Sorrow found me when I was young,
Sorrow waited, sorrow won.
Sorrow that put me on the pills,
It's in my honey, it's in my milk.

'Sorrow' is a song by The National, written by the lead singer Matt Berninger and lead guitarist Aaron Dessner for their band's fifth album High Violet from 4AD Records. Running at three and half-minutes, it is on the surface a simple and somber affair, and only two verses with a chorus repeated three times throughout.

In 2013, the band were invited by the Reykjavik-based artist Ragnar Kjartansson to perform the song repetitively for a performance at MoMA PS1, the Long Island contemporary art museum. The band agreed, playing the song 105 times in a six-hour endurance session on the 5th of May, 2013, from just after noon until just after 6 pm. Filmed in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, the result is both displayed in art festivals around the world and available to purchase.

A Lot of Sorrow is both this original performance, and any subsequent broadcast of it, which begins with the band coming out to pick up their instruments and ends after their only encore of the night, a special song called 'Sorrow'.


It's only about half a heart alone
On the water,
Cover me in rag and bones, sympathy.
'Cause I don't wanna get over you.
I don't wanna get over you.

On the surface, The National are your run-of-the-mill alt-rock band, setting up their stall on the more melancholic end of the spectrum and with no personality or addiction implosions are still churning the music out and thus can be deemed successful. Their performance in A Lot of Sorrow belies that notion, revealing both the accomplished musicianship of its core members and the complexities of the song 'Sorrow' in particular. Once it's been played over 100 times, either with exact ongoing perfection from the opening beats from the drummer and the bass guitarist, or the frenetic variations intervened by the song's co-writer and lead guitarist Aaron Dessner, the layers are revealed. Elements stripped back when the drummer needs to rest his hands and stretch his back, or tumbled into each other when Aaron waggles his guitars pickup against a speaker, creating wailing feedback. Aaron's intensity with his guitar is intriguingly counterpointed by his twin brother on rhythm guitar: a calm continuity only betrayed near the end of the performance in one song cycle where Aaron strides over and plays until they both erupt in sync and briefly become mirror images.

As with most bands, it's the lead singer and 'Sorrow' co-writer that is in focus here, singing the lyrics again and again, with little tonal change, apart from late in the run as his voice hoarsens. As he first begins to sing each song, he pulls the mic, lowered down, as he leans forward pressed into it as if it's the rudder of a boat he is steering. In gaps as the band plays he paces, glances at his bandmates, and perhaps a little bemusement at what he and the others are doing, and then back to serious, delivering the lines in all its solemnity.


Sorrow's my body on the waves
Sorrow's a girl inside my cage
I live in a city sorrow built
It's in my honey, it's in my milk

Endurance works have been embedded in art for some time, and 'A Lot of Sorrow' marked the last of several the artist Ragnar Kjartansson has presented.

In the UK, the most famous endurance art pieces would be Tilda Swinton's sleeping in a glass box at The Serpentine in an artwork she and Cornelia Parker developed called The Maybe. (Swinton has revived performing this work in the MOMA in 2013). The magician David Blaine's suspension in a glass box by Tower Bridge in Lonon in 2003 for 33 days is another famous endurance act in the UK.

Worldwide, however, the artist Marina Abramović is the most reknowned for endurance works. Early works with her then partner Ulay pressed physicality and time to its limits, such as "Nightsea Crossing" where the pair sat silently across the room from each other for 7 hours at a time. Her work first performed in 2010 at MOMA 'The Artist is Present' became a phenomena in the art world: sitting, again in silence, across from a member of the public throughout the opening hours of the museum for 45 days.

Endurance performances can trace themselves back to two elements: religion (most notably arising from Christ's 40 days and 40 nights which led to practitioners of fasting, and absorbed from Islam's Ramadan) that brought us acts such as Simeon Stylites sitting atop a pillar for decades, and sport, with the Greek Olympiad marking the running of messages between cities with the establishment of the marathon (leading to today, with the 3100 mile Self-Transcendence race). American and then world culture then adopted the marathon to match acts of sitting and watching a set of films or tv episodes, beginning in the 1980s. Performance art naturally began adopting the form, in both as a personal endeavor for the artist and for whatever experience it provided to the audience.

Taking part in these acts as a viewer can lead to a variety of results, with the first boredom and amusement, followed by self-reflection and meditations, and perhaps something that becomes more metaphysical as well as physical. Or all of these together, in any order.

Kjartansson becomes a part of A Lot of Sorrow by appearing to be a stagehand or roadie for anyone who doesn't recognize him: coming on stage to replenish water, passing around a plate of fruit or cake and-- a couple of hours into the performance-- taping the set-list in front of the lead singer's mic: the word SORROW repeated 121 times in bold sans serif. It is the band themselves who are the act, the endurers, repeating their song almost as many times as they would over the stretch of a world-wide tour, just now altogether. Kjartansson as conceptualist and then manager and finally editor of the filmed piece is only the intermediary between the band's endurance and our final experience of the work.

When I finally began watching the work, artistically it put in mind of two things. The first, that endorphine rush you feel on watching body modification human suspension acts that gets transferred as well from films was also in effect here: each play of the song rolls through while watching, with only the sweat of bodies around you removed. The second was the reaction to the work of another Icelandic artist, Olafur Eliasson's The Weather Project at Tate Modern in 2003, which drew people in to bask under a facsimile of a sun for hours at a time, including from opening hours to close. Whilst removed from the performance in several ways, there was still something drawing me into it, orbiting the work like some satellite around a sun.

It's only my half of heart alone,
On the water,
Cover me in rag and bones, sympathy.
'Cause I don't wanna get over you.
I don't wanna get over you.

I viewed A Lot of Sorrow as a digitally projected film over several visits during its installation in a gallery in my home town of Edinburgh in August 2017. The Ingleby Gallery in Edinburgh was based for several years just behind the Waverley Station, in a large space suitable for decent exhibitions. In the last year, however it has returned to its original location on one of the New Town terraces built around Calton Hill: the home of the gallery owners. To get to whatever is exhibiting you press a little button by the door like it's some speakeasy only you know about and are let in, an office on the right, but ahead down a hall and to the left of a gorgeous stairwell is a sitting room converted for display: the ceiling high and corniced like most of the tenement flats in New Town, a marble backed fireplace on one wall, and white skirting boards all about the room with wide planked wooden flooring below. For this work, one whole wall, covering the two sash windows that look out towards Arthur's Seat, is dedicated to a screen. the remaining walls apart from around the fireplace were all covered in sound baffles, which still do not fully keep the rumbles of the music from spilling out into the hallway.

I take advantage of the availability of historical and modern art in Edinburgh by heading out to the various galleries on the weekend, hitting some one week, other the other. We're really spoiled here but in August it becomes an even more indulgent treat as you could spend all day for a week and still not take in all free art available. As part of their 'downsizing' back to their original home (although they represent and exhibit artists worldwide, so haven't really gotten smaller), Ingleby have been running a series called &ampersand, showing two artworks for 4 weeks, with every two weeks swapping one out and somewhat keeping things in some sort of theme. Throughout the manic festival weeks of August, A Lot of Sorrow was showing, with a still life by Giorgio Morandi paired with it the first two weeks and a small 15th century altarpiece depicting the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian in the second two weeks. This minimal display suits me fine, allowing me to skip a few weeks before coming back, knowing I'm not missing anything particularly.

I basically went into this blind: knowing little about The National and this particular artist (his work had never been on display in Scotland before), just that the film was six bloody hours long. Arriving at around the 2 hour point the gallery attendant/greeter/office worker/social media manager opened the door to my buzz and while handing me one of the info sheets asked if it was my first time, referring to the art. She knew: knew that I'd be back again, and again, and again. On learning that it was, and that I'd hope to come back where was just that knowing nod, paired with, 'well, yes, it's interesting to see the differences, anyway, I think the drummer's about to take a break...' allowing me to head in and then get swallowed in.

At first you don't believe it: isn't this the same song? And then you chuckle to yourself: how clever, yes, just brilliant. Then as they start again: but... why?

At the end of each song the PS:1 audience cheers lightly, but then once they start up again--and starting up means once the song is finished the drummer and bass guitar start a beat for 15 to 30 seconds and Berninger leans in and starts to sing 'Sorrow found me when I was young...' there are cheers. As if, 'Yes, yes, you are playing 'Sorrow', this is what we wanted to hear!', although much more 'Good, good, keep at it, we're here for you! You can do it!'

What I didn't know until a repeat view from the start was that until around 2 hours in there wasn't anything from the crowd: no applause at the end of the song, no cheering at the start. It just happened, well into the game: the crowd locked in, becomes supporters, had become enjoyers and became participants of this act of performance.


It's only my half of heart alone,
On the water,
Cover me in rag and bones, sympathy.

'Cause I don't wanna get over you.

I don't wanna get over you.

So I find myself sitting down and letting my mind wander.  Letting the song wash over me and through me and empty me.

There's an odd illusion that only clears on the second visit: The skirting of the Gallery room appears to be continued in what I think is skirting behind the foggy stage The national play on, in some cavernous dark grey room. The skirting there is high up, around 6 feet so sort of makes them miniature from my aspect against the foot high skirting, like they are some miniature performing band in a freak show. The illusion only falls away when I realize the white is just the bottom part of canvassed geodesic dome they play in. But still the allusion is there: The National may be so committed to art they are willing to endure actual physical hardship to see the artform to completion, but they are really only existing for my entertainment. Just as well, though, this allusion falls into tatters as I become immersed in the song, one of loss, of despair, of wallowing and the need for sympathy.

Watching 'A Lot of Sorrow' became an act of catharsis for me, having just experienced the loss of a loved cat, the last of three long loved cats which I'd spent a lot of time with and I certainly wasn't over it. I was broken with grief over it, actually. This combined with the death of my father-in-law earlier in the year, who we'd cared for for a number of years, but couldn't ever really say goodbye, because Alzheimer's doesn't let you until they are placed in a hole in the ground. So in each song, each simple, cacophonous, mournful, raging song took me deeper, and then past those emotions until empty and able to let the music be music and run its fingers up and down my spine.

Very late in the fifth hour, Berninger's voice is hoarse and hesitant. There's been a bit of wine and beer drunk by him and various members. On arrival to the gallery towing a few other people along, that knowing attendant says to me 'Good timing, Matt's about to cry'. and so he does, just for one song, breaking down with some sort of recognition and facing down of whatever prompted the song's creation. Yet he makes it through, takes a few breathes, and composes himself, singing the next with newfound strength, his voice back.

Several songs later, the band returns to much applause, and Berninger states 'This will be our only encore, a special song called 'Sorrow'. '

The artwork's website (where one cycle of the song repeats) | The artist's website 

Lyrics to 'Sorrow by The National | Explicate your lyrics (yeah, that was a thing)

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