The Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) presents Ragnar Kjartansson’s gorgeous and shrewd video installation The End (2009). On five rear projection screens, Kjartansson and his collaborator, Icelandic musician Davíð Þór Jónsson, play all of the parts of an unidentified country-music song on piano, banjo, drums, and acoustic and electric guitars. Shot in the Rocky Mountains in Canada, both men are bearded and dressed in raccoon-fur hats, shearling coats, and jeans. Kjartansson’s smartly staged romantic concert of two musicians tests the limits of “naturalness” while also invoking the awe of a pristine and secluded landscape.
Like Edmund Burke’s sublime landscape, which informed 18th- and 19th-century romantic landscape painting and writing, Kjartansson positions human beings as solitary and commanding against the vast and sometimes chaotic natural world. Devoid of the architectural markings of human development, Kjartansson’s landscape is a field of white snow, mountains, and pine trees. Each of the five videos in the installation begins with shots of a landscape that includes the musicians’ equipment and instruments. Kjartansson and Þór Jónsson walk into the frame to play their song for thirty minutes and then walk off camera and into the landscape. This suggests that the landscape is the stable entity, with the duo intervening only for a brief time. Without a visible audience, the duo plays for themselves and the camera. However, at one moment, Kjartansson turns and plays toward the canyon below, pauses, and then listens as the music echoes off the ravine and disappears. While sited in the mountains, the musicians also play to it, suggesting landscape as a dynamic thing in itself.