I’m Not An Authentic Human Being
"Me, coming from a theatre family, I didn't feel this authenticity. I still don't feel authentic. And I guess that's authentic about me."
Icelandic visual artist Ragnar Kjartansson’s world of art, is filled with clichés. And he’s not afraid to use them. From a heartbroken crooner in a white suit to a half a year performance as a macho painter, Kjartansson gives a tour into his oeuvre and his studio space. Read more …
Ragnar Kjartansson grew up with parents working in the theatre. He was not passionate about being an actor and considered visual art as “cool and free,” which made him apply to art school. “I was always an exhibitionist, I think. And I remember thinking when I applied for visual arts: ‘Maybe it’s good to be an exhibitionistic visual artist.” Though his work isn’t fixed to one medium, video has been an essential part of his practice: “I fell in love with the idea of video art through the works of Gillian Wearing.”
His early video works ‘Colonization’ (2003) and ‘Mercy’ (2004) deal with Iceland’s colonial history and country music. Both are shot from one angle with minor editing. In ‘Mercy’, we see Kjartansson dressed as a classic country crooner singing: “Oh why, do I keep on hurting you?” repeatedly. “I’m never a character in the videos. Although I dress up as the cliché of something, I am always myself.” Music has always been almost inevitable in Ragnar Kjartansson’s work. He used to play in several bands but transitioned into visual arts instead: “I slowly discovered that there was more freedom in making music as performance art than making music as music,” he explains.
In 2009 Ragnar Kjartansson represented Iceland at the Venice Biennale. The piece he made was a performance that lasted the whole period of the biennale. Every day he would paint his friend and collaborator Páll Haukur Björnsson, who would pose in a speedo in the pavilion. “That piece was also like living the cliché of this artist I wanted to be. Constantly drunk, constantly smoking, doing oil paintings,” Kjartansson says and continues: “It was a piece very much based on ideas from feminist art, Carolee Schneemann and Marina Abramovic, about identity. We were playing with the identity of being dudes.”
Ragnar Kjartansson’s most famous work to this day, ‘The Visitors’ (2012), was shot at a place called Rokeby in upstate New York. “It’s a Cilla of the gilded age,” says Kjartansson about the house. He planned to make a piece with his musician friends from Reykjavik, who would all stay in this house almost “like a Chekhov play.” The work consists of nine screens showing each musician playing together but in separate rooms of the house. “I was playing with the idea of music being spacial,” Ragnar Kjartansson says. “The piece is loaded with collaboration. Something happened when we were doing it, which is unexplainable.” The Guardian has named the work one of the greatest of the 21st century.
In his most recent work’ No Tomorrow’ (2022), Kjartansson ventures into unknown territory for him: choreographed dance. Eight dancers from the Iceland Dance Company dressed in blue jeans and a white t-shirt – a classic rock’n’roll and performance art outfit – dance while playing the guitar. “It’s a strange piece. It deals with nothingness, almost,” says Ragnar Kjartansson and keeps explaining: “There’s a huge melancholy in trying to do a piece that addresses nothing in a time where everything is so loaded.”
Ragnar Kjartansson (b. 1976) is an Icelandic artist whose work ranges from paintings and drawings to videos, music and performance. He graduated from the Iceland Academy of Art and the Royal Academy of Art in Stockholm. Kjartansson represented Iceland at the Venice Biennale in 2009, in which he participated again in 2013. Major solo shows include exhibitions at De Pont Museum, Tilburg; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Barbican Centre, London; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Park, Washington D.C.; Palais de Tokyo, Paris; the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York; the Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Zürich; among others. Ragnar Kjartansson received the 2019 Ars Fennecs Award and received the 2015 Artes Mundi’s Derek Williams Trust Purchase Award. In June 2023, he will open his solo exhibition, Epic Waste of Love and Understanding, at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Denmark.
Ragnar Kjartansson was interviewed by Roxanne Bagheshirin Lærkesen in his studio in Reykjavik, Iceland, in May 2023.
Camera: Simon Wehye
Additional footage: Birta Rán
Edited and produced by: Roxanne Bagheshirin Lærkesen
Copyright: Louisiana Channel, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2023
Louisiana Channel is supported by Den A.P. Møllerske Støttefond, Ny Carlsbergfondet and C.L. Davids Fond og Samling.
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