Sorrow on repeat for this week’s Contemporary Classic: an epic six-hour-long video piece that touches on the history of pained romanticism and harrowing performance art.

Ragnar Kjartansson & The National, A Lot of Sorrow, 2013-2014

The Visitors, a nine-screen video installation created by Ragnar Kjartansson with the help of eight of his friends and creative acquaintances in the crumbling Rokeby Farm in upstate New York, is most certainly the Icelandic artist’s most celebrated work. Rousing at it is, there was another piece at last year’s extensive solo exhibition of Kjartansson’s work—which travelled from the Barbican Centre in London to Washington’s Hirshhorn Museum—that really stood out for me: the 2013 performance and video A Lot of Sorrow.

Filmed over six hours at MoMa PS1, the film contains much of the epic romanticism of the spectacular Visitors, alongside a gentle and enjoyable dose of sadism, as we watch Kjartansson’s performers, American indie-rock band The National, perform their haunting song Sorrow, over and over. It’s enormously emotional (rather than lose its meaning on repeat listening, the pain gets hammered in further as it plays out on loop) and also preposterously OTT, artist, band and viewer bathing themselves indulgently in wonderful misery as the work progresses. It draws undeniable parallels with the tortured and wholly sincere genre of performance pain that has gone before it, and it isn’t beyond its own ridiculousness, yet it also isn’t coldly ironic. It’s pure Kjartansson drama, moving effortlessly between sadness, warmth and humour.

It isn’t unusual to find yourself sobbing at one of the artist’s shows (I’d even say you’re rather stony-hearted if you don’t), but it was this video that got me more than any of the others, as the National’s frontman Matt Berninger revs up again and again to tackle his opening lines:

“Sorrow found me when I was young,
Sorrow waited, sorrow won.
Sorrow that put me on the pills,
It’s in my honey it’s in my milk.”

Single-channel video, 6 hours and 9:35 minutes. The performance took place at MoMa PS1, as part of Sunday Sessions 5 May, 2013, 12 to 6 pm.
Image courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York & i8 Gallery, Reykjavik
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