Ragnar Kjartansson

The Icelandic artist's epic performance works and videos toy with our emotions – sorrow, joy, boredom and exhilaration among them

By Oliver Basciano

Ragnar Kjartansson, The Visitors, 2012, Photo: Elisabet Davidsdottir Ragnar Kjartansson, Me and My Mother 2005, Courtesy of the artist, i8 Gallery, Reykjavik and Luhring Augustine, New York Ragnar Kjartansson, S.S. Hangover, 2013. Photo: Lilja Birgisdóttir

I have a really fond memory from early 2013: it’s of a group of us, sitting in a Reykjavík-based curator’s kitchen in the early hours of the morning, the aftermath of a party settling around us, drunkenly singing Halo. It probably helped that it’s one of Beyoncé’s more introspective numbers; it fitted the mood. Ragnar Kjartansson was leading this impromptu, hammed-up rendition, belting it out with a mixture of mirth and sincerity. Halo (2008) is a song programmed for what might be termed ‘instant nostalgia’. It has an inbuilt sense of time passing and revels in its changes of tense, causing an enjoyably sentimental feeling of melancholia. Later on that morning, Kjartansson played Sorrow (2010) by American indie band the National and told me about a plan to get the group to play that song live, over and over, for six hours. He realised that project, titled A Lot of Sorrow, in May last year at MoMA PS1, and it has many of the key ingredients of Kjartansson’s video and performance works: music, repetition and endurance.

Born and still based in Reykjavík, Kjartansson, now in his late thirties, has been involved in various bands since his teenage years. While none achieved the success of contemporaries like Sigur Rós and Múm, one electroclash outfit, Trabant, toured widely and produced four albums during the early 2000s. The experience of live gigs directly informs his performance work (which takes the form of both live events and videoworks), though his musical influences have spread beyond indie pop to include country, classical and opera. 

In many works the individual acts of portraiture accumulate to become a performed self-portrait of their author

A Lot of Sorrow put a magnifying glass up to the setup of audience and spectacle: initial delighted anticipation, followed by excitement as the familiar and much-loved song starts (many of the audience were longtime fans of the band); before a weariness begins to drift over the viewer, as familiarity becomes overfamiliarity, the hours rolling over and the tune never changing. It’s fatigue on the part of both audience and the performers that runs the (intentional) risk of rendering the song banal, stripping it of the magic – the magic that will forever associate Beyoncé’s Halo with that night in an Icelandic kitchen – that a great song holds over its listener. After a while however the juxtaposition of the anguished sincerity of the lyrics – “Sorrow found me when I was young/Sorrow waited, sorrow won” – with the predictability of their continuous repetition to the point where those words start to empty of meaning becomes enjoyably absurd.

It is notable that of all the shaky phone-camera footage shot by the audience and posted online afterwards, a particularly well-documented point is when the band’s drummer leaves his kit to eat some ribs Kjartansson has brought onstage for sustenance, and Sorrow is performed bereft of its usual foreboding drum rhythm. The sense of hearing the song change in some way rejuvenated it for the audience. Kjartansson, and his girlfriend, are genuine fans of the National. Indeed, Kjartansson’s work is intensely personal, even when it comes in its more theatrical guises, whether it involves him dressed as a crooner in front of a purple silk-laden background singing “Sorrow conquers happiness” over and over again for an hourlong videowork (God, 2007, the lyric referencing the National’s song, but not taken from it), or every five years filming his mother spitting in his face (Me and My Mother – 2015 will see the work’s fourth iteration), or when the artist painted a young man’s portrait every day for five months in the Icelandic Pavilion at the 2009 Venice Biennale, canvases, beer bottles and empty packets of Benson & Hedges piling up, the individual acts of portraiture accumulating to become a performed self-portrait of their author. Repeat visitors to the latter work were able to observe the artist getting tired of his daily task, the strain of production and boredom becoming visible, and the act of visual art’s creation being made as repetitive and mechanical as the performing of pop music was in A Lot of Sorrow.

It’s a first-person, self-analytical confession. We all fuck up, and it’s our own fault, the work cries out

The works are autobiographical on both a micro and macro level. They literally measure a period in time of the artist’s life – be it one night, several months or, in the case of Me and My Mother, the best part of a lifetime – but also his relationships, his family, his life so far. More recently, I’m chatting with Kjartansson over Skype. He’s in Reykjavík and wearing a dressing gown. We’re discussing his ninescreen installation work, The Visitors (2012), and how it relates to his ex-wife and the pain of their separation. In The Visitors Kjartansson and a motley crew of eight friends are shown in an upstate New York mansion, each person appearing on a separate screen singing or playing an instrument.

Among the group are regular collaborators composer Davíd pór Jónsson (who composed the film’s music, a job he’s undertaken for Kjartansson on previous occasions, including for God, as well as conducting various of the artist’s orchestral works, such as the 12-hour rendition of the final aria from Mozart´s Marriage of Figaro, 1786, produced for Performa in 2011) and ex-Sigur Rós keyboardist Kjartan Sveinsson’s, whose previous composing credits with the artist include S.S. Hangover, Kjartansson’s 2013 work for Massimilano Gioni’s Venice Biennale exhibition, in which an old Icelandic fishing boat repeatedly set sail from the historic harbourside with a brass sextet aboard, only to return shortly thereafter, stuck in a circle of launching and docking.

There is facial hair for the men, floaty summer dresses for the women – among them Kristín Anna Valtýsdottir and Gyoa Valtýsdottir, both formerly of the band Múm – the filming taking place at sunset; Kjartansson himself also features, climbing out of a bath at the start of the film and spending the work’s 60-minute duration in less than a dressing gown. Together they perform a swooping refrain of “Once again I fall into my feminine ways”, a line from a poem by Kjartansson’s ex-wife. For me, it’s a devastating work. The line feels self-critical, even if the payoff, ‘feminine ways’, an allusion perhaps to an unbridgeable gender gap in any heterosexual relationship, is not. ‘Once again’ suggests eternal return, an inescapable fate, a despondent inevitability to life and the sad repetition of a mistake. It’s a first-person, self-analytical confession. We all fuck up, and it’s our own fault, the work cries out. 

Kjartansson is not simply enjoying hanging out with his mates but producing a more universal portrait of friendship and camaraderie

The Visitors is also about friendship, though. At the end, the musicians join up, a bottle of champagne is popped and they wander out onto the expansive lawn. There is a comforting feeling evoked by seeing all these old friends together. We all fuck up, but we get through it together. Given the subject matter and frequent return to melancholic musical compositions, I ask Kjartansson whether he ever thinks of his work as depressing. On my computer screen he’s shaking his head, and then dives out of view, coming back with a copy of the Cure’s 1992 album, Wish, on CD. He flips out the sleeve notes and reads the quote the band used from Shelley’s To a Skylark (1820). ‘We look before and after, and pine for what is not, our sincerest laughter, with some pain is fraught, our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thoughts.’ There’s beauty in sadness, he tells me, and beauty is never depressing. I also get the feeling that the works are in some way cathartic for the artist; a way of navigating the various trials life might throw at one. If that sounds self-indulgent, then Kjartansson’s work is delivered with such joie de vivre that it does not come across that way.

This isn’t just about Kjartansson and his relationships: but the ones we all enact and the roles we play in them. A day or so after our conversation, Kjartansson is going to Vienna for an exhibition at Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary. He will travel to New York for his first major solo exhibition there, at the New Museum, opening in early May and then on to Saint Petersburg for Manifesta 10. However, before that he’ll be in Vienna for more than three weeks, again surrounding himself with a group of friends. 

Like The Visitors, a certain balance between failure and contentment will be present in this new project. Together they will attempt to live in the gallery and in front of the public, to make a film of Icelandic Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness’s World Light (1937–40), a seminal work of literature that follows the travails of Ólafur Kárason, a poet, from childhood to dispiriting, unfulfilled adulthood. It’s a book that the artist describes as being like a Bible to his family, read and reread, and which his father – the actor and director Kjartan Ragnarsson – has previously produced in three theatrical adaptations. In February, in Berlin, Kjartansson premiered a theatre production based on the same text titled The Explosive Sonics of Divinity (2014), which will be restaged back home in Iceland in late May over three nights. That adaptation used a long-defunct theatrical format in which the stage remains devoid of actors. The narrative instead is played out through a series of stage paintings by Kjartansson, together with an accompanying choir conducted by Pór Jónsson, with a Romantic score by Sveinsson. In Vienna there will be actors for the artist’s film version of the book; but, he tells me, he is under no illusion, given the epic nature of Laxness’s tale, that he has enough time or budget to do their craft justice.

Kjartansson's invoking of personal relationships, and his work’s warm emotiveness, is about as far from the cold theory of object-oriented ontology as you can get

This is not a case of wilfully placing constraints on the work; instead, the action of attempting the film becomes the artwork itself, with all the crew and technicians, as well as the actors, becoming performers for the museum’s visitors. It’s also about giving the audience access to the process of production, levelling the hierarchy between artist and viewer, which again suggests Kjartansson is not simply enjoying hanging out with his mates but producing a more universal portrait of friendship and camaraderie, and engaging in questions about the roles we play within social groups and even, perhaps, in society at large. If the crew – eating together, working together, partying – can be thought of as a cipher of the family unit, then this is no coincidence: family, and relationships, are the recurring subject of the artist’s work. 

In a period in which material formalism, digital space and the artist as archivist have been the dominant tropes in contemporary art, from the shiny empty Minimalism of Jacob Kassay or Jordan Wolfson’s miserable stripper robot, to Camille Henrot’s hyper-decontextualisation of historic artefacts, then Kjartansson’s interest in real-world interaction has given his work a dedicated following (and a Performa award to boot). His invoking of personal relationships, and his work’s warm emotiveness, is about as far from the cold theory of something like object-oriented ontology as you can get.

Kjartansson’s blood relatives have an explicit role to play in the New Museum exhibition, titled Me, My Mother, My Father, and I. The central work will be Take Me Here by the Dishwasher – Memorial for a Marriage (2011/2014) and involves a projected loop of a scene from Mordsaga (1977), Iceland’s first feature film, which featured both his father and his actress-mother, Gudrún Asmundsdottir, at that point married, but who have since separated. In this endlessly repeated excerpt, Asmundsdottir is having that most 1970s of fantasies: sex with the plumber (played by Ragnarsson). Her fantasy plays out on screen as the lonely housewife and her tradesman-lover engage in energetic liaisons against the kitchen sideboard. If that isn’t an odd enough artefact of one’s parents’ history, then the family legend goes further: Ragnarsson and Asmundsdottir claim Ragnar was conceived the very next night.

As the parent’s cinematic foreplay loops on the projection, ten troubadours will perform in the gallery space throughout the show, creating a climatic piece of multimedia theatre. Again, relationships define the process of the work’s production, while the work itself suggests that it is relationships that define who we are. If Kjartansson’s practice is happily out of sync with what is in vogue now, it nonetheless finds precedent in art history, with figures such as Vito Acconci and Chris Burden being particularly important for the artist. After my second conversation with Kjartansson, I remember an Acconci work, Theme Song (1973), in which the artist lies on his front, his face uncomfortably close to the camera, the Doors and the music of other similarly iconic bands playing in the background. Acconci coquettishly addresses the viewer directly, his come-on half-baked but seductive nonetheless. “Come in close to me,” he whispers at one point. I think about how weird the directness of Acconci’s address is and how awkward that makes me feel.

I think about how it’s that connection, or rather that relationship, between the audience and performer – a definite, but hard-to-define emotional resonance that coerces the viewer into particular moods, and then plays with them – that defines Kjartansson’s work too. The hypnotic quality of a work such as God or the party atmosphere of the Venice pavilion (at least in the opening days) establish a carefully crafted effect on, and rapport with, his audience. I think about the waves of orchestrated changes that occur in the viewer’s state of mind as one watches Kjartansson’s works – excitement, sadness, boredom, happiness, sadness, excitement – microcosmic of the ups and downs of any relationship, perhaps, and I realise the specific appeal of the artist’s work. It makes us think about our own humanity.

Ragnar Kjartansson and Friends: The Palace of the Summerland is at Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, Vienna, through 8 June; Me, My Mother, My Father, and I is at the New Museum, New York, 7 May – 29 June; The Explosive Sonics of Divinity is staged at Borgarleikhúsid, Reykjavík, 28–30 May; and Kjartansson is part of Manifesta 10, Saint Petersburg, 28 June – 31 October 

This article was first published in the May 2014 issue