BY Tom Morton in Features | 05 AUG 16
Featured in
Issue 180

Again and Again

Tom Morton on Ragnar Kjartansson and the eternal return

BY Tom Morton in Features | 05 AUG 16

1882: The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche publishes The Gay Science, a book that contains his first formulation of the concept of the eternal return. ‘What if’, Nietzsche asks, ‘some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more” […] Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine”?’ Scholars are still divided as to whether or not Nietzsche offered up this vision of an infinitely recurring, self-same universe as a serious metaphysical model. Still, its message is clear enough: repetition can be a bitch, but it can also be a kind of bliss.

Ragnar Kjartansson, Bonjour, 2015, performance documentation. All images courtesy: the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York, and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik; photograph: Aurélien Mole

1977: The American comedian Andy Kaufman takes to the stage on the television variety show The Midnight Special (1973–81) to perform a musical number. Dressed in a flared orange jumpsuit and backed by a simple, bluesy guitar riff, he murmurs his song’s opening words, ‘I trusted you,’ into the mic, repeating them once, twice, 20 times – his voice rising into a pained yelp. After a minute or so, a ripple of laughter passes through the studio audience, as they realize that these four, embittered syllables are the only lyrics on offer. Stony faced, Kaufman pushes on through the crowd’s amusement. He’s hollering the words now, building to what surely must be a crescendo: ‘I trusted YOU! I trusted YOU!’ His backing band stops playing, the comedian bows, the audience cheers and whistles. But, then, the riff starts up once more, and so does Kaufman’s lament. Two false stops and some 30 ‘I trusted you’ later, he abandons the stage, only to be invited back for an encore by The Midnight Special’s host, Wolfman Jack. The audience is getting nervous now. Kaufman’s orange jumpsuit is beginning to look less like a nod to Vegas-era Elvis than to a prison inmate’s uniform, the clothing of a lifer. If this is a ballad of betrayal, where is the narrative development? If this is a joke, when – if ever – will the punchline arrive? The comedian picks up the mic and bounds indefatigably towards the front row: ‘I trusted you, I trusted you …’ You can probably guess the rest. When he gives his final, sweaty bow, having not so much finished his performance as brought it to an arbitrary stop, the applause is deafening. Partly, the audience is paying tribute to Kaufman’s structural moxie, how he somehow creates a dramatic and comic payoff from a single, monotonously incanted phrase. Partly, though, the audience is paying tribute to themselves. They have endured a spell in purgatory and might even (now they’ve been delivered safely back to linear time) remember it with fondness. This is not quite recognizing Nietzsche’s demon as a god, but it’s a start.

2015: The Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson debuts a new live work, entitled Bonjour, as part of a solo show at Paris’s Palais de Tokyo. Viewers are greeted with an elaborate stage set that conjures up a nostalgic, absurdly pretty and wholly fictional corner of France, an amalgam of the films The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), Chocolat (2000), Amélie (2001) and – as Kjartansson later points out to me, with self-deprecating laughter – the British TV sitcom ’Allo ’Allo (1982–92). The action begins with a young woman rising from her bed and cranking up Charles Trenet’s classic chanson ‘La Mer’ (The Sea, 1946) on an old-fashioned phonograph. Having dressed, brushed her hair and rolled on her stockings, she picks up a vase of flowers and descends the fire escape that leads down from her first-floor apartment towards a picturesque village square. It is here that she meets the other protagonist, a mustachioed man who viewers have already glimpsed brewing coffee and reading a 1958 issue of Paris Match through the windows of a neighbouring house, and who is now standing by the public fountain in his dressing gown, smoking a cigarette. He bids her, ‘Bonjour.’ She replies in kind and then stoops to fill her vase at the fountain. Walking up the fire escape to her apartment, she glances back, their eyes meet for a brief, pregnant moment, and then they both return indoors. This vignette repeats every five minutes, 12 hours a day, until the show closes some eleven weeks later.

Ragnar Kjartansson, S.S. Hangover, 2013, boat captain, brass instruments, musicians. Photograph: Lilja Birgisdóttir

What is fascinating about Bonjour is not only the way in which it plays the first, delicate flowerings of romance on a continuous loop, inscribing them into time and space like grooves in a record, never allowing love to grow or to fail (maybe she can’t abide coffee breath; perhaps he despises Trenet’s music), but also the fact that it is a copy without an original. Unlike, say, the amnesiac narrator of Tom McCarthy’s novel Remainder (2005), who restages a series of mundane, half-remembered events from his life in order to recover a sense of his own authenticity, Kjartansson’s focus here is on an idealized past-that-never-was. Can a fiction, even one as soufflé-light as this episode by the fountain, gather existential weight through its retelling? Is this how history – or, rather, the collective historical imagination – writes itself?

Can a fiction, even one that is as soufflé-light as the one by the fountain in Kjartansson's Bonjour, gather existential weight through its retelling?

Born to an actress mother and an actor/director/playwright father, Kjartansson spent eight years as an altar boy, was involved as a teenager in Rekjavik’s burgeoning music scene (he would go on to front the electroclash outfit, Trabant, as well as collaborate with members of Sigur Rós and Múm), and did a pre-art-school stint studying home economics. The theatre, the church, the rehearsal studio, the kitchen: given the long hours Kjartansson spent in these spaces, it perhaps follows that repetition (with its drudgery, its dangled promises of perfection, its unlikely humour and even unlikelier holiness) would later become so central to his art. The signs were already there in the video Me and My Mother (2000), shot during the artist’s studies at the Iceland Academy of the Arts, in which he stands stock still while his mother spits repeatedly in his face. Kjartansson, who claims to enjoy good maternal relations, now remakes this work every five years, and there’s something oddly moving in the way the participants’ gradually ageing flesh is captured, each time, by increasingly advanced and merciless technology.

Ragnar Kjartansson, Me and My Mother 2015, 2015, video still

More obliquely, repetition also haunts another early video, Death and the Children (2002), in which the artist guides a group of kids on a tour of Rekjavik’s splendidly gothic Old Cemetery as part of their summer-school activities, while dressed as a scythe-touting Grim Reaper. At one point, a child asks him: ‘Are you an enemy of God? Death and God are enemies.’ ‘No, no,’ replies the artist, ‘we are friends.’ Depending on your beliefs – endless reward or punishment in the next world, Nietzschean eternal recurrence or life as a brief flicker followed by infinite nothingness – these words take on a markedly different resonance. The kids, says Kjartansson on the phone to me from Iceland, didn’t fear the Reaper: ‘They came away thinking of Death as a kind of Santa Claus.’

By the time of his video God (2007), Kjartansson’s vocabulary of knowingly overblown theatricality, doomy Nordic romanticism and ebullient humour was firmly in place. Here, he adopted the persona of a tuxedoed club crooner, singing the words ‘sorrow conquers happiness’ for an hour straight, as though Frank Sinatra was trying to throw off the black dog of depression by taking up a new career as a Tehching Hsieh-type endurance artist. (When I ask Kjartansson about the work’s title, he replies: ‘When I am performing, I get all these feelings that are usually called religious. I feel like those monks who get lifted from the earth.’) In a related live work, A Lot of Sorrow (2013), the artist persuaded American alt-dad rockers The National to perform their track ‘Sorrow’ (2010) on a six-hour loop at MoMA PS1 in New York. Watching amateur smartphone footage of the event posted on YouTube, what’s striking is that, while the song remains the same throughout those interminable hours in Queens, the unwritten contract between the band and their fans changes over time. As the event wears on, early excitement at playing, and listening to, a much-beloved anthem turns into boredom and then, eventually, into a kind of survivors euphoria, in which distinctions between onstage and offstage matter less than the fact that the whole room has come through this together. If the impact of Kaufman’s performance on The Midnight Special turned on subverting expectations – a single lyric is not usually repeated ad infinitum; a song does not usually start and stop and start again like a car on a cold morning – then the impact of The National’s performance turned on meeting expectations to the letter. Everybody at MoMA PS1 that day knew what they’d signed up for and, as the band’s frontman, Matt Berninger, delivered the closing line of ‘Sorrow’, ‘I don’t want to get over you,’ for the very last time, it must have felt like it was addressed not only to the track’s titular sadness but also to his fellow travellers on A Lot of Sorrow’s strange, static trip.

Ragnar Kjartansson, Scenes from Western Culture, Rich German Children (Ingibjörg Sigurjónsdóttir), 2015, video still

To make repetition the central device of your oeuvre is to risk, well, repeating yourself – something Kjartansson attempts to mitigate through regular shifts in both medium and geographic focus. Representing Iceland at the 53rd Venice Biennale with his project The End (2009), he holed-up in his country’s pavilion for sixth months, each day making a new oil painting of the same Speedo-clad, beer-supping male life model. This action might be understood as a kind of performed self-portrait, in which the artist presented himself as caught between fantasies of a macho, paint-spattered hyper-potency and the realization that this position is a creative and political dead end. (Kjartansson, who steeped himself in feminist art and theory during his time at the Iceland Academy of Art, cites Carolee Schneemann and Marina Abramović as his ‘two big heroes’.) Another work that deals with masculine (artistic) inheritance, Omnipresent Salty Death (2015), comprises a series of bleak, near-identical Arctic seascapes, painted en plein air by Kjartansson and his father, using a watercolour technique taught to them both by the artist’s grandfather. These images resemble less the products of individual souls than of a collective patrilineal project; and if their title suggests the salinity of semen, then it also suggests the preservative qualities of brine and the oppressiveness of Iceland’s cold, surrounding seas.

In The End, the artist presented himself as caught between fantasies of macho, paint-spattered hyper-potency and the realization that this is a creative and political dead end.

Such gloominess contrasts with the surface glitz of Kjartansson’s Woman in E (2016), recently presented at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit. Here, a gilded, car showroom-like podium supported a female guitarist in a gold dress, who played a single, endlessly repeated minor chord for a period of two months, summoning up the troubled, post-industrial city’s heritage as a former centre of motor manufacturing and the birthplace of Motown and techno. We might imagine this woman as a new Statue of Liberty, gifted to America, like the 1886 original, from an admirer across the Atlantic. Or else, she might be a monument to Clio, muse of history, who is often depicted playing a lyre in classical statuary; unlike her silent marble counterparts, however, Kjartansson’s Clio strums a melancholy dirge. Likewise, the members of the brass band who crewed Kjartansson’s S.S. Hangover (2013) – a hybrid Viking ship-cum-gondola that drifted back and forth along a short stretch of canal at the 55th Venice Biennale – could be aligned with the muses Calliope (epic poetry), Melpomene (tragedy) and, perhaps, Thalia (comedy). Listening to them play a mournful, absurdly heroic arrangement by Sigur Rós’s Kjartan Sveinsson, arts professionals suffering the effects of the previous evening’s Aperol spritz could contemplate their own struggle for worldly greatness, and the punch line of its meaninglessness in the face of inexorable time.

Ragnar Kjartansson, Scenes from Western Culture, Dinner (Jason and Alicia Hall Moran), 2015, video still

If Kjartansson’s performances sometimes resemble sculptures or paintings – think of his Krieg (War, 2016), in which an actor dressed as an 18th-century soldier drew out a heroic death scene for a full hour on the stage of Berlin’s Volksbühne – then so, too, do his video installations. Unusually, the eight-screen Scenes from Western Culture (2015) involves little in the way of precisely replayed action, focusing instead on vignettes of occidentals living versions of the good life: kids from wealthy German families playing in a Watteau-like landscape; the artist Elizabeth Peyton swimming lengths in a pool; a pair of Icelandic lovers having tender, if unimaginative, sex in a minimalist interior. Occasionally, there are suggestions of something dark at the edge of all this easy, monotonous leisure. In backwoods Sweden, a holiday cabin burns down until only the chimney breast remains and, in New York, an African-American couple dine at the WASP-y 21 Club (site of a 2015 occupation by Black Lives Matter protestors), their stilted conversation hinting at either marital discord or discomfort at the waiting staff’s chilly politesse. The artist tells me that he got the idea for this work during a Leonard Cohen concert in St Mark’s Square, Venice. As the applause echoed off that impossible city’s masonry and out towards the lagoon, a friend, with whom Kjartansson had been binge watching Kenneth Clarke’s imperious television survey of Western achievement, Civilisation (1969), turned to him and jokingly remarked: ‘Never underestimate the superiority of Western culture!’ Repeat something enough times – a gag, a fantasy – and it will begin to feel like it might be serious or true.

Ragnar Kjartansson lives and works in Reykjavik, Iceland. In the past year, he has had solo shows at Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, Canada; University of Buffalo Art Gallery, USA; Museum of Contemporary Art, Detroit, USA; and Palais de Tokyo, Paris, France. The first UK survey of Kjartansson’s work is at the Barbican Art Gallery, London, UK, from 14 July to 4 September, and a version of the exhibition will be shown at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C, from 14 October to 8 January 2017.

Tom Morton is a writer, curator and contributing editor of frieze, based in Rochester, UK.