Ragnar Kjartansson comes from the enchanted isle of Iceland, and his fast-moving career is also based on the reference to this island’s traditions and myths. He is a grand master of performance, the foremost discipline of art, and a painter, draftsmen, and filmmaker as well. His both serious and brilliant snapshots are about love and friendship, beauty and broken hearts, love and death, happiness and pain, heaven and hell – never about victories, and often about defeats. The charismatic artist’s pivot is the impulse to entertain.
From the very beginnings of his production, Ragnar Kjartansson has been interested in the role model of the artist. His works may be seen as ongoing assessments of the status of the artist, his work, and the public. Who am I? Where am I? What am I doing here? What has happened before I came here? The questions a method actor has to ask himself according to Lee Strasberg also seem to inform Kjartansson’s technique: the exhibitionist artist produces props for tableaux vivants and role plays that constitute a very personal identity puzzle – a portrait of the artist as a painter of nocturnal seascapes, as an opera singer in a rococo theater, as a lonesome cowboy with guitar in the Rocky Mountains.
Since having witnessed Dieter Roth reading poems or cursing paid labor at Reykjavík’s University of Fine Arts, Ragnar Kjartansson knows about the importance of presence. This is why his works are live acts. For the question how art comes into being is as important as the result. The exhibition at BAWAG Contemporary also centers around a time-bound work, a work concerned with the moment in which art happens.
Performance is a form of art that is not easy to exhibit, a fugitive genre, result of a mise-en-scène, an art of extremes, a show. Performances extend into the depths of time, call for action, impose the obligation to attend. It was not without reason that the 721 hours Marina abramovic spent sitting on a chair without stirring in New York’s Museum of Modern Art were called “The Artist is Present.” This format has a certain tradition in the BAWAG Foundation/BAWAG Contemporary: there were Elke Krystufek and Sands Murray-Wassink, there was tino Sehgal in the exhibition “Funky Lessons”, Jeremy Deller’s brass band, and the homeless person who lived in Elmgreen and Dragset’s installation.
Even if it does not look like it, Ragnar Kjartansson’s new work Take me here by the Dishwasher, which was specifically developed for the artist’s first solo presentation in Austria, is a self-portrait of sorts. The artist’s conception lies shrouded in a mist of reality and fiction. Born into a family of actors and theater people, Kjartansson may have been sired on the set of Iceland’s first feature film. Reynir Oddsson’s Morðsaga featured his mother, Guðrún Ásmundsdóttir, as a lonely housewife, while his father, Kjartan Ragnarsson, played the plumber she calls in her dreams to repair the dishwasher. Ragnar was actually conceived around the time when the love scene on the kitchen floor was shot. The all-decisive moment is presented in a film loop commented by troubadours. Following in the tradition of Nordic bards and storytellers, they sing the dialogue of the film to Kjartan Sveinsson’s heartrending music:
|Mum (looks at the dishwasher):||Here she is.|
|Dad (with an expert eye):||Is this her!?|
|Mum (doubtfully):||Yes, here she is. Do you think she can be fixed?|
|Dad (brusquely):||Yes, I’m afraid so.|
|Mum (with abandon):||I’m desperate!|
|Dad (reassuringly):||Don’t you worry. I’ll fix it.|
|Mum (temptingly):||Show me what you can.|
|Mum (provocatively):||Are you a man?
Show me what you can do to me…
Take off my clothes!
Take me here by the dishwasher.
Ragnar Kjartansson translates his mother’s filmic dream idol into a crowd of hung-over men after a night spent drinking. The type of the guy with the guitar is a symbol of global youth culture and rebellion and has become an icon of popular mythology, as it were. In the exhibition, this supersymbol strikes up a slightly exhausted alliance with beer and cigarettes. A sound sculpture takes shape, a social sculpture as a wrecked version of Nietzsche’s perpetual return of the same. The bards repeat their song like a mantra, incorporating the scene into an endless loop that blurs the boundaries between art and everyday life. Kjartan Sveinsson, the composer of the soundtrack, is the keyboarder of the legendary Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Rós and author of great film scores such as the one for the Oscar-nominated short The Last Farm (Síðasti bærinn) by Rúnar Rúnarsson.
Kjartansson’s method is one of unfolding an infinite number of stories, cycles, and absurd loops. He confronts elements relevant for art with a body of nostalgic cultural references in his pasticcios, merging the former with the latter. His performances often go on for many hours or even days and require an astounding physical commitment on the part of the artist. At the Manifesta 8 in Rovereto in 2008, for example, Kjartansson sang Schumann’s Dichterliebe (The Poet’s Love) accompanied by a piano eight hours a day for two weeks. The decadent version of the lieder recital had him donning an elegant black tuxedo with a bow tie, smoking thick cigars, and drinking champagne until he could not stand up anymore. In 2009, Kjartansson represented Iceland at the Venice Biennial. He set up his studio in a palazzo on the Canale Grande and furnished it with record players, guitars, and a couch. A prince of painting from head to toe, he produced one picture a day during the six months the event lasted. In his recently opened solo show Song at the Carnegie Museum of Art, his nieces Ragnheiður, Rakel, and Iris made their appearance in white dresses in the marble hall.
In the gallery’s backspace, in the basement, Ragnar Kjartansson will present a very personal portrait of the Mississippi blues musician Pinetop Perkins (b. in Belzoni, Mississippi on July 7, 1913; d. in Austin, Texas on March 21, 2011), whom he reveres. “Eternal Pinetop” steps into the film, shot from only one fixed position, like onto a stage. He wears elegant beige trousers, a white shirt, and his inevitable hat. The set on the outskirts of Austin, Pinetop’s place of residence, relates to Andrew Wyeth’s famous picture Christina’s World: we see a treeless, flat slope with a house looming on the horizon, but Wyeth’s girl suffering from polio who creeps toward the house has been replaced by the 97-year-old Pinetop Perkins at the piano given to him as a present by eighty friends for his eightieth birthday. He begins to play a blues, repeats a passage played, mumbles something, and, looping through his melodies and rhythms, slips in some jingle or other. He smokes all the time, complains about the badly tuned piano, and, after forty-nine minutes, exits as laconically as he has come on stage. Though the touch of the legendary oldest Grammy winner under the sun may be a bit blurry, his fan’s and kindred spirit’s video definitely preserves Eternal Pinetop’s ingenious musicality.