They were a few dozen strangers lingering in the large gallery one weekday afternoon, some standing but many sitting or lying down, all attending at length to one thing. It wasn't the usual scene in a museum, where viewers typically spend less than 30 seconds with a work before moving on.
This more stationary audience had gathered at an exhibition at the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal by the Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson, who works in many media. The MAC show consists of three large video installations, two of which feature lengthy performances of a single song.
The show-stopper, the piece that people sat on the floor to absorb, is The Visitors. It's an hour-long rendition of a pensive original song, played and sung by Kjartansson with a couple dozen friends and fellow artists. Eight of these participants appear in different rooms in the rambling Rokeby mansion in New York state, performing alone but hearing everyone else through headphones. Kjartansson sings and strums an acoustic guitar while soaking in a claw-footed bathtub; a cellist plays from an upper-storey landing ringed with gilt-framed paintings. The 19th-century house is very present, because each of these performers gets a big screen to themselves, with a ninth screen reserved for a crowd of people singing on the wide front porch.
The performance has a shaggy, accumulative shape, building up or slimming down but somehow adding up to more with each passing minute. It's got the buoyant group feeling of a live show by Arcade Fire, but also the air of fading gentility I associate with the American singer Cat Power. As the tune rolls on and on, you wonder: is this a sad song, or a joyous one? The answer's not simple, but it's clear that something very sincere is going on.
The most striking thing about The Visitors is that sincerity, and its source: not a painting or sculpture, but a piece of music. Habits of irony and displacement can make contemporary art seem a rather stony field, but as Kjartansson and others have discovered, if you place the right piece of music in a museum, you can vault right over the wise-acre discourse of postmodernism.
The same feat is going on in A Lot of Sorrow, which shows the American band the National playing its song Sorrow for six hours straight. The National is a cool indie outfit, but when Matt Berninger sings "I don't wanna get over you" for the first or the 200th time, he's voicing the straight-up complaint of someone whose heart is broken. The endless repetition – and Sorrow is already plenty repetitious – suits the idea of being unable to quit something, and of enacting that inability over time.
"Just staying in a situation and repeating stuff makes us feel more fulfilled," Kjartansson told an interviewer in 2015, with thousands of years of religious ritual to back him up. And yet repetition in both these pieces also feels like a way of grasping after something that's slipping away, and not just because Sorrow is about heartache. As you look into the Rokeby mansion's stately-shabby interiors, and hear the voices rise to a wail that could be ecstatic, The Visitors also feels like an elegy, for a kind of openness and sociability that may have been more available in the past.
A similar kind of repetitive, music-mediated yearning shows in the work of Canadians Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, whose perpetually touring audio work The Forty Part Motet separates the layers of a 16th-century vocal piece in much the way Kjartansson does with his song in The Visitors. Many people find The Forty Part Motet a moving experience, which I suspect has something to do with the presentation of so much polyphonic certainty in a setting normally attuned to irony and doubt. The same goes for Lowlands, Scottish artist Susan Philipsz's audio installation of a vintage sea shanty, for which she won the Turner Prize in 2010.
The most detailed encounter with the past in Kjartansson's MAC show focuses on repetitions of a narrative, from Icelandic writer Halldor Laxness's late-1930s novel World Light. The artist and a team of friends and colleagues shot the whole book in a Viennese art gallery in 2014, building and painting sets, writing scripts and acting all the parts. The four-screen video presentation is a cacophonous record of that labour, including time between takes.
Kjartansson says this homage to the novel, which he calls "my bible," is driven in part by Laxness's ambivalence toward his hero, an idealistic poet whose unworldliness must have seemed agonizingly quaint in the politicized 1930s. The unpolished quality of the video presentation emphasizes the gap between ourselves and a prior state of innocence, however self-conscious.
At the end of The Visitors, all the solitary performers leave their rooms and convene in a big main-floor salon, then head outside to join those on the porch. As they did so, on the day of my visit, everyone in the gallery followed, coming together in front of the porch screen. The performers kept on singing as they trailed off the porch and over the wide green fields beyond, and we all stood watching, wondering what it was they were taking away with them.
Video installations by Ragnar Kjartansson remain on view at the MAC through May 22. The artist will perform in The Explosive Sonics of Divinity, a live stage production based on Halldor Laxness's novel World Light, Thursday at 8 p.m. at Montreal's Théâtre Maisonneuve (macm.org).