Ragnar Kjartansson is a man of surprises, seeming to delight in surprising himself as much, or even more, than surprising others. ‘Death Is Elsewhere’ (called ‘Sumarnótt’ in Icelandic, which translates to ‘summer night’), a video installation of his that has been getting praise and accolades across the art world and currently showing at the National Gallery of Iceland until September 19th, is exemplary of this.
The concept is deceptively simple. The viewer is invited to stand in the middle of a ring of seven screens. Projected onto them, a couple are singing a lilting tune and playing guitar while walking in a circle around you. The setting takes place in the middle of one of Iceland’s famed summer nights, when the sun doesn’t set, at Eldhraun in south Iceland, the current site of a lush meadow but in 1783, the site of the devastating Laki eruption that killed roughly 25% of Iceland’s population.
Knowing the history of the setting, the contrast between what appears to be two lovers singing a sweet song at the site of one of Iceland’s most destructive natural disasters is striking. But even not knowing this context, the longer you stand in the midst of this piece, the weirder it gets. You begin to notice that the “couple” in question change costumes as they circle you. Sometimes, the guitarist is playing the harmony, other times, the melody. Is this really just one couple? Or are you actually seeing two couples who look very much alike?
The old twin trick
The answer, it turns out, is the latter: the “lovers” in question are two sets of twins, Gyða and Kristín Valtýsdóttir and Bryson and Aaron Dessner.
“I’ve remembered for a long time this kind of ‘magic twin trick,’” Ragnar tells us. “The idea was that it would be great to do a performance where this was a stage and a couple always crossing the stage, leaving the stage, and then like two seconds later they come back, leaving the audience to ask ‘how can they run so fast around the stage?’ It’s a very simple trick. For this performative happening, we had to write some songs, which was the four of them. The joke became ‘it’s like ABBA, but with twins’. You know, ‘We’re gonna make a million dollars! ABBA with twins!'”
The impetus and the process for the piece is an adventure in itself.
“With this work, like with many other works, many things come together and suddenly you wanna do it. This collaboration between me and Gyða and Kristín and Bryson and Aaron started because I had worked with them separately on other projects. But then Aaron and Justin Vernon [of Bon Iver] were doing this festival in Au Claire, Wisconsin. It was a fantastic festival, where he asked if I could do a performance for it and he said I could use any of the musicians or anyone involved. And I was just like ‘OK!’ The people who were involved were just open for anything, which was a fantastic invitation.”
“We wrote the music just across the pond,” Ragnar continues, gesturing to Tjörnin, right across the street from the National Gallery of Iceland, “At my home. All the lyrics are sampled from my bookshelves at home.” This included random selections of poetry, translations of ancient Greek and other texts. “It was a fun way to write music, because we knew how the performance was going to be, we just had to write music for a couple walking across the stage, some kind of love songs. A few years later it came to me that I really wanted to do this piece in the south of Iceland near where Eldhraun is, where we had this mega, gorgeous, panoramic nature, but also this violent nature. The frolicking, cliched lovers in this kind of landscape.”
You don’t have to “get it”
Since the piece’s launch, many critics have had different takes on ‘Death Is Elsewhere.’ It’s honestly not a piece that invites interpretation so much as just experience. It’s something to be felt; not understood. Fortunately so, as Ragnar admits that not even he knows what it means.
“I really like pieces that I don’t understand myself,” he says. “It was something that I wanted to do, in this nature, with these people and this material and it just all came together. When I watch this I’m still like ‘What is this?’ I really like it when pieces are like that. When you’re like ‘what the hell is this piece?’ When you can explain to yourself, as an artist, ‘this is this’, then it’s almost like, why bother making it?”
Painting is hard
Ragnar happily shares photos from the shooting of Death Is Elsewhere, showing how the cameras were set up, comparing it to a “techno Stonehenge”—a ring of cameras, each equipped with three mics, their lenses facing outward.
“I really like the painterly quality of video,” he says. “Video is like a painting and I really like painting.” This naturally raised the question: why not just just paint? Ragnar responds immediately: “It’s really hard to paint,” and then laughs at length. “Also, I really like something that’s performative and narrative in its essence, turning it into something that’s just like a painting. Where there’s no beginning and no ending—it’s just there.”
Those summer nights
As far as the difference between the English and Icelandic titles go, Ragnar says that he felt a direct translation didn’t work and was too “oppressive,” so he took the suggestion of his wife Ingibjörg to just call it “sumarnótt”. He is, however, considering changing the title to Sumarnótt/Death Is Elsewhere because, he explains, “’summer night’ on its own is a little too ‘Grease.’”
“These few hours of an Icelandic summer night is a bit like what it’s like to be dead,” he says. “These few hours when the birds are asleep. My dad used to take me for a night walk around summer solstice up in Heiðmörk, to watch this thing when the birds stop singing and then start singing again.”
You can hear this in the piece as well, as the birds go silent, but then later begin to sing again—perhaps underlining the idea that death may always be with us, but for the moment, in a gorgeous Icelandic meadow where death once sprang forth, it is indeed elsewhere.
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