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Photos by Jeff Martin, words by Catherine Dorman

Beginning October 14, the Hirshhorn Museum is staging the first retrospective exhibition for Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson’s in the United States. Much of the exhibit was presented similarly in London’s Barbican last year, but it was largely reworked to suit the unique gallery space of the Hirshhorn. In discussing the layout and design of the exhibition, its curator Stéphane Aquin likened the process to creating a movie because of the sense of timing and rising emotionality. He sees it as a narrative of emotions that culminates in “The Visitors” as the climax of the exhibition.

The exhibition includes Kjartansson’s work in pretty much every artistic medium; video performance, musical composition, set design, painting and drawing. Everything he does, regardless, is highly immersive, and every detail of the exhibition space is designed to add to the aesthetic experience of the works. For example, the paintings he created in a six month residence on the Venice canal cover the walls from floor to ceiling in one gallery while you hear the musician playing E-minor repeatedly on electric guitar. The women featured in this piece,  “Woman in E,” are all local D.C. musicians who play all day, every day while the exhibition is open and were hand selected by Kjartansson himself.

It’s evident from the exhibit that Kjartansson has really cool friends. They pop up in a lot of his pieces, as he frequently works collaboratively, and this collaboration culminates in the nine screen orchestral presentation “The Visitors” near the end of the exhibit. This room was my favorite, and I think it’s pretty much the favorite for everyone who works there as well. I was told by two different organizers that people sometimes just stand in there and cry because it’s so beautiful, and someone else told me that she just wants to take a pillow into the space and watch and listen to it on repeat. I’m not a big crier so I didn’t shed a tear, but I will say that this was one of the best multi-screen installations I’ve ever seen.

His incredibly talented friends played a range of instruments from accordion, to grand piano, banjo, cello and guitar (which was played in a full bath!) and at one point a cannon is set off which adds to the feeling of immediacy in the work. This piece was recorded in the Rokeby Farm mansion in the Hudson River Valley in New York; the mansion is in slight disrepair, evidenced by the chipping paint and unkempt furnishings, but the past glamor and opulence is still present and creates an amazing visual pairing to the atmospheric music.

Stéphane Aquin noted that Kjartansson is just as interested in the process of creating art as in the final product itself, and in showing that process to the viewer, so there’s a sense of self-awareness in every piece, like in the massive iceberg set pieces that you walk through and see the unpainted backs and the sandbags propping them up. The humor in this awareness of artifice adds to the enjoyment of the installation, and is what makes Kjartansson’s work so memorable. This is an incredibly fun and thoughtful exhibition from the first room, which is a video of him as “Death” interacting with children in a graveyard, to the last. It runs from October 14 through January 8, 2017, and you should definitely make time to see it.

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