Written by: Dragan Vojvodić //
The first Scandinavian retrospective of Ragnar Kjartansson (1976), titled „Epic Waste of Love and Understanding“, was on display from June 9 to October 22 at the Louisiana Museum in Denmark. The exhibition, highlighted as an essential art event of the year by the New York-London-based The Art Newspaper, showcases works by the Icelandic artist in various mediums, including painting, performance, video works, installations, and more.
One of the most renowned Icelandic artists in the world of contemporary art, Ragnar Kjartansson, explores themes such as love, identity, melancholy, and the (in)ability, critically and ironically examining cultural patterns present in the world that surrounds him.
I am completely captivated by the world and its mystical beauty and mystical violence.
The Icelander attracted the attention of a wider audience with his unusual participation in the Venice Biennale in 2009. During the six-month duration of the Biennale, he carried out the project „The End,“ which explored the boundaries of performance, simultaneously facing the physical and mental challenges of the work he undertook. I remember, the ground floor of a 14th-century Venetian palace on the Grand Canal was transformed into a bohemian art studio at that time. Inside it, day by day, Kjartansson painted his friend, who served as a freely moving model. They smoked, drank, listened to records, and Kjartansson played the guitar together…
In this improvised studio, various artifacts gradually accumulated over time, bearing witness to the existence and duration of the artistic work and the process of its creation. Upon entering and staying in such a structured space, visitors were left without a provided code for understanding the meaning of the work, for naming, for classification.
Paintings, empty bottles of consumed alcohol, or cigarette butts scattered around blurred the clear boundaries between reality and artistic representation. Communication, which took place between the artistic content and its understanding and interpretation, was questioned by Kjartansson through the very act of existence. In the manner of the programmatic concept of artistic avant-gardes, he erased the boundary between life and art and immediately re-established it through the accumulation of works produced within the classical medium of painting.
The ultimate result of this shaped work is 144 paintings, which not only present various styles in which they are painted but, through their repetitive nature and depiction of the same model, literally represent a physical trace and documentation of the performance.
As a student at the art academy, Kjartansson created a single-frame video work in which he and his mother stand in front of bookshelves. This static frame is occasionally animated by the artist’s mother (who is an actress) spitting in her son’s face. Kjartansson repeats the filming of the same scene (with the same actors) every 5 years, and the exhibition showcases all the recordings made up to that point. A twenty-five-year temporal distance imbues this work with new meaning. The initial ironic and humorous character is transformed into an entirely different sensibility. The passage of time leaves a physical mark on the impassive and static face of the son and on the expressive emotions of the artist’s mother.
Wonderful, utterly fascinating, and hypnotic. Ragnar Kjartansson’s video installation ‘The Visitors’ is the best work of art of the 21st century.
The Guardian, 2019
The central idea of this multi-channel video art piece is to portray nine musicians in nine separate spaces, each with their microphone and camera. Despite being physically apart, they establish a sense of togetherness by synchronously performing the same melody through the sound reproduced in headphones.
The result of the recording is nine projections of performances by different musicians and instruments, each with its unique image and sound. The concept of this work allows each visitor to, as they move through the gallery space, individually mix the music in their head, creating various melodic and visual interpretations and associations.
In the work „A Lot of Sorrow,“ Kjartansson continues his exploration of endurance-based art centered around music. He collaborates with the indie rock band The National to create a six-hour video, minimalist in its structure as the same song is continuously repeated. The video is relatively simple: it depicts the band on stage in front of an audience at MoMA PS1 in 2013, playing the elegy „Sorrow,“ which lasts approximately 3 minutes and 30 seconds, for six hours, as if on a loop.
Visitors to the Louisiana Museum are provided with the freedom to listen to the song in the gallery space, keeping their attention for varying durations, exploring their personal limits. The question arises: Does the melody and lyrics, in endless repetition, remain the same or transform into something different? Can the alluring tenderness of the image and sound, when consumed for too long, become its opposite?
In a series of musical works, the multi-channel video installation „No Tomorrow“ stands out with its visually and sonically minimalist setup and performance. Perhaps more than any of Kjartansson’s previous video installations, „No Tomorrow“ integrates the viewer into the work itself. Kjartansson produces this video installation in collaboration with his colleagues as a balletic-dance-theatrical performance.
The mise-en-scène of this, so to speak, performance is composed of girls with guitars in their hands performing a simple choreography, playing and singing. All of this unfolds on an empty stage, which, in the multi-channel video installation, is projected in a circle around the viewer.
Much like in the work „The Visitors,“ Kjartansson subtly compels viewers to move through the space, this time in a circular fashion, following the sound and movement. The projections, in sync, enthrall with melody and motion. According to the artist himself, the work is a response to the current political situation in the world, to the pervasive evil.
This dance piece, and the gentle multi-channel video installation, transforms into a monumental sculpture of today.
In the short film clip „Merchy,“ Kjartansson, dressed in a white suit with slicked-back hair and a guitar in hand, repetitively performs the same chorus, „Oh why do I keep on hurting you?“ Much like his signature style, repetition doesn’t simply replay the content and meaning of the work but modifies and transposes it into images that are projected, loading them with new meanings.
Kjartansson avoids limitations. This is why he moves through different media, genres, roles. He is a director, musician, comedian, showman, critic, visual artist. This allows him to draw from a multitude of references and play with clichés.
At the end of this selection of Kjartansson’s works, it is important to mention the light installation „Scandinavian Pain,“ which was originally installed in a barn in the interior of Iceland, reflecting the profound collision between humans and nature and with oneself. In the Louisiana Museum, the same installation is placed on the roof of the restaurant. Inside and outside of it, a carefree life unfolds, in a way, turning the text of the installation into its (ironic) opposite.
The same installation is also located in the Marshall House in Iceland, which houses the studio of perhaps the most renowned Scandinavian visual artist, Olafur Eliasson.