Last Saturday I went to Cardiff to see the works shown for Artes Mundi. I didn’t do lots of research first, I was going with a friend who had been to the launch, so was not overly knowledgeable of what I was going to see there. In retrospect, I’m very pleased about that now, I had no experience of ‘spoilers’ and my friend didn’t discuss the works I would see in advance – I love that – going in with an open mind…
So just to warn you, if you haven’t been, don’t read any further – because this will be a major spoiler for your experience. And the experience is all. So goodbye now if you haven’t already seen it – come back later…seriously…
On entering the upstairs room of Ffotogallery I found myself in a carpeted room and there were several people lying around on the floor. They looked relaxed and a little mesmerised – I slipped down onto the floor to join them.
9 screens surrounded me, all high quality; all the same size (about 2 metres wide); each with their own speaker relaying the sound created by the performers in each frame. The rooms the performers played in were clearly in a substantial, wealthy, estate house – maybe a manor house of some sorts, with books, libraries, busts of people, nice rugs and lamps. Cosy. A country retreat for a group of musical creatives.
One frame shows the outside of the house, colonial looking with a veranda with balustrades, a group of people hanging around there taLking and singing, with a beautiful countryside backdrop of receding hills…
Pianos, bass guitar, acoustic guitar, accordion, double bass – mostly played by one person in one room. They sang, they played, they harmonized. To do so they all wore headphones and had a dedicated camera at a fixed point recording the action in each room. I have never been in a recording studio, but I imagine I felt then as the studio producer would whilst watching and listening to each soundtrack, as it is compiled in real-time in the studio behind the window. But the difference was that I was in a gallery; that instead of a sterile studio the players were recorded in a beautiful house with luxurious soft furnishings. The performers were mostly alone (although they occasionally slipped through the image frames and appeared in another room) – alone in their heads, in their own spaces, yet together making a wonderful sound that travels around ones head in the room.
Behind me, I heard a high, childlike woman start singing and I turned to see her apparently singing alone, but knowing she is part of a bigger outcome. A splashing sound alerted me to another screen – a man with a beard, naked in a bath strumming an acoustic guitar (very wise, electric would be dangerous!), singing along….
The detail and meticulousness of the images were incredibly well considered. The camera locations, the sound quality, the simple harmonies coming through from a well annotated musical score that worked with the wide range of voices involved. The lyrics could be simpler. “There are stars just floating around you…” and “once again I fall into my feminine ways”.
The guitarist who had been perched on the edge of the bed next to a curled-up woman, whilst she slept throughout, was joined by his sleepy partner and they left their room together; the guy got out of the bath and wrapped a towel around him and pulled the plug. They all left their rooms, still singing as they wandered off into the house, only to appear with the others around the piano in one room. They left that room as a group and promenaded, still singing, out of the house, disappearing across the hillside, a cock crowing, a dog barking and scuttling after them.
The cameras in each room were switched off.
The end of a perfect day, for me and for them.
I want to go back.
Artes Mundi 6
24 October – 21 February 2015
Ragnar Kjartansson is essentially a performance artist who draws on a wide range of disciplines in his practice. The histories of film, music, theatre, visual culture and literature find their way into his video installations, durational performances, drawings and paintings. Stagings become key tools in the artist’s attempt to convey sincere emotions and offer a genuine experience to the audience.