At the opening of the curatorial panel is a single quote by Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson of his desired outcome for his residency piece The End:
“In Canada, I will make a video that will make me cry. In unbearable frost and thin air I shall hold my shivering dried-up heart in my hand….”
Standing in the middle of the darkened Walter Phillip Gallery, waiting for the videos to commence, I wonder how an artist can so seriously set out to do something Canadian artists continually struggle with – drawing upon a perceived aesthetic of a locale to create an artistic experience that articulates the sensation of being in the Canadian Rockies.
Wait then – the Canadian Aesthetic? The Aesthetic of the Cold? All articulated by an Icelandic artist? This seems like a daunting, provincial and self-important goal…
But the lights begin to come up on the five screens surrounding me and the same two performers make their entrance into the screens, gathering the viewer’s attention from the front of the room towards the back. First, at the front, a man walks out to a grand piano in the middle of a frozen snow-covered lake, then on one of the screens to my left, two men in sheepskin coats and coonskin caps come out with two acoustic guitars. On the right, both men stand on a precipice overlooking the Bow River, one holding an electric guitar, while the other smokes a cigarette. On another screen in the back left corner of the room, the two musicians walk out to a drum kit and another guitar, and finally, at the back of the room, the two men enter on screen, seemingly on a mountain trail, one with a banjo, the other with a guitar. They count everyone else off, and begin playing a composition that oscillates between the screens over the next 30 minutes.
The performers, Kjartansson and his collaborator Davíð Þór Jónsson, perform in each video as the same character, wearing the same outfit in each of the five videos. In classic-fitting jeans and hiking boots, both men sport sheepskin coats of the ‘stalwart peasant’ Canada once tried to lure from western Europe, and coonskin caps – the kind often associated with “The Frontier” but which only exist in mythology (at least in Canada). When they are not playing their instruments, the two men smoke cigarettes and kick the snow, looking more like two men waiting for some divine cue to lead them back into the music rather than collaborators with themselves in 4 other videos. They no longer seem so serious among the trees and the snow --there are hints of the dry Scandinavian sense of humour within their work. While their costume shows a knowledge of the stereotypes of the terrain, it also lampoons it little – it’s difficult to take someone too seriously when they have a raccoon tail brushing their face.
The musical composition sounds a lot like a blues band jamming, a sound not associated with the Rocky Mountains or with Canada. Against the sublime scenery, however, with snow falling, the faint crunching of feet in snow and heavy winter breathing into the microphones suddenly seems appropriate to the sad, persistent melody of The End, carried through from beginning to end by the banjo. The pairing of the subdued music with the sublime scenery seems all too fitting for Kjartansson’s goal of making an artwork that captures the complicated feelings evoked by a specific place. I pace around the darkened room, getting closer to some videos, allowing the individual soundtracks to hold me before a performance across the room draws me nearer to it. In the end, I sit in the middle of the floor, turning on occasion to watch the videos behind me. The sound reverberates off the walls, recalling the great landscapes that they play in, hinting at the stories and histories of many people and cultures in the Bow Valley that don’t seem heard but add to the cacophony of the so-called sublime landscape.
From the perspective of an Albertan who spent a lot of time in her youth in these mountains, Kjartansson tackles something very personal and very subtle which resonates with my own search for identity and an art that articulates those feelings with as much nuance as Kjartansson does. However, The End was shown at the Venice Biennale last year and I can’t help but wonder what kind of a resonance the work had with non-Canadians who knew and didn’t know the terrain Kjartansson was working with. Is this a place of fond memory? Perhaps it is some icy dreamland, or worse, nothing at all. It looks too cold and too pristine to be real. Or does the common search for identity draw in all viewers?
At the end of the video, as the music winds down, and it seems that Kjartansson isn’t trying to impose a specific aesthetic on the landscape – it’s impossible to compete with mountains so old, a landscape so vast. Instead, as the screens dim out, one by one, the artist sets off across that frozen lake, --like all our western heroes who are the products of a fantasy of identity.