Time doesn’t seem to let itself be caught. But you can always try, which is why I went to De Pont in Tilburg for the video work A Lot of Sorrow by the Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson and the American band The National. In its full 6 hours, 9 minutes and 35 seconds. On a watery Tuesday morning, I entered the Lot of Sorrow room, carrying three granola balls and a bottle of iced tea in my bag, and settled into the darkness on the bare wooden bench. The movie started. The National walked on stage, seven men in black suits and white shirts, and started “Sorrow,” one of their better-known songs. Kjartansson said he had chosen it because he likes the melancholy in it: “Victor Hugo said that melancholy is the joy of being sad. There’s something so sad and beautiful and heartfelt about ‘Sorrow’, but also it’s joyful.” I tried to guess from the looks and body language of The National members how they were feeling – playing the same song for six straight hours, continuously, they had no idea what they were getting into. Neither do I.
‘Time works’ are a fascinating genre within the visual arts: films or videos of two or three hours that you could theoretically sit through all the way through, while in practice no one does. Too long. Too demanding too. In films of up to, say, an hour and a half, artists usually act as if nothing is happening, but beyond that it becomes uncomfortable and the unfulfillment, the passing of time, is often the subject. Kjartansson is a specialist in the genre. On his current solo in De Pont, which is called, yes, ‘Time Changes Everything’, runs alongside A Lot of Sorrow also Bliss (2019) with a total length of 11 hours, 59 minutes and 25 seconds – the museum hasn’t even been open that long. I don’t know why I’d want to get into it either, but every time I come across a marathon piece like this in a museum or gallery, I have a vaguely grating sense of guilt. Shouldn’t I even sit down to reward the artist’s ambition? Or does the artist not expect that at all? But then why does it exist? Now I thought I knew the answer: the length offers you a promise of unique experience, where the experience of time becomes the subject. By really challenging time, and the artist along with it.
When do you do the same thing for six hours? The National seems to be wondering that too. The first half hour they are on the podium like a group of endurance runners who do not know where the finish is. The first ten performances of ‘Sorrow’ are disciplined: the rhythm section and the rhythm guitarist save their energy, and singer Matt Berninger also takes it easy. Only guitarist Aaron Dessner seems to have set himself the task of making every performance unique: every time a different solo, then again playing with a bow, his guitar, lying on the floor. The hall in the New York PS1 is slowly filling up, clouds of fog are blowing over the stage. I try to store small events, versions, variations in my memory, but everything slips away with the flow of time. At the twentieth performance, after more than an hour, Kjartansson climbs on stage himself and presents snacks: dates, pieces of banana, sports food. He laughs uneasily, clearly proud on the one hand that he managed to organize this marathon, but also wary of disrupting the band’s continuum, as if his presence could torpedo the ongoing cadence.
Certainly one time artwork is even better and more famous than A Lot of Sorrow: Christian Marclays The Clock (2010). This modern classic is made up entirely of (about twelve thousand) fragments from existing feature films, in which a clock or a watch always plays a role. Collectively, these scenes form a real clock that shows the exact time at the moment of viewing – the whole Clock lasts 24 hours. But above all it is a masterpiece of time perception: the film sublimely captures the passing of time, as it links images from the most diverse eras and cultures to specific times – getting up, having lunch, going to bed, as if you were shooting back and forth all over the earth and over all times and always finds the same universal patterns there. At least, you assume so, because few people have the whole Clock have seen, that is only possible during special 24-hour sessions. With this, Marclay also holds up a carrot to his spectators, as if to say: look, there it goes, time, just try to catch it.
Where The Clock is about the passing of time, Kjartansson ventures with A Lot of Sorrow an attempt to stop time. It is mainly helped by repetition. First of all run the beginning and end of Sorry perfectly into each other, leaving an eternal walk arises, but also because Sorry keeping time as its subject: the key phrase of the song reads ‘I don’t want to get over you‘. Kjartansson said he had played ‘Sorrow’ ‘at least eight hundred times’ before inviting The National: the continued playing of a favorite song to retain a feeling, an atmosphere in time is very recognizable. As if the repeat button allows you to reduce the passing of time to manageable chunks – although the notes, the sounds, still slip through your fingers.
The longer I sit in the room in De Pont, the clearer it becomes that this is also the crux of A Lot of Sorrow: slide along or stop? You even see it reflected in the individual members of the band. The rhythm section and Berninger seem to have resolved to stay as close as possible to the core, the foundation of the song – and to change as little as possible. The wind section and solo guitarist, on the other hand, rebel: they turn each new version into a new event, solos, runs, change, life.
I think about that more and more Groundhog Day, the film classic in which Bill Murray, in the role of weather forecaster Phil Connors, gets ‘locked in’ in one day: no matter what he does, he wakes up every time on February 2 at 6 a.m. in the town of Punxsutawney, where he must report whether or not the woodchuck has appeared. Phil’s life goes on, in fact, he finds growth and redemption, eventually succeeding in making every day different. Exactly what The National does. They have to.
Every time I come across such a marathon work in a museum, there is a vague sense of guilt
Change is life. That’s why it’s no problem that drummer Bryan Devendorf eats a sandwich behind his drum kit in number 53, so that version is drumless. That Berninger sometimes slumps down on a monitor, that they hand out drinks to the spectators who have been standing in front of the stage from the start, that melancholy regularly seeps away and gives way to routine. Because it is precisely that dynamic that also leads, certainly towards the end, to the number of good, sharp, driving performances of Sorry increases. In fact, their enthusiasm seems to grow, as if the band is getting deeper and deeper into the uniqueness of the session, lifting itself above the lethargy of repetition. That is of course the point: if you stop time, you exist forever in a vacuum. If you emphasize the passage of time, the differences, then you live – the band cannot do otherwise.
After more than six hours and ninety-nine Sorryversions, The National leaves the stage. The crowd whoops and cheers, they’re coming back. Berninger stands behind his microphone and dryly reports: „We’re gonna do one encore tonight. It’s called ‘Sorry’.” And there it is, still: a feeling of emotion, and of euphoria. I also understand that it’s because I’m tired, exhausted, and want something other than a muesli ball, but also because these six hours have brought me something – simply because Kjartansson has tempted me to challenge time, no matter how manageable . If art also exists to offer the viewer special life experiences, then it is sitting out A Lot of Sorrow worth the effort.
Now, almost a month later Sorry still pops up in my head at the strangest times. It’s not going away. As if Ragnar Kjartansson and The National have placed a time capsule full of melancholy in my head, without turning off the power or escaping it. ‘Sorrow’ is stuck, continues – I don’t want to get over youindeed.
Also read this interview: Melancholy and boredom are common threads in Ragnar Kjartansson’s bizarre work
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of November 24, 2022