influential artists all over the West in the decades following the war. Inspired in part by Pollock, the artist Allan Kaprow, in 1957, named his ephemeral, unscripted art events “happenings”—a term later adopted by the wider culture to refer to any similarly unscripted event or celebration involving crowds.
As early as 1952, Robert Rauschenberg took part in performances at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, working with musicians John Cage and David Tudor, and choreographer Merce Cunningham. In the 1960s and ’70s, proto-feminist artists such as Carolee Schneemann, Yoko Ono, and Yayoi Kusama created performances that focused on sexuality, gender, and the human body, creating “Living Sculpture” (a term coined by Piero Manzoni in 1961, when he began signing nude models and gallery visitors, turning them into works of art).
Kjartanssson’s Song can also be seen as living sculpture, just as his three-part video of his mother spitting at him, Me and My Mother, can be seen as family portraiture. Visual artists today assume that all forms are open to them; some of the most provocative work is in film and video, perhaps because, having grown up with movies and television, young artists come to the profession conversant with the moving image.
I have always thought that the ability to embrace other forms was an important strength of the visual arts, one that adds richness and encourages flexibility. CMA was in the forefront, presenting artists’ performances in the 1960s; these included groundbreaking actions by James Lee Byars in 1964 and 1965. In 1969, we established a film and video department, and we regularly add works in those media to our collection. Given this history, we are especially pleased to be the first US museum to present an exhibition devoted to Ragnar Kjartansson’s work.
Until next month,
Read responses to this issue of Inside the Museum.