The Joyful Danse Macabre of Ragnar Kjartansson
For many, the installation and performance Schumann Machine by Ragnar Kjartarsson was one of the most striking attractions of the Biennial Manifesta 7. After the usual opening and thank you speeches on the opening day of the Biennial, which were held in the inner courtyard of an old tobacco factory in the small town of Rovereto, Italy, all those present headed purposefully to the far end of the courtyard decorated with a "flaming" mural painting, similar to those in old amusement parks or on the stage of an amateur theatre play. There was a tiny door in the painted wall of flames, and the crowd of art lovers tried to squeeze themselves into an unexpectedly tiny, dark room. Only about a score of the spectators could fit into the office smelling of fresh chipboard - into an improvised salon, where a piano player and a solo singer were performing the romantic songs of Robert Schumann from the song cycle Dichterliebe (1840), with words by Heinrich Heine. It turned out that the singer was Ragnar himself, whereas the piano player was Davíd Thór Jónsson (born 1978), a musician popular in Iceland.
The audience could immediately feel as if they had arrived in a museum or a loop of timespace (i.e., the Schumann Machine), leaving the bright sunlight and rather easygoing opening spirit of the contemporary art exhibition behind; in its place spectators were confronted with the phenomenon of the long gone era of Romanticism instead. Just few steps away from the audience, photographers, and cameramen, to Schumann's heartbreaking music the artist was singing about dark yearning, tears, vast woods, and unattainable love. Even though the decoration of gigantic flames on the outside of the Schumann Machine seemed to be advertising a clapped-out carousel, or at least a joke about it, there was nothing to laugh at inside. Ragnar's performance was not a travesty about seemingly old-fashioned sentimentality and the frenzy of romantic love, it was rather a machine for travelling to a different state of mind. Because "Sorrow conquers happiness" - Ragnar repeatedly sings this phrase for 40 minutes in his video work God (2007), where moreover he looks like a real star of the cabaret, with a pink satin curtain in the background and accompaniment by an orchestra. Daniel Birnbaum, curator, picked this work by Ragnar for the Triennial of Torino (6 November, 2008 - 1 February, 2009).