Ragnar Kjartansson, The End (2009), 5 channel digital video installation, 30:30 minutes, installation dimensions variable. NGC. Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York, and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik
From early Indigenous artists, through the Group of Seven, to present-day artists such as Christopher Pratt and Takao Tanabe, Canadian artists have made the landscape a central theme in their work. Understanding our art history—and, some might even say, ourselves—ties into our relationship with this vast and wild country. We can explore that relationship through work created by Canadian artists, or art made by “foreign” artists inspired by the Canadian landscape. Visitors to the Winnipeg Art Gallery now have an exciting opportunity to delve into the latter through Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson’s The End (2009), a five-channel video presentation on loan from the National Gallery of Canada until 20 April 2014.
The work is a thirty-minute musical performance of sorts, in which Kjartansson and musical collaborator Davíd Thór Jónsson venture into the Rocky Mountains in winter, wearing frontier-inspired attire. Using guitars, banjos, and even a grand piano that has been rolled out onto a frozen snow-covered lake, Kjartansson and Jónsson play a country music arrangement that meanders from screen to screen during a 30-minute jam-like performance. The result is an almost hypnotic test of wills between music and the untamed desolation of the Canadian wilderness in winter.
“It’s an Icelandic perception, or take, on Canada as this great western frontier. It invites us to look at ourselves through outsider eyes,” says Paul Butler, Curator of Contemporary Art at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. “It’s a fun piece, too. It will bring in the music community, the Icelandic community, and I think it will appeal to a large audience.”
According to Butler, Winnipeg’s Icelandic community is an important audience for the The End. “Manitoba has the largest Icelandic population outside of Iceland,” he says. Although not an official part of the program, The End is supported by núna (now), a Manitoba festival of Icelandic and Canadian music, film, dance, art and theatre that mixes the culture of Iceland with that of Canada.
The End first caught the eye of Josée Drouin-Brisebois, the NGC’s Senior Curator of Contemporary Art, when it was a major component in Kjartansson’s overall contribution to Iceland’s pavilion at the 2009 Venice Biennale. Kjartansson created the work during his 2008–2009 residency at the Banff Centre. The musical performances were filmed not far from the Centre in the iconic wilderness of Banff National Park.
“Initially I thought The End was a nod to the paintings of Romantic artists, such as Germany’s Caspar David Friedrich, which explore the sometimes perilous relationship man has with Nature,” says Drouin-Brisebois. “But it is also interesting how well this work fits into the art in our collection and the work being made by Canadian artists.”
Drouin-Brisebois says The End is similar to the work that Canadian artists such as Tim Gardner and Kevin Schmidt are making—for example, Schmidt’s 2002 video work Long Beach Led Zep, in which the artist plays Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” on a generator-powered electric guitar on British Columbia’s pristine Long Beach.
“Both Schmidt and Kjartansson are playing music in natural settings—one in the mountains, the other on the beach—and there is a connection in both works between music, landscape, romanticism, man in Nature and the relationship between music and the wilderness,” she says. “They are almost competing references: Schmidt with his guitar and noisy generator, standing and playing music in contrast to the power of the ocean, as if he could be swept away at any moment. Kjartansson perched out in the mountains, playing on an exposed mountaintop, vulnerable, dwarfed by the landscape around him.”
“In both pieces there is the idea of roughing it, losing oneself in Nature. It’s easy to get this sense of the wilderness as a perilous place,” says Drouin-Brisebois. “Just getting a grand piano out onto a frozen lake is a challenge, and suggests a certain danger.”
Ragnar Kjartansson’s The End is on view at the Winnipeg Art Gallery from 18 January until 20 April 2014.
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