When Ragnar Kjartansson came to Luhring Augustine, his New York gallery, last March to discuss his project for the 53rd Venice Biennale, he was wearing a dark pinstriped suit and a creamy retro-patterned silk tie—the look vintage dandy and something of a trademark. The charismatic artist is an unrepentant (but rejiggered) romantic, his bittersweet temperament countered by a sense of the absurd. Born in Reykjavík in 1976, near the cutoff point of the international Millennial Generation, he is the youngest artist ever to represent Iceland at Venice
Kjartansson was a wunderkind whose many talents were evident long before his graduation from the Iceland Academy of the Arts in 2001. Cross-disciplinary in approach, he is primarily a performance, video and installation artist, although painting, sculpture and drawing are often incorporated into his diverse practice. As a musician and singer, he is Icelandic pop royalty, a star—with Björk and the band Sigur Rós—of the country’s highly music regarded scene. He has toured widely with Trabant, the most popular of his several bands.
While music looms large in Kjartansson’s art, theater has also been a decisive influence. His parents are celebrated actors, and Kjartansson designs stage sets, dons costumes and assumes roles with ease, often collaborating with other artists and the audience to erase the line between theatrical and real space, actual and assumed personae, serious expression and sheer buffoonery. For Death and the Children (2002), an early performance in an Icelandic cemetery, Kjartansson, impersonating Death in a black frock coat, brandished a scythe as he carried on a candid dialogue about mortality with young summer campers, leavening the exchange with jokes and laughter.
For the Reykjavík Arts Festival in 2005, Kjartansson produced a performance installation called The Great Unrest, an elaboration of The Opera (2001), his academy graduation piece, for which he had constructed a small rococo theater where he performed for a week and a half, singing a cappella four hours a day. To mount The Great Unrest, he partially restored a small, abandoned community center outside of the city, repairing the stage, adding a painted backdrop (he says that stage scenery is his favorite kind of painting) and inserting cut-out mountains, glaciers and flames with no real attempt at trompe l’oeil. Kjartansson was in residence there for three weeks, singing and playing a guitar, accompanied by a scratchy old blues tape. Dressed as a Viking, he seemed a revenant come to restore life to the little theater and to subdue the restless ghosts that many Icelanders—including Kjartansson—say they believe in.
Above right, Ragnar Kjartansson’s preview staging of the performance and installation The End—Venice, 2009; at the Iceland Pavilion. Photo Rafael Pinho. Above: The End—Rocky Mountains, 2009, video, approx. 31 minutes. Kjartansson photos courtesy i8 Gallery, Reykjavík, and Luhring Augustine, New York.
Sorrow Conquers Happiness (2006) was originally a live performance in the Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst in Antwerp. Attired in tails, with the slicked-back hair of a debonair 1940s nightclub crooner—another role he favors—Kjartansson was accompanied by a jazz trio and a police choir as he sang the words “sorrow conquers happiness” again and again until he fell into a trance. One of his many cabaret simulations, the piece was documented on video and subsequently shown looped—its continuous repetition, challenging the notion of linear time, a musical and filmic trope that is another Kjartansson mainstay.
Weltschmerz (2007), also taped, pays tribute to 18th- and 19th-century German Romantic longings—those of Goethe’s Young Werther, say—rechanneled through Jim Morrison or Kurt Cobain and served up Icelandic style: slightly tongue-in-cheek, slightly inapposite. Inside a shack with a large sign bearing the word Weltschmerz (world weariness) affixed to its roof, a single bass guitarist clad only in cotton briefs plays the same plaintive notes over and over, a dolorous ritual that seems more Beckett than Wagner.
The video Guilt Trip (2007), another instance of the subverted sublime, focuses on a lone figure—seen both from afar and close-up—wandering in the snow, firing a shotgun either at something unseen or at nothing. Impassively, he turns to aim at the viewer, then retreats. The casting of Laddi, an Icelandic comedy icon, instead of a dramatic actor as the lone protagonist is only one incongruity among several that redirect the existential drift of the film.
Kjartansson’s Venice Biennale project was commissioned by Christian Schoen, director of the Center for Icelandic Art in Reykjavik, and curated by Markús Þór Andrésson and Dorothée Kirch, both Berlin-based curators who have worked previously with the artist. Called “The End,” it is a double bill featuring a video along with a live performance installation in two opulent rooms of the 14th-century Palazzo Michiel dal Brusa.
The 30-minute video, shown as a five-channel, full-wall projection with sound, was made during Kjartansson’s month-long stay earlier this year in the Canadian Rockies. The artist was inspired by Gilbert & George as well as Caspar David Friedrich’s painting Two Men Contemplating the Moon, in which the companions (thought by some to be Friedrich and a disciple) stand with arms flung over each other’s shoulders, gazing raptly at a luminous moon framed by a dead oak tree.
Kjartansson says that strange things happen when friends work together, as the production process for the video confirms. Outdoors in the snow, ringed by majestic mountains in -20° F weather, he and musician Davið Þór Jónsson played drums, a bass acoustic guitar and, most visually striking, a grand piano. Kjartansson marvels that the instruments didn’t freeze and the sound—“Stockhausenesque in attitude” and cacophonous in realization—was exactly what it should have been. The area of the video shoot is “rodeo country, cowboy country.” Kjartansson, reminded of the Byrds’ song “Blue Canadian Rockies,” felt right at home. But he also found the peaks to be “mysterious, much less explored than the Alps.” The effect was disconcerting: “They are still a frontier, the portals to the West. When I was doing the piece, I felt like a colonial—or a tourist.”
The live performance component of “The End” is a painting marathon, dubbed by Kjartansson a “tableau vivant,” that will run the full six months of the biennial. The rules are simple. Kjartansson has vowed not to leave Venice for the entire period, pulling the plug on computers, phones and all other forms of telecommunication and suspending his many other projects. Six days a week, from 12 to 6 p.m., he will paint the likeness of a bathing-suited friend, the equally committed performance artist Páll Haukur Björnsson, thus transforming the venerable theme of artist and nude model/muse into the more egalitarian dynamic of artist confronting artist, one dressed and one half-dressed, with male gaze meeting male gaze.
A study in contrasts between the recorded and the live, the vast and the intimate, nature and civilization, the two parts of “The End” are crisscrossing, entangled fictions, involving a pair of linked “stage sets.” The Rockies, in Kjartansson’s view, serve as a backdrop for human aspiration and creativity, while Venice is the legendary symbol of defiant unreality.
Kjartansson explains that the installation won’t look like much at the start, “but by November, the end of the biennial, it should be glorious—the space littered with beer cans, cigarette butts and lots of paintings. The paintings are just props. It’s about quantity, not quality, even though I will become fond of them.” In short, the work promises to resemble an MFA studio at term’s close, the day after an all-night art jam, or to evoke the late Francis Bacon’s notoriously cluttered working space.
“The End” seems likely to finish on a note of ecstasy, exhaustion or both, the poignancy of completion mitigated by a triumphant accumulation of paintings and photographic documentation, even as lights dim, equipment is removed, actor-artists depart, their revels ended, both the Rockies and Venice relegated to the past, to memory—and media. “It’s an experiment in romanticism,” Kjartansson says, a long self-dare at the intersection of art and life.
[LILLY WEI is a New York-based writer and independent curator.]