Reaching for the spiritual in Ragnar Kjartansson and The National’s 6-hour film ‘A Lot Of Sorrow’

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“All religion is like this, repeating the same thing again and again, until it becomes spiritual.”

Watching Ragnar Kjartansson’s ‘A Lot Of Sorrow’ is something akin to meditation. For the first few minutes, it’s tough to feel comfortable, and even tougher to concentrate on what’s going on. The brain, so used to consuming impressions quickly, is reacting to the slow down in stimulation like an engine gasping for fuel. For the first few renditions, ‘Sorrow’ feels interminably long, repetitive and homogenous.

But then, slowly, as in meditation, something changes. The rush to move on subsides, the brain settles with renewed focus, and ‘Sorrow’ begins to speed up. Suddenly, half an hour passes, then an hour, each rendition voraciously devoured, as nuances of the performance, the existential struggle of the band and their unfailing camaraderie emerge.

In ‘A Lot Of Sorrow’, Kjartansson says he’s turned the song into a sculpture, and the performance into a painting. You can look at it briefly, see it’s contours and admire its colours, or you can enter it more deeply, explore its edges, tones and secrets.

Asking a band you like to play a song of theirs repeatedly for six hours straight in front of a live audience is an audacious act in itself. It’s playful, perhaps even slightly sadistic (although Kjartansson refutes this), and somewhat absurd. In the case of ‘Sorrow’, this absurdism is entwined with the all-encompassing nature of grief the song grapples with. It is cathartic, communal, but also seemingly without end. The final piece in The Store X New Museum’s Strange Days exhibition, it also seems to extend the experience of the show into something that feels like it approaches infinity.

As with much of Kjartansson’s performance work, ‘A Lot Of Sorrow’ explores the tension between the individual and the collective. In the 9-panel video work ‘The Visitors’, Kjartansson’s All-Star troupe perform elements of the same “feminine nihilistic gospel song” in different rooms, united in performance, while being isolated in space.

Likewise, one of the most fascinating elements in ‘A Lot Of Sorrow’ is watching The National negotiate the task at hand, at times collectively, and at others, struggling on alone. Several hours in and the dynamic between brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner is one of the film’s compelling side-shows. Bryce the stoic, betraying little emotion; his brother Aaron battling untold demons (and visible boredom) to find new ways to bend his guitar to the same solemn tune.

As part of Strange Days at The Store X, we spoke to Kjartansson about the intentions and influences behind the work, how The National experienced it and how he hopes the viewer will experience it too.

‘A Lot Of Sorrow’ is displayed at Strange Days: Memories of the Future at The Store X until 9th December. Click here for more information.


Ragnar Kjartansson with the National – A Lot of Sorrow, 2013–14
Source: Vimeo

Courtesy of: Ragnar Kjartansson with the National
A Lot of Sorrow, 2013–14
Original performance occurred at MoMA PS1 as part of Sunday Sessions. Courtesy the artists; Luhring Augustine, New York; and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik

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