The Center of All Beauty! Ragnar Kjartansson Reads Frank O’Hara

Ragnar Kjartansson

Last week, the New Museum in New York held a “Next Generation” dinner in honor of two younger artists, Camille Henrot and Ragnar Kjartansson.  In a write-up of the posh event in Vogue, Alessandra Codinha notes that the Icelandic artist Kjartansson, known for his experimentation with video works that require extreme endurance, recited Frank O’Hara’s charming early poem “Autobiographia Literaria” to the assembled crowd of bold-faced names drawn from the world of art and high fashion, apparently moving some of them to tears:

“Kjartansson, whose work is known for both its repetition and its marathon-length endurance trials—a recent work had the band The National playing the same composition for six hours straight—kept his speech mercifully brief, addressing the fete from a small podium and quoting Frank O’Hara’s poem (and celebration of the self-selected loneliness of the artistic life) ‘Autobiographia Literaria’ at length, ending midway through the final stanza at ‘And here I am, the / center of all beauty!’ as some partygoers openly wiped tears from their eyes.

The collaboration which the piece mentions was a video installation Kjartansson created with the indie rock band The National entitled “A Lot of Sorrow.”  It features a clip of the band playing their three-minute song “Sorrow” before an audience in May 2013, which is then repeated over and over, hour after hour.

In a rave review that appeared in September in The New York Times, Roberta Smith wrote

Ragnar Kjartansson and the indie rock band the National have made a wonderful thing in “A Lot of Sorrow,” their six-hour video at Luhring Augustine Bushwick. It is Minimalist in structure: the same song over and over again, yet unimaginably expansive…. [You] may find yourself staying much longer than expected, immersed in the melody and its emotions, the different personalities of the musicians and their mood changes, as well as the theme-and-variation structure of the music and performance — always the same and yet always different… The delicate cooperation of the National’s members with one another to fill the space with sounds that gratify both themselves and the audience is perhaps both the subject and content of the piece. Another subject, of course, is time, the way music changes and measures it, as well as the trancelike state the repetitions can induce.

O’Hara was an ardent fan of the music of Erik Satie, Morton Feldman, and John Cage and their avant-garde explorations of repetition and endurance, so it is not hard to imagine that he would have found this piece as enchanting as Roberta Smith.  So it’s neat to learn that Kjartansson chose to read one of O’Hara’s poems at this celebration honoring his own work.

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