For the last several weeks I have been among Icelanders. Specifically, I’ve mingled with the friends and family of artist Ragnar Kjartansson, whose excellent show of work inspired by music is on view at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. Aptly titled “Song,” the exhibition was curated by my colleague Dan Byers and is on view through May 1.
As is his wont, the artist created a variety of new works for the exhibition, including a site-specific, three-week-long performance. It was with feelings of anticipation and regret of it ending so soon that I sat to watch the end of this piece on Thursday night. Presented collaboratively by the Warhol Museum and the Carnegie, “An Evening with Ragnar Kjartansson and Friends” began with strolling guitarists playing in the gilded entry foyer of the Carnegie Music Hall.
Photo by Madelyn Roehrig
Once the audience was seated and the lights went down, an evening of Vaudeville unfurled, its cast of characters singing and playing the piano, wind-swept by a large fan on the stage. They circumnavigated a large taxidermied lion provided by our sister institution, the wonderful Natural History Museum.
Players included Ragnar’s best friend, his wife and their baby, as well as his gorgeous nieces. The performance ended with the players executing a particularly dramatic passage from Wagner, which overtook the auditorium as Ragnar shaved his beard on stage.
The production felt like friends jamming in mom’s basement—fun and carefree. That feeling endured as the audience exited the theater and found the same guitarists still playing where we left them, now surrounded by empty beer bottles strewn across the foyer’s marble floor. They’d been drinking brewskies the entire time as part of a hidden performance that Ragnar had engineered to occur simultaneously.
Over the course of our wonderful three weeks spent hanging out with Ragnar and his merry band of travelers, I was very happy to affirm that art can infiltrate all corners of our lives—from ornate stages to formal galleries, and the many spaces in-between. It’s those very in-between spaces that seem to stoke the fires of artist Rich Pell and his Center for PostNatural History, an art-cum-science project.
Earlier this week I met with both Pell and Sam Taylor, Director of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, to discuss ways that our two museums could collaborate on the connected realms of art and science. Pell’s project looks specifically at genetically altered organisms—post-natural beings, if you will. He is opening up a space in Pittsburgh later this spring that will collect “living, preserved and documented organisms” born of some genetic manipulation. Dolly the Sheep would be a potential celebrity resident. In our meeting, we talked about ways that scientists are creating rot-resistant trees, how various animal genes are being combined, as well as other developments exciting and frightening alike.
I was thrilled by these topics, as I am a big fan of Eduardo Kac, the Brazilian artist best known for his glow-in-the-dark rabbit, Alba. Pell’s project makes an important counterpoint for contemporary art, which regularly posits itself as timeless.
Eric C. Shiner is the Acting Director & Milton Fine Curator of Art at the The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.