The question of what is fake and what is reality is older than the so-called new media and the theories devised in conjunction with them. The creation of artificial worlds, whether in literature, the performing arts or in painting, stems from a long tradition reaching back to Ancient Greece and Rome, as does the practice of slipping into other roles – the masquerade, the assumption of other identities. Today, the place where the transformation from reality to fiction can still be most clearly felt is the theatre. There is still something innocently magical about the moment when its real auditorium suddenly ceases to exist with the onset of darkness, in order for the illuminated stage area to become an imaginary world. For the audience, the drama becomes reality. For the actors, however, reality becomes drama. Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson (*1976) grew up with the theatre, a place that had a decisive influence on him. When still just a young boy, he was able to peek backstage and even set foot on the stage itself. What in fact influenced him was not experimental, avant-garde theatre, but the stages of Iceland, both big and small, where theatre still communicates nostalgia and life’s less celebrated stories are told.
For his graduation show at the Academy of Arts in Reykjavík in 2001, Kjartansson transformed a small room into a rococo theatre. The for visitors unexpected encounter with this place of illusion was, however, only the most immediate aspect that shaped Kjartansson’s work. The Opera primarily comprised a performance played out by the artist for four hours a day, ten days in a row: singing, acting, stunting – the opera became an endurance marathon and an astonishing physical challenge. The repetitive is an element that always assumes a crucial role in Kjartansson’s performances and video works.
On another occasion, he had himself buried up to the waist in a park before proceeding to sing the same passage again and again for hours on end, accompanied by his guitar (Satan is Real (2004), Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens, Ghent). The repetitive aspect, with an inherent spiritual element, here likewise involved the exploration of physical extremes.
In artistic terms, says Ragnar Kjartansson, he is strongly influenced by the performances and videos in the 1970s that investigated the limits of the physical realm. For this purpose, he repeatedly employs an element familiar from the worlds of cinema and music: the loop. In Kjartansson’s case, however, the loop is not predefined technical trickery, but is in fact created live. This live element and the constantly recurring physical imagery have a grotesque character and place other demands on the viewer, than a video loop would. The bizarre, grotesque perspective is joined by a form of uneasiness. An exception in this context are his latest series of performances and video works, revealingly titled: “Sorrow conquers happiness”. These three words are continuously repeated by Kjartansson, accompanied by a Jazz trio. The combination with the improvisation skills of the musicians turns the formal element of the loop into a piece in it’s own right, which in one case was supported by a specially recruited police choir.
In Kjartansson’s works the imaginary element, in this case performed theatrically, collide with the hard, physical reality. There is no doubt here; the artist loves to slip into a variety of roles, to live out his different identities, whether as the singer of Trabant – one of Iceland’s biggest Pop groups –, as travelling troubadour Rassi Prump or even other characters. The performance entitled Death and the children (2002) saw Kjartansson slip into the role of the Grim Reaper. On a fine summer’s day, he named a cemetery as his stage on which he answered the innocent questions of young children on the issue of death. This disarmingly direct approach to this intellectually unfathomable topic, i.e. countering pain with laughter, was for Kjartansson himself a way of overcoming the loss of a friend. As so often in his works, he provides a link here between drama and humour, giving this highly suspenseful relationship an unconventional backdrop.
Kjartansson staged his contribution to this year’s Reykjavík Arts Festival in the countryside; some one and a half hours by car from the Icelandic capital in the ruin of the old Dagsbrún theatre. The same building that into the 1980s was the scene of socializing, laughter and dancing, now has its windows boarded up. Cars drive past on the nearby ring road without stopping, while sheep graze in peace on the slopes of the adjacent mountains. Kjartansson transformed this theatre, its architecture, its surroundings and its history into a single, integrated backdrop for his drama. It is a play on the place’s aura and – as the Icelander would say – on the ghosts that reside there. The spectacle can be seen from afar; the artist had obviously fake flames flickering out of the chimney and windows. Entering the little building as such confronts us with visible and audible clues: broken windows, traces of blood, and old tape recorders scattered across the floor, blaring out strangely monotonous Blues samples. This cacophony is joined by the voice of the artist, accompanied by monosyllabic chords on his guitar. Kjartansson sits on the theatre’s old stage, dressed as a knight and surrounded by props. The knight, the romantic hero of sagas of old, sings – or, rather hums and shouts – a wordless Blues. The Great Unrest is how Kjartansson terms his continuous theatrical performance, one of the most impressive works at the Reykjavík Arts Festival. It is a puzzling and at the same time unsettling picture to see how in this theatre ruin, nestled within the majestic Icelandic nature, a hero of history appears damned to regret the end of a great era. The monotonous Blues is used to express world-weariness in a world of emptiness. The drama, the disguise element, is so obvious here, however, that this nostalgic level is likewise broken. Visitors depart with a feeling of insecurity, leaving the artist alone in the building and his story.
Given this small, rugged country in the north Atlantic, one might ask what characteristic elements Iceland’s young art scene has to offer. Any search for “typical” features, however, is fruitless in terms of motifs or content. The landscape no longer comprises the central theme, as it did 50 years ago. Back then, modern art in Iceland was by nature poetic, and defined by literature. The new scene, on the other hand, is less literature-based, while artists display a refreshingly disrespectful approach to art history and art theories (“My favourite paintings are stage sets”, says Kjartansson). It is instead predominantly defined by contemporary, global music – more a case of a rocking, jazzy scene. Collaborative crossover projects are now completely normal, and can be found everywhere. And time and time again, it is music that provides the point of departure and the interface for collaboration. As with other artists of this generation such as Gabriela Friđriksdóttir, Egill Sćbjörnsson or Sigurđur Guđjónsson, the interplay between music and the visual arts unleashes an astonishingly creative energy. This energy marks a new mood of change on the Icelandic art scene.
Ragnar Kjartansson is a musician, actor and an artist. As for his motivation, he says: “Art is for me like the Blues: I use it to purify my soul. Maybe I’m a romantic on a hungry pursuit for the ultimate art kick.” This is what distinguishes him: one who loves the show element, constantly slipping into new roles, changing his identities and realities, will basically always remain authentic. Wherever Kjartansson is at any one time, is also where his stage is.
CIA.IS – Center for Icelandic Art
The Great Unrest von Christian Schoen wurde geschrieben für und veröffentlicht im A Prior Magazine #12: Erik van Lieshout, Steven Shearer, Ragnar Kjartansson im Januar 2006
Bard Center for Curatorial Studies, Annadale, New York
(curated by Markus Andresson)
Gallerí i8, Reykjavík, Iceland
Galleria Riccardo Crespi, Milano, Italy (curated by Marianna Vecellio)
Sorrow conquers happiness, Galerie Adler, Frankfurt am Main, Germany
It´s not your Fault, Crossroads: Kunst und Performance, Volksbühne Berlin, Berlin (mit Ásdís Sif
The Great Unrest, Dagsbrún, Reykjavík Art Festival, Eyjafjöll, Island
Monument of Love, Gallery GUK+; Lejre, Dänemark; Bremen; Selfoss, Island
Intimacy (with Magnús Sigurđarsson), ASÍ Museum, Reykjavík Art Festival, Reykjavík, Island
Oh My God, Museum, Reykjavik, Island
Colonialization, Galleri Kling & Bang,Reykjavik, Island
Hurt the one you love, Gallerí i8, Reykjavík, Island
Video installation with Gunnhildur Hauksdottir, Gallerí Nema Hvađ, Reykjavík, Island
Konstar och jag vil knulla, Gallerí 1319 A, Stockholm, Schweden
European Media Art Festival, Osnabrück, Germany
Dreamland Burns, Budapest Műcsarnok, Hungary
Vienna Biennale, Vienna, Austria
Singing, Swinging North, Project room Paris Photo 2006, Paris, France
Icelandic Art in the 3rd Millenium, Reykjavik Art Museum, Iceland
The Un-Homely, Galerie Adler, New York City, USA
Momentum, Nordic Festival of Contemporary Art, Moss, Norway
Contemporary Video Art from Iceland, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin, Germany
Eiland, Island (curated by Fridrik Orn)
Eine Szene, in der Kunst entsteht: Island, Kunstverein Langenhagen, Langenhagen, Germany
Quartair, Den Haag, Netherlands
Islandia, Kültur Büro Barcleona, Barcelona, Spain
The Idea of North: An Exhibition about Sound and Site, Saint Mary’s University Art Gallery, Halifax, Canada
Invasion Klink & Bank, Reykjavik at Berliner Liste, Berlin
Etoiles Polares, Vooruit, Ghent, Belgien
Winter Mass, The Nordic House, Reykjavik
Aldrei, Nie, Newer, Gallery+, Akureyri, Island
Where do we go from here?, Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York, U.S.A
Behind the eyes, Bergen Kunsthall, Bergen, Norway
Island I Danmark, Gallery Stalke, Copenhagen, Dänemark
The Times are Changing, Studio Alaska, Reykjavík
Tígurinn og ísbjörninn / The Tiger und the Polar Bear, Gallery 21, Malmö, Schweden.
Grasrót, The Living Art Museum, Reykjavík, Island
The Tiger und the Polar Bear, Gallery Saevar Karl, Reykjavík, Island
The Tiger und the Polar Bear, Slunkaríki, Ísafjörđur, Island
Polifony, The Living Art Museum, Reykjavík, Island
Performance Week, The Living Art Museum, Reykjavík, Island
Ready made in the House, The Yellow House, Reykjavík, Island
A5 invitational, Helsinki, Stockholm, Gothenburg, Oslo, Bergen, Trondheim, Reykjavík und
Copenhagen Feelings, The Yellow House, Reykjavík, Island
Happenings und Performances:
Theater of Artist, four night of Performances, Klink und Bank, Reykjavík, Island
Oracle 2005, Perfromance with Asdis Sif Gunnarsdottir, Iđnó und Bad Taste Recordstore,
To Bubbi, Performance mit Gabriella Fridriksdóttir, Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York, U.S.A
Satan is Real, IJS/Ice, Museum Dhont-Dhaens, Belgien
Christal Rain, Performance with the Icelndic Love Corporation: Berlin, Hamburger
Bahnhof, D; Boys und Girls, Zacheta Gallery, Warschau, Polen; Bergen Kunsthall,
Bergen, Norwegen and Bryggen, Kopenhagen, Dänemark.
Four variations on sorrow, Performance mit Egill S., Reykjavik Art Museum, Island
Operatione Pathetica, Performance mit Gabriella Fridriksdóttir. Circuit 2003, Barcelona
Modern Music, CD Projekt mit Gabriella Friđriksdóttir, Living Art Museum, Reykjavík, Island
The Art Clown, Performance. Reykjavík Art Festival, Reykjavík, Island
And Björk of course, ein Stück von Thorvaldur Thorsteinsson. Theater und Performances in
Zusammanarbeit mit Thorvaldur Thorsteinsson und Benedikt Erlingsson. Reykjavík City Theater, Reykjavík, Island
Santa Claus, Performance mti Asmundur Asmundsson. Galleri Kling & Bang, Island
Trubadour Rassi Prump, concerts a.o.: Reykjavík, Ísafjörđur, Búđir und Seyđisfjörđur,
2005 Trabant, Emotional, 12 tónar
2003 The Funerals, Lordy, Funerals und 12 tonar
2002 Trabant, music for a ballet "Eva 3", Ekka Dance Theater
2001 Trabant, Moment of truth, Thulemusik, TMT
The Funerals, Pathetic me, Thulemusik, TMT
2000 Kanada, Kanada, Thulemusik, TMT
1996 Music in "Sirkús Skara Skrípo" , Loftkastalinn, Reykjavík, Island
1995 Teenage band Kósý, Kósý Jól, Kisi-hljómplötur