Melancholy and Mortality in Satirical Commentaries on Western Culture

Ragnar Kjartansson: ‘The performance is about the objectification of the female body.’De Pont Sculpture Museum

A sweet-voiced fifties singer is accompanied by a jazz orchestra. He keeps repeating the same lyrics: ‘Sorrow overcomes happiness’ – sadness overcomes happiness. The three words are performed with great conviction, in an absurdist performance and a glittering interior, where the dividing line between seriousness and caricature disappears. Ragnar Kjartansson’s (1976) work deals with romantic concepts such as melancholy and mortality, but he also provides satirical commentary on Western culture.

The museum’s former factory hall in Tilburg is filled every few seconds with the sound of an electric guitar. Behind a golden curtain, a woman in a glittering dress stands on a rotating stage, dead serious, playing the same chord on her Telecaster. When the sound dies, she begins again. It’s E minor, a chord universally associated with melancholy and heartbreak.


Kjartansson: “When I learned to play the guitar, it was not only an easy chord, but it also produces music immediately. It is instant melancholy. The performance was first performed in Detroit and came to see Martha Reeves, the lead singer of the Motown group Martha and the Vandellas. She said it was a great piece, but it had to be played in B flat major. We tried, but no: it had to be in E minor.”

The artist – women from the Tilburg area who alternate every hour and a half – looks vulnerable and powerful at the same time. “The performance is about the objectification of the female body. My work owes a lot to feminist art from the 1960s and 1970s. To Yoko Ono, Carolee Schneemann and Marina Abramovic. They have developed a new visual language that did not exist before. If we look at the twentieth century in the future, it will become the most important art form. We still get excited about Andy Warhol now, but that will eventually go away. Feminist art had a completely new approach to art and performance.”

At the art academy, Kjartansson saw feminist artists as heroes, later he became good friends with Carolee Schneeman (1939-2019). “That my performance takes place in a circle is very much because of her.”

lava field

It also comes through Detroit, the city of Motown and the American car industry. “The first performance took place in a former showroom, so I thought it would be great to have a woman in a gold dress spinning around there. On a stage, the way cars used to spin in a showroom.”

In contrast to the hypnotic performance in the large room, another work by Kjartansson is shown in the smaller wool sheds. More than a thousand ceramic objects form a long line. They are salt and pepper shakers, on which the words fault and fear stand. They were made especially for the exhibition in Eindhoven.

“It started with a phone call with a friend. I was in New York and everything was so intense with MeToo and Black Lives Matter. We talked about the times we were living in. My friend said that everything now is about guilt and fear. And then I joked that I would make a salt-and-pepper set out of it.

A number of large video works by Kjartansson can be seen in De Pont, where the music keeps returning. But he still draws and paints. “We live partly near a huge lava field in southern Iceland. When the volcano erupted in 1783, between eight and ten million people worldwide were killed by poisonous gases. The crops in France failed and there was much political unrest. The French Revolution actually started on that lava field. I started painting there in the middle of winter, in the freezing cold. It is so funny that as a painter you try to capture the sublime nature of nature. But in such extreme conditions you really only want one thing: back to the car and to the schnapps.”

Ragnar Kjartansson, Time changes everythinguntil 29 January in De Pont, Tilburg

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