Ragnar Kjartansson couldn't make it to his opening at the Winnipeg Art Gallery last month, but he recorded a video message back home in Reykjavik to play at the event.
After offering his regrets and thanks, the performance artist launched into a stripped-down version of what he introduced as "the national anthem of Winnipeg," the Weakerthans' terse, wounded One Great City!. Setting the song's memorable refrain ("I... hate... Winnipeg") to a rhythm snipped out on a pair of scissors, it was as fitting an introduction as any to Kjartansson's artistic persona -- part prankish troubadour, part wide-eyed tourist -- and to The End -- Rocky Mountains, his 2009 video installation on loan from the National Gallery in Ottawa.
While Weakerthans songwriter John K. Samson magnified the ordinary indignities of dollar-store clerks and transit patrons to craft his love-hate paean to Winnipeg, The End unfolds in a landscape where mythology and grandeur are harder to overlook. Produced in Banff, the five synced video projections feature Kjartansson and collaborator Davío Thor Jònsson in the roles of mountaineer-cum-guitar-slingers. Set against the ostentatiously majestic backdrop of a Rockies winter, the two perform a rambling, deconstructed country jam en plein air.
Decked out in coonskin hats and cowboy boots, shivering as they puff cigarettes and swig whisky from the bottle, the duo's image is as silly as it is studied. They hammer out honky-tonk piano licks from the surface of a frozen lake and pluck banjos in a snowy forest, sounding for all the world like an art-school tribute to The Band.
Gently dismantling the well-oiled machinery of Nashville songcraft, the five parts weave together to produce a sound that's instantly familiar, disarmingly pretty, but never fully solid.
The videos are composed with an eye to 19th-century Romantic landscape painting. A work by German sentimentalist Caspar David Friedrich provided a direct inspiration; Kjartansson took on the Hudson River School for an earlier performance in upstate New York, and the work can't help but harken to the later, boreal vistas of Canada's Group of Seven.
Kjartansson summons the same sense of wonder that moved his predecessors, but he good-naturedly lets the air out of the their pretensions. Instead of striking a commanding pose or hanging back in awestruck reverie, he and Jònsson stumble in the snow, fumble with their instruments and struggle to keep warm. Their awkwardness and discomfort approaches slapstick, the ridiculousness of their situation at odds with the both the imposing environment and their own delicate, halting melodies.
An icon of national identity and a tourist destination since the late 1800s, Banff was a critical waypoint in the march of Euro-Canadian westward expansion -- a crown jewel of the colonial project. Its landscape has been preserved in countless paintings, postcards, kitsch objects and song lyrics. Kjartansson assembles this baggage, enduring artifacts of Canadian culture, with a tourist's clear-eyed insight and naivete (a performance in and of itself). He repaints Rocky Mountain landscape for the thousandth time with irreverence, humour and, once senses, real wonder.
After half an hour, the music drifts to a halt; the musicians wander off, and the screens blink out one by one. Viewers are left to reflect on one a last, fleeting vision of natural beauty.
Then an acoustic guitar falls out of a tree, landing in a snowbank with a muffled, twangy thud.
The End closes April 20.
Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer and educator.