Ragnar Kjartansson | Death is Elsewhere
Exhibition Dates: May 30–September 2, 2019
Exhibition Location: Gallery 963, Robert Lehman Wing court
This summer, The Metropolitan Museum of Art will present the world premiere of a major new work by the acclaimed Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson. The seven-channel video installation Death Is Elsewhere (2017–19) will be on view in the Robert Lehman Wing court (gallery 963) from May 30 through September 2, 2019. One of the most prominent performance and video artists of his generation, Kjartansson is well known for work in which he employs repetition over sustained periods. Death Is Elsewhere is the most recent in a series of performance-based works in which a single song is performed or a phrase is uttered, without beginning or end, in a nearly continuous loop. This immersive installation features four musicians—male and female twins—who, throughout the 77-minute video, seem to encircle the viewer, resembling what the artist calls “symmetrical sculptures,” as they move through a pastoral landscape while performing the title song “Death Is Elsewhere.”
The presentation of this work is part of a new series of contemporary activations at The Met. More information can be found here.
The exhibition is made possible in part by Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee.
Additional support is provided by The Modern Circle.
Max Hollein, Director of The Met, said, “With Death Is Elsewhere, Kjartansson has created an all-encompassing environment, weaving together music, poetry, and the dramatic Icelandic landscape to create a fully immersive environment and an intimate experience. It is a privilege to debut the latest work by this extraordinary artist.”
Sheena Wagstaff, Leonard A. Lauder Chairman of Modern and Contemporary Art added, “Kjartansson’s video, with its dark ironic title, shot in the wan light of a Nordic midsummer night, is a tour de force. It is at once a playful take on the inevitability of the circle of life (to death) at the same time as a lyrical meditation on epic narratives of nature, song, love, and loss.”
The video was shot in the south of Iceland at the lava fields surrounding the volcano Laki just after midnight, when the sun was at the lowest point, shortly after the summer solstice. Despite the idyllic setting and melodic harmony, the work is haunted by the specter of death. Visible behind the grassy fields is the volcano, whose violent eruption in the late 18th century brought devastation to Iceland and Northern Europe and affected the climate and conditions as far away as Syria and China. The title and verses of the song are pulled, or “sampled,” from passages drawn from various books that include Alexander Dumbadze’s text on the life and death of the Dutch performance artist Bas Jan Ader and the poetry of Robert Lax and Sappho as interpreted by Anne Carson.
Performing in this mesmerizing work are Kjartansson’s frequent collaborators: Kristín Anna and Gyða Valtýsdóttir, formerly of the Icelandic band múm, and Aaron and Bryce Dessner, from the Grammy-award winning group The National. The imagery of young couples singing a love-themed ballad against a sublime landscape evokes numerous Romantic clichés, but by adding elements of irony, nihilism, and absurdity, Kjartansson interrupts this idealism and sense of expectation. In this way, Death Is Elsewhere connects with his nine-channel video Scenes from Western Culture(2015), in which he presents banal vignettes that represent aspects of aspirational imagery that are prevalent in contemporary upper-class Western culture.
Kjartansson trained as a painter, but beyond his connection with visual art and its histories, he has deep ties to both theater and music. His work also reflects a variety of other influences as well, including Iceland’s oral tradition, modern and contemporary literature, and pop culture. While many of his works feature elaborate sets and props with the artist and others performing as fictional characters, other pieces, such as The Visitors (2012), are marked by a more intimate, almost naturalistic quality. In addition to his performative work, Kjartansson has created paintings and installations.
Ragnar Kjartansson, Death Is Elsewhere is organized by Jennifer Farrell, Associate Curator in The Met’s Department of Drawings and Prints.
This piece is dedicated to the artist Carolee Schneemann.
About Ragnar Kjartansson
Ragnar Kjartansson (born 1976) lives and works in Reykjavík and studied at the Iceland University of the Arts in Reykjavik and the Royal Academy in Stockholm. He has had numerous solo exhibitions at venues such as the Reykjavík Art Museum; the Barbican Centre, London; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Park, Washington D.C.; the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal; the Palais de Tokyo, Paris; the New Museum, New York; the Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Zurich; the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin; the Frankfurter Kunstverein; and the BAWAG Contemporary, Vienna. Kjartansson participated in The Encyclopedic Palace at the Venice Biennale in 2013 and Manifesta 10 in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2014, and at the 2009 Venice Biennale he represented Iceland—the youngest artist from the country to receive this honor. The artist is the recipient of the 2015 Artes Mundi’s Derek Williams Trust Purchase Award and Performa’s 2011 Malcolm McLaren Award.
Image: Ragnar Kjartansson, (Icelandic, b. 1976). Death Is Elsewhere, 2017–2019. Seven-channel video installation. 77 minutes © Ragnar Kjartansson; Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York, and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik