Ragnar Kjartsson and Camille Henrot at the New Museum
Of the multitude of solo exhibitions now on display at the New Museum two stood out the most. From Ragnar Kjartsson’s 10-musician polyphony played live in the gallery, to Camille Henrot’s playful word association games in video form, there’s a wealth of material here to explore.
Kjartansson has already gained a lot of buzz for his performance piece at MoMA PS1 where he hired the National to perform their track “Sorrow” repeatedly for 12 hours. His new exhibition, “Me, My Mother, My Father, And I”, explores Kjartansson’s parents who had major roles in the first Icelandic film ever, Morosaga (1977), which is projected sans sound on the left wall of the fourth floor gallery. Their relationship is analyzed in a series of pieces that form a tender hearted emotional archive including drawings of the Icelandic sea by both Kjartansson and his father; a hilarious video of Kjartansson and his mother, spitting in the artist’s face as he stands prone, hints of anguish and embarrassment written across his mug; and a picture of Kjartansson with his mother and father at the age of 13, looking bored at his confirmation party, which is the first thing to greet the viewer as they leave the elevator. Probably the most touching moment among these came for me in finding out that Kjartansson and his father had found the sketches so important because those of Kjartansson’s father were indistinguishable from that of Kjartansson. This was only half-true in actuality, as I found there was some ability to distinguish one hand from the other, and yet that did not detract from the tender yet eerie metaphor that the piece held, conjuring up the ways in which we replicate our parents with slight permutations and variations that make us individual. All this is strung together by the composition for ten guitarists and vocalists composed by Kjartan Sveinsson of Icelandic band Sigur Ros, which is played live continuously in the gallery by musicians who sit on couches, beds, and chairs around the space producing what feels like an impressionistic reimagining of a college student’s bedroom. The piece itself is gorgeous. Its ten part harmonies swell and shimmer within the vastness of the fourth floor gallery.
Entering on it at first I expected to feel uninvited, as though I was interrupting some moment of communal worship. The combination of the commonplace and the sacred that Kjartansson achieves quickly melted away any inhibitions I had. It allowed the work to flourish as the transcendental soundtrack guiding me through the exhibition. It also gave the feeling of being a part of the experience rather than just an observer. The music even resonated all the way down to the third floor, coloring my experience as I walked through David Horvitz’ small showing of works in the stairwell and as I stood outside the entrance to Robert Cuoghi’s wild sound installation. As a whole the show highlights an emerging artist with a very well developed narrative sense that, like a more sentimental Philip Roth, displays family in a way that might make you laugh and tear up in equal measure.
The Camille Henrot exhibition on the second floor gallery is another notable highlight. The exhibition is titled, “The Restless Earth” which seems fitting, considering that Henrot’s body of work shows an artist dancing across mediums like video, painting, and conceptual sculpture with a pioneer spirit. Henrot is a young artist, born 1978, so her career as presented here is pretty compact, spanning a short 4 year time span. This makes it all the more impressive the diversity of the oeuvre that Henrot’s already built up. The natural world, or the “earth” of the title, could be seen as Henrot’s secondary medium. Despite Henrot’s rampant eclecticism, flowers, plants and other natural phenomena play a consistent role as materials. In Henrot’s work these things are often juxtaposed with man-made objects, at times creating tension, as in the epic and unsettling video _ which juxtaposes a mass exodus of people and a luminous biblical snake with documentation of an anti-anxiety drug being pumped out of a lab. Through Henrot’s masterful editing skills and potent use of music an aggressive and fearful relationship is articulated between man and beast, the snake.
At other times these juxtapositions can create a playful synergy between plants and their more industrial counterparts. The series “Is it possible to be a revolutionary and like flowers?” attaches quotations from Henrot’s library to intricate and sometimes absurd arrangements of plants. These pieces shockingly work for the most part. Rather than falling into excessive ambiguity or heavy-handed comparisons, Henrot manages to make the associations between text and plant feel natural, and Henrot manages to elicit a kind of stream of conscious poetry when the pieces are all placed together. I imagined the series as a window into the artist’s train of thought, creating associations between the tangible and mental that encircle her in her home. In this way the text and the plant become interchangeable and are synthesized into a single object; two pneumonic devices that lead directly to each other.
This leads to one of Henrot’s other obsessions as indicated by the show, which is the interconnectedness of disparate objects and ideas. In her video, “Grosse Fatigue”, which won Henrot the Golden Lion award at the recent Venice Biennial, the story of the earth’s creation and development, is told alongside a series of rapid fire images, displayed in the aesthetic of video links pulled up on a MacBook. When first entering it, the piece feels like a game of some sort. It’s playful, like a word association exercise tailored to the shortening attention spans of our internet engulfed moment. Disappointingly, the video was a game for which once I knew the rules, it became a little less interesting to play. One can imagine leafing through her lexicon of symbols, looking for every imaginable way to say “Earth” in object form, and she does a pretty good job in the end. The earth is depicted as an egg, a drawing of a circle, a literal globe and more. All this renders that video a bit obvious and heavy handed. Henrot’s pieces feel best when they maintain their sense of cosmic wonder and chance. This in turn maintains the subtle mystique of the piece while still being able to communicate directly with the viewer. Like any artist trying to strike a balance between communicative and ambiguous work, Henrot sometimes falls into the extremes of both sides. Nevertheless, “The Restless Earth is a deeply engaging show that highlights an artist with a fresh understanding of how we process information and make connections between ideas.