There is a romantic quality to it all, as Ruscha recognizes. What was a controversial book in the 1950s would be anything but now. “The nonconformity that shocked us back then is the norm today,” he says. “There was also an innocence that no longer exists.”
The Icelandic artist Kjartansson also chooses his words and the words of others for specific effect. He is a musician, performer and video artist who won the Malcolm Award for visual art performance at Performa 11, presented to him by avant-garde rocker Lou Reed, in 2011, and represented Iceland at the Venice Biennale in 2009.
His exhibit has a quirky tie to the accompanying Ruscha show. The video Song, also the name of the exhibit, is a haunting, seductive looped film of three young blond girls singing what sounds like a folkloric, medieval melody. It played at a gallery in the main convention center during Art Basel Miami Beach last year, echoing throughout the cavernous space, and pulling attendees back to it. The three girls are Kjartansson’s nieces, and he filmed them in what he calls an hourslong “endurance performance” singing a song he wrote based on an Allen Ginsberg poem. Ginsberg was, of course, a fellow Beat Generation colleague of Kerouac’s. Kjartansson says he came up with his version while strumming his guitar in a hammock in a hippy commune in Poland. Where else?
Kjartansson’s performance videos here are filled with historical and place references, along with a heavy dose of deadpan wit. And they too are romantic. In a raccoon-skinned cap, he plays piano in a snow-white landscape, and in a similar outfit warbles out a Neil Young-like ditty with a guitar in the Rockies, for the video The End. In another room literally cushioned in fragrant fuchsia curtains, he becomes a night-club Sinatra-era crooner, for the video God, which MOCA director Bonnie Clearwater bought when she first saw it. In one fantastic piece titled Satan Is Real, he sings a religion-laden country song while halfway buried in dirt in the middle of a park, naked, while little kids run around playing. A totally absurdist, funny, and in its repetition, mesmerizing work.
Repetition is an essential element of this artist’s work, exemplified in Me andMy Mother. In three segments, shot in five-year intervals between 2000 and 2010, Kjartansson filmed his mother, a prominent actress in his homeland, spitting on him, over and over. It is humorous but incredibly intimate, in that it is the only video in the exhibit that incorporates no music or dramatic background.
Kjartansson opened this exhibit with a live performance that included “show-girl” dance and choreography conjured up by local up-and-coming star Rosie Herrera, complete with feathered boas and fans. “It was, and is, so Miami,” recounts Kjartansson, again latching on to a sense of place, this time with our tip of the peninsula.
Ruscha as well has been an observer of Miami over the years. “It is one of America’s energetic cities,” he says. Like his home of Los Angeles, “visually, Miami changes dramatically all the time — with a kick of glamour involved.”