Ragnar Kjartansson’s Take Me Here by the Dishwasher: Memorial for a Marriage, a mixture of live performance and film, transforms the New Museum’s fourth floor into something like a college movie night sent adrift. The darkened gallery, one wall of which serves as projector screen, becomes a makeshift den—modestly furnished but amply stocked with beer—for ten shaggy troubadours with acoustic guitars. Their ambling, unbroken melody effectively scores the repeating film scene in their midst, suturing its abrupt beginning and end together in a hypnotic loop.
Such an ambiance fits easily within the oeuvre of the Icelandic artist, who has recently made the figure of the moody musician and the aesthetic of the hangover his principle subjects. New Yorkers may remember The Visitors (2012–2013), a multichannel film capturing the artist and several close friends jamming in the romantic milieu of an upstate farmhouse, or A Lot of Sorrow (2013), in which acclaimed indie rockers The National performed the titular tune over and over for six straight hours at Kjartansson’s behest. Then there was S. S. Hangover (2013), the artist’s warmly received submission to the 55th Venice Biennale, in which a six-piece brass band sailed circles around the Arsenale’s shipyard in a small boat, serenading viewers with a subdued, melancholic melody until dusk fell.
Take Me Here by the Dishwasher: Memorial for a Marriage, which was first staged in 2011 at the BAWAG Foundation in Vienna, begins from material at once lower on the cultural register and, at least in a literal sense, closer to home for Kjartansson than the works that have succeeded it. Its cycling film scene is trite melodrama: A bored housewife dozes into a fantasy about seducing the plumber, then awakens to disappointment. It just so happens that the actors are the artist’s parents and, family lore has it, he was conceived the very night this steamy scene was shot.
That’s a personal story if ever there was one, couched though it may be in fiction, and Kjartansson tells it with great tenderness as well as melancholy. It is unclear whether this work is a “memorial” because the marriage has ended or only because it inevitably will; Kjartansson’s works of repetition and dilation often function as mementos mori in the latter vein. Whatever the case, the troubadours’ song, composed by Kjartan Sveinsson (formerly of the Icelandic band Sigur Rós), is deeply elegiac, aligning in mood with the female film character’s moment of disillusionment even as the lyrics recount the dialogue within her fantasy of passion: “Are you a man? Show me what you can do to me! Take off my clothes! Take me, take me here by the dishwasher!”
By comparison to this clear double narrative, Kjartansson’s subsequent works seem almost formal: more concerned with constructing mood and emotion in the abstract than in delineating any particular objects thereof. Kjartansson’s formalism possesses a powerful grip. A piece like The Visitors rooted viewers to the spot for its full duration—A Lot of Sorrow and S.S. Hangover for hours on end. These works owe much of their poignancy to the sense of an impending, if repeatedly delayed, ending that is intrinsic to the works as performances.
The possibility of such wholeness is notably absent in Take Me Here by the Dishwasher, the duration of which is determined post hoc by the display site’s open hours and the length of the exhibition’s run. After ten or twelve cycles of the scene, the work’s hypnotic hold loosens and the typical viewer shuffles out to see what the rest of the museum has to offer. (There are two other parental collaborations in the Kjartansson exhibition, which is titled Me, My Mother, My Father, and I, but they are positioned as distinctly ancillary to the main performance and prompt only cursory attention.) As a distinctively content-driven work in Kjartansson’s oeuvre, memorializing a specific marriage while offering a meditation on the lifespans of romantic relationships in general, Take Me Here by the Dishwasher is worth seeing. As Kjartansson’s New York museum debut, however, it works more in the service of the New Museum than the other way around.
Me, My Mother, My Father, and I runs through June 29 at the New Museum.