Since last September, Luhring Augustine Bushwick has hosted The Pleasure Pavilion, a series of nine three-week shows in which gallery artists are in dialogue with a surprising centerpiece: the tawny, sandstone-and-brick facade of a late 18th- or early 19th-century Indian pleasure pavilion.
The impressive, arcaded facade, with intricately carved columns and floral motifs, stands upright in the middle of the gallery; it is a remnant of a Mughal-style pavilion, housed in a palace complex, once used for, well, pleasure, including music, dance, and communal revelry. It is a fascinating accompaniment to Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson’s enthralling video Bliss (2020), projected on one wall. The video is of a 12-hour performance, likewise set in a garden, albeit an ersatz one with a painted backdrop, by opera singers and classical musicians in which the cathartic, extraordinarily pleasurable final three-minute section — with themes of forgiveness, happiness, transcendence, and grace — of Mozart’s foible-filled opera The Marriage of Figaro is repeated over and over. This opera is from 1786, making it roughly a contemporary of the facade.
The pleasure pavilion facade works wonders to bring out the details of the performance. With its ornate decorations, all those flourishes and whorls, it responds to the elaborate costumes of the performers; it also echoes the modest gazebo with a portico entranceway in the stage set.
Commissioned by Performa 11, the performance Bliss debuted at the Abrons Art Center in New York in 2011 and was a largely improvisational affair. Finding local professional opera singers willing to perform Mozart for 12 consecutive hours proved exceedingly difficult. “New York opera singers were pretty close to impossible to get,” Kjartansson told me in an email. “Singing 12 hours back then sounded like hara-kiri to them.”
Instead, he reached out to legendary Icelandic tenor and cultural mainstay Kristján Jóhannsson, who not only offered to participate without being asked, but also enlisted a cast of Icelandic professional singers and former students, who performed in rococo garb. Violist (“the great violist,” in Kjartansson’s words) Nadia Sirota gathered willing musicians who were enthusiastically — at times hilariously — conducted by Icelander Davíð Þór Jónsson (sometimes quaffing red wine). The performance generated rapturous acclaim, leading to Kjartansson winning Performa’s inaugural Malcolm McLaren Award for an artist under 40. I was in the audience for a big part (audience members were encouraged to come and go as they pleased), wholly enchanted by the goings-on, by this reeling mix of profundity and hilarity, vaulting emotions and slapstick buffoonery.
Kjartansson’s new video premiered on January 21 at Luhring Augustine and Kling & Bang in Reykjavik simultaneously. It chronicles a reprise performance, from noon to midnight on May 25, 2019, at REDCAT in Los Angeles, part of the Fluxus Festival presented by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Getty Research Institute. This was a much more professionally scaled affair. The singers — fantastic, soaring, engrossing — in rococo garb and wigs, included Jóhannsson (Count Almaviva); the transfixing LA-based Lauren Irene (Countess Rosina); Kjartansson, in the role of the drunk gardener Antonio clutching a dead hare; and others — all distinguished, all exemplary, all with robust careers. The group of musicians featured members of Christopher Rountree’s wild Up ensemble, known for its eclectic and experimental performances. Likewise exemplary was the indefatigable Rountree as conductor, who apparently never stopped for the whole 12 hours. (He also curated the LA Phil’s Fluxus Festival.)
The video is hardly mere documentation of an absurdly lengthy and repetitive performance. It is a parallel work, remarkable in its own right, fleshing out and highlighting myriad aspects of what occurred onstage and in the orchestra pit: exquisite music and complex human interaction, some of it scripted, much of it not. According to Kjartansson, he wanted, “the cliché aesthetic of opera film” in which one of the most famous sections of one of the most famous operas ever is presented in all its sumptuous glory, seemingly ad infinitum. Producer Matthew Principe, who has worked with the Metropolitan Opera and many other organizations, and his crew oversaw things. Kjartansson’s longtime collaborators, Stefán Árni and Siggi Kinski — responsible for captivating videos by Icelandic musicians Ólafur Arnalds, Sigur Rós, Of Monsters and Men, and Ólöf Arnalds, among many others — served as directors and editors. The video is flat-out gorgeous.
It took me about five or six cycles of the three-minute segment to really settle in, with the philandering and scheming Count again and again beseeching his wife for forgiveness (“Contessa, perdono! Perdono! Perdono!”/Countess, forgive me!), the Countess endlessly granting him his wish (after subtly pointing out that she is gentler than he), and the entire cast in a rousing finale collectively summoning joy, redemption, hopefulness, gaiety, and love.
After settling in — and even though we know exactly what music and lyrics are coming — the transportive magic takes over. Rather than becoming tedious or exasperating, the repeated passage becomes ever more meaningful, and deeply touching, revealing nuances and new emphases.
With each repetition the performance also changes, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. Performers stand and move about, as well as sit, slump, or, as Kjartansson occasionally does, recline on the floor. With its close ups and arresting camera angles, the video accentuates the nonverbal bodily communication coursing through the ensemble: an encouraging hand on someone’s back, a sympathetic glance, an expression of wry amusement, one performer’s head resting lightly on another’s shoulder, a pained look of frank enervation, a quick look of gratitude when a server in period garb appears onstage to offer water to parched performers.
Fictional characters become real people, distinctive individuals engaged in an absolutely lovely but also arduous and unnerving ordeal, while supporting and caring for one another. They are committed to the extreme, but their commitment comes at a cost (strained or cracking voices, weary bodies pushed to the limit). At one point, Countess Rosina (Irene) suddenly closes her eyes for an inordinately long time, as if sleeping or in a trance; she has good cause to be exhausted. Then she reaches, yet again, somehow, deep into herself for the high, superlative tones of forgiveness and grace and it is downright beatific. It is worth watching for hours just to absorb this one mini event. Though the manipulative and impulsive Count has made a real mess of things, when he begs for forgiveness — sometimes standing, sometimes on one knee, sometimes sitting — it is heartfelt and utterly poignant.
To my mind, Kjartansson’s video, intentionally or not, seems remarkably apt in our troubled era. After all the “caprice” and “folly” of their “day of torments” (per an English translation of the libretto) the opera’s characters are in urgent need of “joy and happiness.” So too are we, avidly pursuing grace while staggered by misplaced passions and mistakes, pursuing happiness but often falling well short. Kjartansson succeeds in making this penultimate passage searingly relevant for viewers, at a time when not only individuals but whole nations (not least the US) are oscillating between epic folly and stubborn hope.
Ragnar Kjartansson has a striking ability to be at once ironic and sincere, gloriously antic and deeply serious. He also has a striking ability to illuminate core issues of what it is to be human: love, death, robust aspirations, failure, friendship, loneliness, hopefulness, and sorrow, among others. This ability is a major reason why his adventurous works often have such a pronounced impact on viewers, eliciting tears and laughter, contemplation and elation. His work can leave us not just entertained but deepened and changed.
This exhibition is Kjartansson’s first with the gallery since 2016, and his first in New York since his 2019 video installation Death Is Elsewhere at the Metropolitan Museum (with corresponding performances at The Kitchen) which I wrote about. As with many of his durational works, time is more than a theme — it is also a fundamental art material with which he works wondrously.
With the pleasure pavilion facade to my left and the large video projection in front of me, I watched, and listened, for two and a half hours, until the gallery closed. I could easily have gone many hours more. It’s hard to imagine that such a long, repetitive video could be so riveting and alluring. It discloses vibrant idiosyncrasies; mesmerizing moments abound. I entered the gallery with anticipation; I left feeling grateful and amazed.
Ragnar Kjartansson’s Bliss continues as part of the Pleasure Pavilion series at Luhring Augustine Bushwick (25 Knickerbocker Avenue, Brooklyn) through February 27.