Those two words come to mind when thinking about Ragnar Kjartansson’s A Lot of Sorrow. I’ve visited the Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art (MAC) to see it three times. I’ve never seen the whole thing (it’s six hours long) – so every time I go it’s at a different part. Kjartansson, an Icelandic performance artist, convinced The National, an American band he was obsessed with, to perform their song “Sorrow” for six hours straight at the MoMA PS1 in New York City in 2013. The recorded footage, now property of the MAC, is exhibited every three years or so.
With each repetition, new sounds are heard. Whether it is just you paying attention to different notes or the band experimenting, I couldn’t say for sure. The room is big and dark, walled with black curtains and a long comfy stool, or perhaps it’s a couple of smaller stools pressed together, existing in the centre of the space. People sit and lie there, watching. They also sit or lie on the floor, some for a couple of minutes, others for hours to watch the endless concert.
The song loops perfectly, a consistent light drumming tying it all together. By now I’ve memorized the lyrics too, but they were my own. I know the actual ones too, they just evolve after each listen. “Cover me in ragan balm,” it’s rag and bones, “and sympathy…” “It’s in my honey. It’s in my bed,” it’s in my milk. Everyone in the room hears something different. Some are smiling, laughing quietly to themselves, others look solemn, they feel the sorrow, a whole lot of sorrow.
In an article by The Art Newspaper, Kjartansson is quoted saying, “the notion of melancholia creates something that makes me happy, in creating.” Wallowing in sorrow rarely stays as such, especially when listening to The National on repeat. It’s silly. It’s beautiful. It’s tiring.
The band’s exhaustion sets in, their suits disheveled, sweaty, hungry, and drunk. The stage becomes littered with bottles, water and wine, platters of fruit, candy… I would have stayed all six hours too if I could eat and drink in the exhibition hall.
The concept is simple enough. The song is the right one.
A Lot of Sorrow will continue to loop at the MAC until Oct. 6. Admission is $7 for students, half-price on Wednesday evenings from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m and free on the first Sunday of the month for Quebec residents.