A Whole Lot of Sorrow

Sheltered in the big top of MoMA PS1’s VW Dome on Sunday afternoon, The National played for six hours. While that’s a fairly long gig even by Bruce Springsteen standards, the event was made especially unique by one small aspect: they only played a single song, over and over and over again.

The endurance event was conceptualized by Icelandic performance artist Ragnar Kjartansson, a dabbling musician with an affinity for challenging audiences’ attention spans.

The National and Kjartansson tried it for six hours, and we dare say we’d try it for six more. By hour five, we’d heard “Sorrow” roughly 100 times, yet it surprisingly still wasn’t sounding like mushy porridge boiled with tears. True, the stringed instruments were falling out of tune, syncopation was becoming an issue, and the vocals sounded strained, but The National’s energy seemed to be picking up. In fact, we were all smiling.

It wasn’t until Berninger began to cry, choking on his words in the last ten minutes of the performance, that the well of emotion seemed to finally overflow, and we realized it was our turn to take over. An incredibly passionate a cappella delivery from the crowd ensued, as naturally, we had all 142 words etched in our brains’ gray matter by that time. There’s a shared experience in trauma. We were in this together. And perhaps that’s why, once the band left the stage and Kjartansson thanked us all for enduring it, we screamed for an encore. After a few minutes, the band stumbled back on. Glass of wine in hand and with a weary yet devious smile, Berninger leant into the microphone. We held our collective breath.

“This one’s called ‘Sorrow,’” he said.

–from a review in Fader, written by Georgia Frances King

Here is an excerpt from a review of artist Ragnar Kjartansson’s past performance where he had various opera singers and musicians perform the five-minute finale of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” repetitively for 12 hours straight.

Last Saturday, Ragnar Kjartansson’s twelve-hour operatic performance Bliss, at the Abrons auditorium, saw audiences cheering in the aisles, crying in their seats, struck dumb and lifted high by the transforming hallucinatory power of the rococo and the amazing sight of an artist earnestly, even desperately trying to cut through 21st-century irony. It’s a masterpiece.

Through it all, Ragnar, trained by our tenor for this performance, sang with this imploring beatific smile, always in the moment, chasing beauty. Deftly employing opera’s inbuilt schisms between language, music, text, and sound, he used classic seventies-style endurance art to see if it was possible for him and an art audiences to escape the knowledge that all of us are always aware of ourselves, always simultaneously inside and outside ourselves, in a moment but somehow observing it.

For me, Ragnar is an anti-Marina (Abramovic, that is). Instead of seeing narcissism, egomania, and glamorous existential suffering, I glean something Icelandic — a way of courting chaos with fortitude, a sense of the absurd and acceptance.

–Find the rest of the review, written by Jerry Saltz, at Vulture.


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