Melancholy and boredom are the common thread in Ragnar Kjartansson’s bizarre work

‘The choreography of power is important,’ states the Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson, while in the background women stand on a record player between golden curtains and strum E minor on an electric guitar. They practice his performances Woman in E which during the retrospective exhibition Time changes everything by Kjartansson in the Tilburg Museum De Pont will be heard all day long. It’s a remarkable achievement: the women don’t look at anyone, the sound is somber, the eighties glitter and all the gold in the decor makes you laugh. In the meantime, you wonder if a woman can play such a golden turntable in 2022. The mixed feelings characterize much of Kjartansson’s work.

The British newspaper The Guardian described the Icelander as one of the most brilliant artists of the moment, because he invariably leaves the viewer confused, absurdly magnifies social problems, associates melancholy with boredom and allows pleasant madness in his work. His video works, for example, are extremely long: sometimes six hours, but twice that is also possible.

He caused quite a stir at the Venice Biennale in 2009, for which he was selected on behalf of Iceland. His country of birth, which played an important role in causing the 2008 banking crisis, was not in good shape globally. Kjartansson came up with the performance The ending: On each of the 144 days that the Biennale was open, he made a portrait of an Icelandic acquaintance on the banks of the Grand Canal. In addition to the amount of paintings, the amount of empty beer bottles with the two also grew steadily. The artist sent out a signal: Iceland was bankrupt, but the painter plowed on under his own power, without an expensive pavilion or expensive, large art objects.

In De Pont you can now (in theory) watch the video performance for twelve hours bliss. In real time, you can watch singers perform an aria from Mozart’s opera for twelve hours straight The Marriage of Figaro to repeat. It is a battle of attrition that a viewer, if he can sustain it himself, can witness. An equally great battle of attrition can be seen in the performance of the American band The National singing the song ‘A Lot of Sorrow’, although the video is only six hours long. One viewer calms down, the other almost dies of boredom.

In another video, Kjartansson himself sings the line ‘Sorrow conquers Happiness’ in sequence, and during our conversation he doesn’t just burst out laughing, but wants to sing once in a while. But his drawings, sketchbooks, video works and live performances at De Pont look less cheerful.

living sculpture

“You have to hit the chord hard,” Kjartansson explains to the guitarists, “it works best. And you don’t have to look at the audience.” That the women can be seen as objects is part of the work of art, Kjartansson replies after the rehearsal. “The work was originally created to a car showroom, the work pays tribute to Detroit and globalization, but also addresses the woman as an object: how she is exhibited and at the same time claims space with the guitar and the chord she strikes.

“This living sculpture is actually about the constant change of power structures. In my work I like to play with the rituals surrounding power. You could also see at Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral how closely choreography and power are connected. It is all designed to ease the transition of power and allow Charles to be accepted. Also consider the choreography at the changing of the guard at the unknown soldier. That’s the attitude women have Women in E. They are above the situation they are placed in.”

Iceland has an oral culture because of a lack of objects, you once said. What’s up with that?

“Iceland has no ancient artifacts because it was a Danish colony until the end of the nineteenth century. Everything of any value or interest has been stolen by the Danes. Iceland was left with only an ancient oral culture. I got that early as a child. My grandfather could talk about the Vikings as if they were his friends. Then he would start with ‘Do you know what Gunnar did when he met so-and-so’, and then it would be about an Icelandic chieftain from the tenth century.”

Melancholy is more common in literature than in the visual arts. There is a lot of melancholy in your art. Is it because of the oral culture and the stories you were taught early as a child?

“Yes, all my work comes from literature, I try to convey a kind of poetry. My great-great-great-grandmother, Skáld Rósa (1795-1855), wrote Iceland’s most important love poem. There is a deep sense of melancholy in it and it is an important source of inspiration for me. The melancholy was already there before I became an artist.”

So it wouldn’t even have been possible to make art without melancholy?

“I don’t think any artist can do without melancholy. That feeling is the bass drum in any work of art, a repeating bottom that is inescapable. With the repetition, you stop time a little, or you go back in time. These are all expressions of melancholy.”

Melancholy, repetition, the enormous duration of the videos: are they all attempts to stop time, or is there a need for timeless art behind it?

“It’s the thrill of feeling time in those performances. By repeating an action over and over again, you feel time slipping away, and it gives a strange feeling. That’s why repetition is so important in religious rituals. I never see art as timeless. In every work you can tell when it was made. The whole idea that art can be timeless is nonsense. I don’t believe that anyone makes art last forever. You will probably be forgotten. With luck, they remember a of your poems, just like my great-great-grandmother. There is no archive of her, no museum, just this poem. It’s the coolest thing that could happen.”

In the video work ‘Me and my mother’, your mother spits in your face. There’s a bit of melancholy to it.

“No, it’s probably my most comic work. We do this every five years, and my mom asks, “Honey, should I spit in your face again, and when we film it again, I try not to burst out laughing.”

It doesn’t appear that way to the viewer. The time span of five years means that not only do you age, but the reaction also changes. In the first works you still react when your mother spits in your face, in the last works you seem to have given up.

[Hard lachend] “I haven’t completely given up on her yet. At first we thought it was a strange idea that we should perform, now it’s become normal, like: oh, it’s that time again and then we drink coffee afterwards. The beauty is that the viewer can see something else in it. As The Rolling Stones sing: ‘No expectations’. I have that attitude towards the viewer. There is no right or wrong in interpreting works.”

Artists often say that, but you still create a work with a certain intention, and it is inevitable that some reactions are disappointing.

“Yes, if someone thinks your work is crap, it’s always a disappointment. But no, a completely different interpretation than mine is fine. In fact, I only do work that I don’t fully understand myself. If I can figure it out myself, why bother doing it? There must be a certain mystery in it, as if you are looking for something. And a sigh that must always be a sigh.”

You sing ‘Sorrow conquers happiness’ in the video work of the same name. Is that always the case?

“For a long time I thought it was, but as I get older I’m becoming more and more optimistic.”


[Hard lachend] “Yes, okay, I make a lot of pessimistic works. But I get up excited every morning. As a person I become more optimistic, my work becomes more pessimistic. I don’t know why that is. There are many dark and obscure subjects, but that , what’s so nice about the 21st century is that everything is deconstructed. I don’t have to bang my fists on tables or shout to take things apart, now you can take everything and see the darkness in things without representing anything or anyone.

“Humor is the comic side of the abyss. For example, I think Edvard Munch is funny. A friend of mine once said: ‘Remember the philosopher Montesquieu when he said that seriousness is the mask of stupidity’. I place it next to a line by the Icelandic writer Halldór Laxness: ‘Nothing is beautiful unless it is serious’. They are both right, and between the two statements I try to move with my work.”

When I look at your work, I get the impression that it moves from happiness to distress to hopelessness. We are past the suffering. Or is that line not there?

“In my latest video work No tomorrow (2019), which I made with the choreographer Margrét Bjarnadóttir and the songwriter Bryce Dessner, all hope is effectively gone. When we did it, we realized that this work is about nothing. There is nothing. But that was also the exciting part, I’m making a work about nothing. Nothingness is the ultimate subject for works of art.”

And now?

“Maybe it’s the end. Yeah… Or yeah, I don’t know either. My latest work always feels like it’s going to be the last, but there’s always something coming.”

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