Over the weekend, the piano-laden vocals of Icelandic band Sigur Rós were joined by a number of short films to accompany their new album “Valtari.” The Valtarti Film Experiment premiered on all seven continents (including Antarctica) at all manner of diverse, avant-garde locations from rock clubs to hair salons. In Philadelphia on December 9, the Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art (PhilaMOCA) was the chosen venue for these surreal adaptations of Sigur Rós’s haunting sound.
Upon the release of the album “Valtari,” Sigur Rós gave a dozen filmmakers a modest budget and no instructions in order to produce a series of open-ended moving-image creations based on the band’s music. The result is an often surreal and visually stunning 17-film program of shorts by both well-known and amateur filmmakers. The names in the film experiment include: Aalma Har’el, John Cameron Mitchell, Ramin Bahrani and Floria Sigismondi, among many fan submissions.
What is particularly intriguing is the shared content that these films inexplicably had in common despite the way in which they were commissioned. This in many ways speaks to the band’s vision piercing through to the audience in a clear and resonating fashion. Some explorations opted for a slight narrative tinge, while others focused entirely on wordless images. Nature, urban decay, the human body and raw emotional states were running themes throughout the show.
A film by Anafelle Liu, Dio Lau and Ken Ngan focuses on just one figure that appears to be writhing and stretching in his own liquefying skin. The scene is shot in negative, adding a strange glow to the already intriguing texture of whatever substance the subject was doused in. Another by Ragnar Kjartansson takes a notably humorous approach, with an informative and amusing public service announcement about the Heimlich maneuver. Two men sit dining in tuxedos and one begins to choke on his steak. The video explores the options for helping someone in such a predicament while also keeping the video absurd enough to laugh at. The final message the director leaves the audience with is “Breathing feels great.”
Dash Shaw and John Cameron Mitchell include a fully animated short which follows a troubled young man and his struggles with self-destruction and ultimate redemption. The only other full animation is the opener of the program by Inga Birgisdóttir which depicts a mountainous crag and dark, hooded individuals with signaling mirrors shining at the viewer. This film in particular seems to grasp at the mystical but uneasy peace present in the music of Sigur Rós.
Others such as Ryan McGinley’s golden-haired girl trotting around a city whose motions occasionally freeze around her and Aalma Har’el’s tense depictions of love and hate stand at odds with one another but help to flesh out the band’s vision with the help of many talented filmmakers.
All of the videos are available to view outside of the premiere on the Sigur Rós website.
PhilaMOCA is located at 531 N. 12th St., Philadelphia; 267-519-9651; philamoca.org.