Ragnar Kjartansson: Song
The weight of the world
is love. . . .
Allen Ginsberg, "Song," 1954
In March 2011, Ragnar Kjartansson’s three nieces—Ragnheidur Harpa Leifsdóttir, Rakel Mjöll Leifsdóttir, and Íris María Leifsdóttir—began singing a gentle folk song in the Carnegie Museum of Art’s Hall of Sculpture; they repeated the elegiac refrain for six hours. The performance was documented by a single camera that rotated around the three youthful singers. Kjartansson has stated that he was inspired by the sculptures and trappings of the Carnegie’s Hall of Sculpture, commissioned around 1900 by Andrew Carnegie, one of the wealthiest steel tycoons and philanthropists of 19th-century America. As a response to this unusual setting, the artist cast his nieces as classical muses in this grand hall wrought by the industrial revolution. In the artist’s words:
“I was strumming my guitar in a hammock in a hippie commune in Nikiasalka, Poland. It was an old mansion, surrounded by forest and endless Polish fields. Children running around naked and artists building sculptures in trees and letting balloons go into thin air. . . . As I lay in the hammock I tried to remember that poem 'Song' by Allen Ginsberg and strummed E major and A major: 'The Weight of The World is Love.' Then I remembered something of sleep and dreams. Strumming, falling asleep, strumming, falling asleep. Then slowly this song emerged based on what was left of the poem in my memory. . . . Then I was invited to do a show at the Carnegie. I saw those Gilded Age, industrialist halls of marble, those idle sculptures looking down at you. I remembered that song and I thought of my nieces. They should play it here. A bed-in at the Hall of Sculpture.”
The endless repetition of the lyrics, set to melancholic strumming on an acoustic guitar, resonates with the historic space of the Carnegie’s Hall of Sculpture. The ever-repeating chorus—a slightly misremembered phrase from Allen Ginsberg’s poem "Song"—and the three girls sitting on a plinth covered with royal blue satin transform the marbled hall into a conflated space wherein different ages and various participants are in dialogue: Ginsberg’s poem and its romantic declaration that accumulates the cathartic force of a prayer through repetition; the neoclassical plaster casts of the ancient sculptures looking down at the scenery as if watching an otherworldly spectacle; and the three nieces passively embodying both classical and contemporary ideals of beauty as if in a trance. Yet here, in the installation at the Cleveland Museum of Art where the gallery walls are draped in same the blue satin featured in the video, the viewer is spatially connected to Kjartansson’s resounding orchestration.