The Bittersweet Melancholy of Ragnar Kjartansson  

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The Icelandic Performance Artist Ragnar Kjartansson at the Hirshhorn Museum by Brendan L. Smith

If you think performance art is the most pretentious form of art on the planet, then Icelandic performance artist Ragnar Kjartansson agrees with you. Sort of.

Kjartansson is one of the most famous and prolific performance artists in the world, but he views his own profession with some skepticism, creating work that embraces humor, satire, sorrow, and melancholy through performances that blur the boundaries between art, music, theater, and the absurd. The Hirshhorn Museum is staging the first major U.S. survey of his work through January eighth.

“Everything I do, I’m always sort of admiring it and making fun of it at the same time, even with my daughter,” Kjartansson told me during a press preview at the Hirshhorn. “Even when I love something, I start to make fun of it at the same time.”

ragnar-landing-page-4Woman in E, 2016. Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York and i8 Gallery, Reykjavík. Photo Andrew Miller.

The exhibition includes live performances by local female guitarists who stand on a rotating golden pedestal while endlessly strumming a solitary E chord. Kjartansson said the feminist art movement has greatly influenced his work, and Woman in E subverts the traditional objectification of women. “It’s that repetition and endurance part that makes her be like a monumental sculpture,” Kjartansson said while the single chord reverberated in the background. “It’s totally about vulnerability and strength and power. To be on the pedestal with that weapon of American culture, the electric guitar.”

I felt a little uncomfortable and voyeuristic staring at a woman in a sparkling gold-sequined beauty pageant dress while she slowly rotated past me on her pedestal, staring passively above my gaze with no reaction other than a subtle swing of her arm to strike the next chord. She had become a prop, stripped of her personality except for the tattoos on her shoulders, a golden-hued wedding cake topper minus the groom. Some might view the work as dismissive or sexist, but Kjartansson doesn’t care if people understand or misinterpret his work. Despite the temptation, he doesn’t wander through his own exhibitions to overhear visitors’ comments.

“I think it’s a little rude. I want people to be able to bitch about me,” he said. “The work is there and you can take it like you want to. It’s never like conquering a viewer or getting him on my side.”

RAGNAR KJARTANSSON, Death and The Children, 2002 from Ragnar Kjartansson on Vimeo.

The exhibition begins with a video of Kjartansson playing an unconvincing Grim Reaper in Death and the Children. In a cemetery, a group of schoolchildren laugh at him and his unconvincing fake scythe made from a wood stick and paper.

“You are just an elf with a stick!” one child shouts, while another calls him small and ugly. After being followed by the delighted children, Kjartansson darts into a crypt because he has work to do harvesting souls. The humorous work explores conflicting desires and parodies our universal fear of death filtered through the innocence of youth.

ragnar-landing-page-2God, 2007, Single channel video, colour, sound, Duration:  30 minutes

In another video performance titled God, Kjartansson assumes the role of a classic 1950s Las Vegas crooner performing with a big band in front of gaudy pink curtains. Wearing a black tuxedo with slicked-back hair, Kjartansson sings three words over and over again: “Sorrow conquers happiness.” After listening for some time, the words start to lose their meaning, becoming a mantra merging into the lush music. The performance conjures a sense of melancholy but also of stillness, casting an anchor into the psyche that holds fast through mindless repetition.

The typical American “pursuit of happiness,” with its unrealistic expectations and inevitable disappointments, sounds exhausting to Kjartansson. “If you have to be happy all the time, that is so depressing. That is really dark stuff,” he told me. “Being aware of sorrow makes life much easier to bear, to bear the melancholy with joy.”

A similar version of this exhibition was shown earlier this year at the Barbican Centre in London, which partnered with the Hirshhorn. Kjartansson has staged performances across the world and represented Iceland at the Venice Biennale in 2009, where he spent six months painting a new portrait every day of a Speedo-clad friend while they drank and smoked cigarettes in a crumbling palazzo along the Canal Grande that was open to the public.

34380403e1f85f1827288d1c28efaca0The End-Venezia

Called The End-Venezia, all 144 of the not-that-great paintings are crammed salon-style into one gallery at the Hirshhorn, satirizing the life of the bohemian artist. If nothing else, Kjartansson can drive a point home through mass production and accumulation. None of the paintings are that captivating on their own, but they feel like snapshots from a dream if you keep moving. It’s not a fantastical dream or a nightmare. It’s one of those boring dreams that resemble the workaday world too much before it slips back into your subconscious when the alarm bell rings.

Kjartansson used to play guitar in bands in Reykjavik, and he often blends music into his performances, even though he doesn’t think he is a good musician. “I was really just a poseur. I wasn’t good. It didn’t come natural to me in a way as visual art,” he said. “When it’s visual art, it feels much more effortless. It’s this total freedom. There’s no other profession in the world that is as much about individual freedom.”

ragnar-landing-page-1The Visitors

The most powerful and captivating work by far is The Visitors, a series of nine life-size projections of musicians, including Kjartansson playing guitar in a bathtub, who perform together but apart in different rooms of the Rokeby Farm in upstate New York. The musicians, who wear headphones so they can hear each other, play a haunting melody with one constant refrain: “Once again, I fall into my feminine ways.” The Visitors is an homage to ABBA and their album of the same name, but I will try not to hold that against Kjartansson. ABBA’s final album took a darker turn after both couples in the band had divorced, but they all kept playing together one last time.

At the Hirshhorn, The Visitors immerses you in a vibrant soundscape with the musicians’ voices and the sound of their instruments emerging from their own projections so it feels like you’re walking through the concert as you move around the room. The setting is a stately Victorian home that feels like a shabby time capsule, with ornate but heavily worn furniture, peeling paint, and a pervasive sense of decay. At the end of the hour-long performance, the musicians walk across a field toward distant mountains shrouded in fog. Like much of Kjartansson’s work, the performance blends music with art, melancholy with joy, and a sense of history with the immediacy of the present.

ragnar-landing-page-3Me and My Mother

The exhibition should have ended there, but it unfortunately moves on to Me and My Mother, a series of videos Kjartansson shot every five years with his actress mother, beginning in 2000 when he was an art-school student. The piece has a definite art-school vibe with Kjartansson’s mother looking at him with disdain and spitting in his face while he cowers next to her, not saying a word. It’s a rare example where Kjartansson stumbles over the line into some very pretentious performance art that he usually satirizes so well.

As I walked out of the museum on a beautiful autumn day, I quickly forgot about his spitting mom because I was still humming the melody from The Visitors. The song didn’t make me feel happy or sad, just suspended somewhere in the middle. And that felt all right.



Ragnar Kjartansson is on view through January 8, 2017 at the Hirshhorn

Author Brendan L. Smith is a freelance journalist and mixed-media artist in Washington, D.C.    




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