The National Perform “Sorrow” Over and Over and Over Again
I love music, and as a result, I feel that I know it. I understand it.
I can appreciate art, but I don’t have that same feeling of intimacy with it. As the contemporary art world gets more and more innovative each day, I find myself often asking “what is art anyway?” Andy Warhol pushed that question the hardest, as covered in Arthur Danto’s philosophical biography Andy Warhol, which I read and wrote about in December. Local artist Nathaniel Lieb caused me to ask that question again in February with his “Snowpocalypse” piece. Today I find myself asking that question again, after “seeing” an installation yesterday by Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson at MoMA PS1.
The installation consisted solely of a performance by the National (with two extra members yielding a seven-person band for the day) inside an all-white igloo-shaped dome at the edge of PS1 courtyard. The performance – titled “A Whole Lot of Sorrow” – lasted for six hours during which the National played just a single song, “Sorrow,” over and over again on an endless loop. Kjartansson’s idea was to explore the “potential of repetitive performance to produce sculptural presence within sound.” While I was there (I spent about two hours there, going in and out of the performance space several times), I felt the power of the music and tried to take it all in as if it were a concert. After all, while the idea of this installation was unique, if it hadn’t been the National playing I’m sure I would not have taken the time to see it in person. I walked away having had a wonderful day, but wondering what the point of it all was.
Thinking about it 24 hours later, it’s all come together. Yes, the National performed beautifully, but it wasn’t about that. It was also about the arresting, but minimalist, visual backdrop of the all-white igloo, the men in their black suits, the dry ice, the shadows. Inside everything was black and white; outside the sun shone brightly and the brick walls and grass provided a natural feel. Inside the music was deep and enveloping, and the people stood and watched in solemn quiet, clapping only at the conclusion of each rendition of the song; outside the music provided a soundtrack to the mingling crowd, who were talking and laughing and enjoying their food and beer, laying out on the steps and grass. Inside was “Sorrow”; outside was joy. The contrast was as obvious as dark and light.
I don’t know that Kjartansson could have planned it this way. Without a warm sunny day the effect would have been different, less impactful. However, I now understand how the concept of the “repetitive performance producing sculptural presence.” The National, standing in that igloo, playing “Sorrow” over and over, didn’t play a concert yesterday. They didn’t even play a warm-up show. They were a piece of furniture, a painting hanging on a wall, a sculpture in a courtyard, that stood in place to be admired, looked upon for 5 minutes or an hour and then considered, the way you would the Mona Lisa or the David.
You can watch video after video of the performance, and “Sorrow” is such a beautiful song that I wouldn’t blame you if you did. But the “art” was about so much more than just seeing the National up on stage. You can no more appreciate Kjartansson’s vision by watching the videos than you can appreciate the Sistine Chapel by seeing photos of it.
I still don’t know what constitutes “art.” Many have mocked yesterday’s exhibition and I can understand why. I too thought it was a bit ridiculous before I saw it live. But I know that I enjoyed, I smiled, I danced, I was moved and I had an exhilarating day, despite doing nothing more than seeing the same song played over and over and having a bite to eat in a random courtyard. That must be art. It can also be ridiculous.