‘They’ve been dealing with our shit for many years,” said artist Ragnar Kjartansson. The subject of his admiration was women and the ways they manage patriarchal preposterousness from men who may or may not know how horrible they are. It manifests in matters both big and small, from injurious actions to oblivious slights. And then there are pop songs—the kind that suffuse the everyday environment and prove inescapable—whose sentiments can be skeevy, even (or especially) when they might seem innocuous.
So it goes for some of the tunes that feature in Romantic Songs of the Patriarchy, a performative project Kjartansson is premiering this weekend in San Francisco. The setup is one he has mined before: a long-duration presentation of songs that loop and meander, in this case for three days by way of women armed with acoustic guitars. They will be stationed in different spaces throughout a setting that is significant: the Women’s Building, a socially minded, societally engaged community center founded and run by women in the Mission District since 1979. And among the artistic materials will be familiar songs with disquieting lyrics by the likes of Cat Stevens, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, and Lil’ Wayne.
The idea came about while Kjartansson was searching San Francisco for a site to realize a commission by C Project, a new foundation for roving performance-based work established by the collector Carla Emil. Once the artist saw the Women’s Building when in the city on a trip from his home in Iceland, the proposition effectively presented itself.
“I’ve been thinking about the patriarchy since I became aware of gender,” Kjartansson said of a project that predated the #MeToo movement by nearly a year. “I’ve been a feminist all my life. My mother was in the Icelandic women’s party. My father was a troubadour in the ’70s who made pro-feminist singalong songs. Iceland is really progressive in this—it’s a place that is dealing with the patriarchy.”
He recognizes his homeland is different. “When I’m in the States and say I’m a feminist, people are like, ‘Oh no, you can’t say that because you’re a man.’ Nobody talks like that here. It’s more like, ‘Of course you are a feminist if you are a humanist.’ ” But the problem persists everywhere. “The patriarchy is like an omnipresent sculptural thing. It’s bringing us all down. Bro stuff is so depressing.”
For Romantic Songs of the Patriarchy, Kjartansson selected tunes to be played solo by 31 musicians in different parts of the Women’s Building in arrangements configured by the composer Kjartan Sveinsson (a fellow Icelander with whom the artist has collaborated often) and San Francisco local Kendra McKinley. “I’m not pointing fingers in this project,” Kjartansson said. “It’s songs by women and men, not all by mean men who are degrading women. It’s songs by great artists who are part of our society and are writing about society. Sometimes the songs are flattering toward women, but when you look at them through gender glasses, you see this secret oppression.”
Samples include Cat Stevens’s “Wild World” (with the ringing line “I’ll always remember you like a child, girl”) and Billy Joel’s “Always a Woman” (“She’ll promise you more than the garden of Eden / then she’ll carelessly cut you and laugh while you’re bleeding”) as well as Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man” and Eminem & Rihanna’s “Love the Way You Lie.” Then there is Bruce Springsteen’s “Fire”—a song in which “no doesn’t mean no,” Kjartansson said. “So many beautiful songs are about a guy telling a girl, ‘You say no but you really want me.’ ” (The Springsteen song includes the following: “I’m pulling you close / you just say no / you say you don’t like it / but girl I know you’re a liar / ‘cause when we kiss / ooooh, fire.”)
About Kjartansson’s work, which she knew in part from a six-hour staged performance by the National of their brooding indie-rock song “A Lot of Sorrow” at MoMA PS1, C Project founder Emil said, “I like his irony and humor but, in the end, making something that people really respond to emotionally. You have to laugh at some of these songs, but the content is meaningful and serious.”
Kjartansson said that complication and the kind of cultural change that accumulates and crests over time is part of what interested him. “This is not about crucifying songwriters for being macho,” he said. “It’s a portrait of our culture. It is an art piece, not political propaganda. It’s an uncomfortable art piece. I’m not doing it to show everyone I’m a good feminist. I have no interest in that. The idea just came about and it felt like something that should be done.”