Magazine: Ragnar Kjartansson

By: | Date 29.07.2016
Ragnar Kjartansson, emblematic figure of the Icelandic contemporary art scene, is unfairly little known in the UK. He recently exhibited at the the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, directed a new piece at the Berlin Volksbuhne, and this summer holds his first UK retrospective and largest solo exhibition to date at the Barbican Centre in London.
The End – Venice, 2009. Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Ragnar Kjartansson, Augustine, New York and i8 Gallery, Reykjavík. © Rafael Pinho
The numerous articles and reviews about Ragnar Kjartansson will mention his artistic background and surroundings, his parents being well-known Icelandic actors and film directors. He spent his childhood at the Reykjavik city theatre, and started to perform subsequently at an early age.

This period of his life shaped his future choices and recurrent thematic in his work. As he says when reflecting on his background, “When you’re raised in a farm, you know the soil, the land. I was raised in the theatre: I know the superficial”.

Repetition, romantic clichés of tenderness and sorrow, and above all a matchless sense of humour, are essential components of his work.

A perfect example are the paintings –executed at the breathless rhythm of one per day- he undertook over a period of six months during the Viennese biennale in 2009, where he was the youngest artist to date to represent Iceland. The notions of truth and fiction but also the limits between medias –in this case painting and performance- were constantly blurred.
Kjartansson was embodying the bittersweet parody of the romantic artist in his atelier, painting and drinking beers with his friend and model Páll Haukur Björnsson, the work and the space evolving as the days went by, in an accumulation of beer cans and canvases.

Being a painter was Kjartansson’s first intent when he enrolled to art school in Reykjavik, at the time disinterested from conceptual art; ‘I am not going to make dust in a bag’ his younger self used to think.

He soon discovered artists such as Gillian Wearing, movements such as Fluxus, and the thoughts and ideas behind Feminist art, and produced subsequently the piece ‘Me and my Mother’ in which he films himself and his mother in her living room while she is spitting on him. This performance was filmed and re-enacted every five years since then in the same spot of the living room. He considers it as his first artistic piece.

‘What I like about this piece is the pretending’ says Kjartansson. Retrospectively to this piece in which laughter intervenes sometimes, and where one can clearly see that both are acting, Kjartansson reflects about the education received in an art institution - how much one was pressured to be sincere and truthful. Jokingly he describes how problematic that was for him, and claims that if he needed to be sincere he would need to act; ‘my inner soul is full of pretense’. After all, as Jean Cocteau would contend, is theatre not a lie which tells the truth?

Over the top theatricality in God, video in which Kjartansson, tuxedo wearing crooner in pink satin surroundings, sings, as a mantra, the melancholic phrase ‘Sorrow conquers Happiness’. At a time in which he was losing his faith–Ragnar used to be an altar boy and was raised in Lutherian tradition- the affirmation of sorrow, pain, and ultimately death, was a liberating statement. According to the artist, repetition, the most human behavior, generates significance and power within a sentence or an action.

More ‘Sorrow’ and more repetition, in the video of the National from 2010, where the American band from Ohio was asked by Kjartansson, avid listener of their music, to perform their song for six hours as part of the MoMA PS1’s Sunday Sessions.

Kjartansson multiplies durational acts in which music and visuals are tightly connected. This approach maybe culminates in one of his most impressive piece, by its accuracy and technicality, The Visitors. Shot in the Rokeby villa in New York State, The Visitors is a nine channels installation, in which nine musicians including Ragnar are spread in various rooms of the two-hundred years old building, separately filmed as they play a song whose lyrics are taken from Kjartansson’s ex-wife poem ‘Once again/ I fall into/ My feminine ways’.

The Visitors is an immersive journey of softness and melancholy through a magnificient building, whose details we discover as we move through the exhibition room, from one screen to the other, from one harmony to the other, slowly transported into a final gathering image in the fields, tricked by what we thought were paintings and turned out to be tableaux-vivants.

There is something ritualistic in Kjartansson’s work which is inextricable from his origins, from the land of epic sagas, ruled by nature. Leaving faith behind, he researches religion in order to find the human within.

The human slowly lost in the western world that Ragnar interrogates and challenges, in ‘Scenes from western world’ for example, tableaux-vivants of a different nature, this time depicting some emblematic monotonous, mundane and repetitive episodes of our contemporary, civilized habits.

As he is asked whether the repetitive nature of his work would run the risk of boring his audience, Ragnar replies, ‘in our western societies, boredom is a gift that we, sometimes, need to embrace.’

Remarks compiled through the event ‘In conversation: Ragnar Kjartansson’, 20th July 2016, Barbican centre.
Ragnar Kjartansson, Barbican Centre, until Sept.4th 2016, £12.


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