From Rilke to Ragnar

“…because truly being here is so much…” (Rilke, Duino Elegies, “Ninth Elegy”)

Today I took in the full sixty-four minutes of Ragnar Kjartansson’s video art installation, The Visitors, at Nashville’s Frist Center for the Visual Arts. It is immersive and seductive, the former term being the best I know to describe it, the latter being a word used in the show’s promotional literature with which I cannot disagree. It was both of these things and more. There are nine screens arranged in a large gallery space in such a way that gives the viewer real-time access to several rooms inside an aging mansion in New York state. Each room is occupied by a musician, with Ragnar himself situated in a bubble bath with an acoustic guitar. All of the musicians can hear one another via headphones, and all proceed to play what amounts to one really long song–several movements that continually return to a single, haunting refrain.

I was mesmerized from the start, even having a couple of moments that I can only describe as joyful. In fact, with Rainer Maria Rilke’s poetic cycle, the Duino Elegies, fresh in my head, these moments of joy struck me as pure moments, as pure a moment as we can find in this life. These moments represent the best thing that can happen at an art exhibit, or in any experience, for that matter. For those who have not read Rilke, the poet presents art (specifically poetry, but I expand his thought to include art in general) as a relief from our nagging self-consciousness. You will have to read Rilke to take in the brunt of his thought–there is so much more than what I’m giving you here. To oversimplify, I will say that he specializes in the plight of the human consciousness.

My notion of a pure moment, informed by Rilke’s Duino Elegies, involves both the cessation of time and the suspension of self-consciousness. It is full immersion in an event. For me today, that event was Kjartansson’s The Visitors. It fulfills Rilke’s idea of “hiersein,” German for “being here.” In these moments of intense being, we forget about time, and we forget about ourselves. We are free to be inside a moment, free to experience pure joy.

The Visitors is on-view at The Frist until February 12th.

Today, I Became a Member

Today, I put my money where my mouth is, or I bit the bullet, or I took the plunge, or I [insert over-worn idiom]: I bought a year-long membership to Nashville’s high-profile, post-office-turned-gallery Frist Center for the Visual Arts. And it feels right. Of all the things I could support, this is a thing that makes sense–for me, I mean. This is something, culturally-speaking, worth investing in. The time was right. Of course, getting the student discount didn’t hurt. But I want to believe that I’ll continue my support beyond grad school, beyond the student discount.

After purchase of said membership, I spent two-and-a-half hours wandering through the current headlining show, Treasures from the House of Alba: 500 Years of Art and Collecting. Here are some notes scrawled with a gallery pencil:

–“Being in the presence of old paintings by old masters takes me out of myself. It doesn’t matter how unmodern the work may be–when I lean in to see the gradations of fleshy pink used to describe a man’s cheekbone or the fragility of his fatigued eyes, I am transported. It happened in front of a routine portrait (the third Duke of Alba, 1628), no doubt cranked out tediously and for a healthy sum, by Peter Paul Rubens. What is it about paint that transcends the usual? Cameras may master natural color, but paint transforms the natural into the spiritual.”

–“I rounded a corner and was awestruck by a painting that had to be at least ten feet tall, positioned for maximum effect, of a man on horseback. I got lost in it, sketching it very hastily. In my sketch, the rider appears to wear a mask, and the horse has a kangaroo’s head–Guy Fawkes in the Australian outback.”

–“The feeling of standing before something 2,400 years old–the two busts: “Head of Bacchus” and “Head of a Female Divinity.””

–“Statues that seem to breathe.”

–“A first edition of Don Quixote (1605).”

I recorded these impressions in the order that I had them. The three short ones seem random, but I wanted to stay true to my format. Think of them as an ongoing narrative, often broken but always meaningful. Most of the work in the show was from the 16th century-forward, so you can imagine my surprise at suddenly standing before two ancient Roman sculptures and all the eerie feelings of passing-time that such a position stirs, staring at the head of the god of wine and revelry and knowing that not only did ancient hands form this piece but that people probably worshiped it–real breathing, bleeding human beings, like you and me! Eerie, indeed. And certain statues were so lifelike that I would be remiss to spend an evening alone with them–too many horror movies, I suppose. But then there’s the other side of that: amazement at the craftsmanship of the sculptor, to imbue a hunk of marble with such life.

As I drove away, I began to wonder why these guardians of aristocratic “treasures” saw fit to send their art collection around the world, traveling from palaces in Spain to humble Nashville, Tennessee. Was it a desperate effort to shore up revenue for a dying, or dead, social class? Life support for an outmoded hierarchical system? As skillful and admirable as the work is, it is mostly made up of portraits of aristocracy, having little relevance for the common person. Did I benefit from seeing this work? I hope so, but I’m not sure. At my most pessimistic, I see the collection as one large reminder that I am not “to the manner born,” wandering among their gaudy, gold-gilt furniture, upholstered with French tapestry fabric. But the optimistic side of myself sees history and the artistic effort of hardworking, industrious painters and sculptors. My feelings about this show are conflicted even now: there is spectacle, but is there substance?

Note: the Frist allows no photography, not even cellphone shots without flash–even the Met allows flash-free photography! I don’t like this but I abide by it. So that’s why there are no photos of the actual show. Only my crude sketch and a couple of shots of the printed program.