h a r r i e t m a y

Tag: Ragnar Kjartansson

Repeat After Me

a lot of sorrow.jpg

We’re two and a half miles into a run when I feel it. “I’m going to stop and walk,” I say to Sam, who is running twelve miles today. We’re in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park along one of our usual routes, but I’ve been injured for three weeks so I’m only just remembering that the wildflowers have turned brown.

For those few miles I am in front of Sam, so cycling must be keeping my cardiovascular fitness at an ok level. It’s also keeping me bolshy: “I feel great!” I brag, running backwards to face him. He doesn’t mind. We get on so well because he ignores all the terrible aspects of my personality.

Initially I had thought that weeks of rest would make me a bit loopy, but actually it’s making me more sensible. I’ve taken off my FitBit (What is wrong?!, Thom had Whatsapped me on the first day as I slid down the weekly step count leaderboard), have added toning and flexibility exercises to my routine, and, having dropped the assumption that I can just eat anything, have actually lost four pounds.

I have been a runner now for nearly half my life. “What do you think about when you run?” asks everyone who has never tried. “Don’t you get bored?” But the secret is that running provides context for things that would otherwise be nonsensical: meeting at 6am every day in every type of weather for five miles and a tell-all with Pat and Vanessa; having a working dog with a quick-dry utility coat and no snooze button; earning medals just for taking part even as a bill-paying, newspaper-reading adult.

Running, like life, is largely repetition, and if you take it too seriously of course it’s difficult to say what the point is.

In 2013 the indie band The National played their song ‘Sorrow’ for 6 hours in a collaboration with the artist Ragnar Kjartansson. At Kjartansson’s exhibition at the Barbican in July, we wandered into a room where the recording of this event, in a piece titled ‘A Lot of Sorrow’, was playing in its entirety. We must have entered somewhere halfway through, because frontman Matt Berninger, although still steadily composed, is visibly tiring. We watched as two techies with trays of food enter stage left to offer burgers and fries to each band member; Berninger refuses but Bryan Devendorf eagerly accepts and crouches behind his drum kit to scarf down the offering.

Rather than stall the piece, this interruption adds to it. The band works to support one another and keep themselves interested, adding and subtracting various elements at various interludes, sometimes as a result of energy (guitarist Bryce Dessner’s nervousness, for example) and sometimes a result simply of time. But ultimately what the band creates is mindfully complex; many miles away from the reduction one might expect.

Why would anyone, in the first place, agree to perform a song on repeat for six hours? For the same reason anyone would take up long distance running.

We have to do something, to find out why we do anything.

Visiting “The Visitors”

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“Once again I fall into my feminine ways.”

“Once again I fall into my feminine ways.”

So Ragnar Kjartansson sings, on repeat, while strumming a guitar in a bathtub. Recently I read of the Icelandic performance artist in the New Yorker, which said of him: “Exuberance is Kjartansson’s default mode, in directing as in life.” And so, when I heard he had an exhibition at the Barbican I decided we must go. After all, performance art is not about knowledge, or even story. It’s about experience.

The nine-screen installation “The Visitors” is in a room through a black curtain. A plaque outside describes briefly what you’re about to enter into, but there’s really no way of knowing until you do. People seem to go in but not return. It is Sam, Amy, and myself, and we collect one another before making this seemingly permanent transition. On the other side, eight other performers play different instruments in different rooms of a single house (Rokeby Farm in upstate New York), and over the course of the sixty-four minute running time, they join in with and repeat the artist’s refrain, an ABBA lyric, their voices rising and falling as they give way to melancholy, reflection, bliss.

Together they’re mesmerizing, more so than any art I’ve ever seen, and while there’s a painting-like element there’s also engaging intensity; fine art for the Netflix crowd.

The piece culminates in clamour and rollicking as the nine musicians, having left their posts, collect the friends who have been porch-bound for the duration (just before, an elderly gentleman has aroused himself from a nap and fired off a small cannon), and dance, now singing at the top of their lungs, to the very edge of what we can see. It’s joyous, and then a little lonely being left behind. Are they the visitors, or are we?

When we finally emerge from the room, we’re silent for a moment. “I think I need a little time to assimilate,” Amy says. We all agree, and after wandering around the rest of the exhibit, convene outside by the lake with Icelandic pale ales.