Melissa Chiu first encountered the work of Ragnar Kjartansson at the Venice Biennale in 2009. Kjartansson was representing his homeland, Iceland, by staging a performance for the entirety of the exhibition, six months, in which he inhabited a crumbling palazzo on the Grand Canal, smoking cigarettes, drinking beer, and painting portraits of a friend. Cigarette butts, beer bottles, and painted canvases piled up on the ground, the filth getting worse and worse as the performance went on.
“It did feel a little bit like a frat house—the cigarettes, the beer,” said Chiu, the director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. “And now, years later, we’re doing a show with Ragnar.”
Kjartansson laughed in approval, sitting a few feet in front of her at the St. Regis here in Washington, where there was a dinner Thursday night to celebrate that new show. On the menu was some adventurous New Nordic cuisine from one of Iceland’s top chefs, also named Ragnar, who happened to be in town doing a residency; the capital’s top collectors in attendance were apprehensive about the “dung-smoked trout.”
The show, which opens to the public today, is the artist’s first major museum survey in the United States, and it brings to the National Mall the Icelander’s gauzy and grand approach to multichannel film installation, durational performance, crunchy neo-hippie folk-rock dreams, moody figurative painting, German opera, and alcohol. Organized with the Barbican in London, it runs through early January, and also delivers to the Hirshhorn a touch of the international scene that Chiu promised to deliver when she took over in 2014, bringing a host of outside curators with her, hellbent on shedding the Hirshhorn’s reputation as just a local institution.
Chief curator Stéphane Aquin, who came to the Hirshhorn from the Montreal Museum of Modern Art, gave a private tour before the opening reception, leading around a crew of some of Kjartansson’s collectors and friends.
“It’s a circular building, so we start and finish at the same place,” he said, in case anyone failed to notice the building’s once-futuristic, now sort of dated concrete donut design. The start and finish in this case is a giant pink neon work, Scandinavian Pain (2006–12).
“It’s based on a sign that said ‘Scandanavian Painting,’ but Ragnar crossed out the TING,” Aquin explained.
The survey includes several of Kjartansson’s greatest hits, including S.S. Hangover (2013–14), the video component of a performance at the Arsenale during the 2013 Venice Biennale; God (2007), a breakthrough video work, of a satin-clad Kjartansson fronting a jazz band and singing the words “sorrow conquers happiness” over and over; The End – Venezia (2009), a single work that encompasses the 144 paintings he made at his frat-house palazzo (after which the sitter got sober, and Kjartansson developed a gluten intolerance due to all of the beer); and the work he calls “my ‘Billie Jean,’ my ‘Born to Run,’ ” The Visitors (2013), the nine-channel video installation that became the best-attended exhibition in the history of his New York gallery, Luhring Augustine. They all look great here in D.C.
A highlight of the show is a new work that made its debut earlier this year at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit: Woman in E (2016), a performance in which a female guitarist stands on a sparkly gold revolving platform, strumming an E Minor chord on a white-and-gold Fender Telecaster.
“I just did that piece in Detroit, and came to here to look at the Hirshhorn, and it felt like such a no-brainer,” the artist told me outside of Woman in E. He had been in D.C. for a week installing the show, having never been in the city before, apart from some quick tourist trips.
“It works with the architecture, and the Washington monumentalism,” he said.
In order for the performance to last for the duration of the exhibition—the first time the Hirshhorn has hosted a performance that’s gone on for the whole show—Kjartansson had to have an open casting call looking for female rockers to stand on the pedestal.
“There was a lot of people who rose up to the occasion, and it was a matter of finding the right performer for this context,” he said of casting the women in the performance. He was pretty giddy at the prospect of politicians and lobbyists and their ilk walking into the Hirshhorn and seeing someone wailing on an E chord.
“We’re at the center of power in America and she’s strumming the greatest American weapon, the electric guitar!” he said.
As if on cue, two of the performers came up to Kjartansson and me to tell us about an all-ages show at a house party next week, and handed us some small printed flyers—about as DIY as it gets these days in D.C., a few decades removed from the peak of the hardcore scene. As it turns out, a lot of the women in Woman in E play in all-girl punk bands, and while rehearsing the piece, decided to set up a show together.
“It’s like you curated it, Ragnar,” one of them said.
“That’s amazing!” he said, fussing with a cravat that he had bought at a gift shop at Versailles—“the best gift shop,” he said.
“This place, the Mall, it’s like this crazy feeling of power—it’s overpowering,” he told me. “It’s interesting to put my work in this context. It’s really weird.”
One of the “weird” things might have been the fact that one of the guests of honor at the dinner was Geir Haarde, the ambassador of Iceland to the United States, who gave an impassioned speech at the dinner, declaring that “this exhibition will be the talk of the town here in Washington!”
Some of the members of Kjartansson’s crew of Icelandic friends in town for the opening told me they were none too pleased by the ambassador’s presence: as prime minister of Iceland in 2008, Haarde oversaw a crippling financial crisis that caused him to have the government seize the country’s three biggest banks, a move that further plunged the country into economic peril. The parliament later voted to indict him on charges of negligence. And so, he was shipped off to Washington, where interactions of this sort are the norm, where you set aside political differences for an evening, for the sake of decorum.
It seems like D.C. has been growing on Kjartansson. Somewhere in the middle of a post-dinner bar crawl (people from Iceland can drink), the artist bounded across the street and jumped on one of his pals.
“Well, look at that house!” Kjartansson said.
His friend, not looking up, said, “Who cares about a house?”
Then Kjartansson pointed to a field where above the mist a familiar structure poked out.
“No,” he said, jumping and yelling, “it’s the White House!”
“Ragnar Kjartansson” is on view through January 8 at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Tonight there is a talk between the artist and D.C. punk rock hero Ian Svenonius, lead singer of Nation of Ulysses. It is open to the public and begins at 6:30 p.m.