BY Amanda Coulson in Reviews | 01 OCT 06
Featured in
Issue 102

Ragnar Kjartansson

BY Amanda Coulson in Reviews | 01 OCT 06

Once upon a time there was an island of desolate beauty, marked by volcanoes and glaciers, strange hot bubbling lakes and boiling geysers. Sometimes the sun shone even at night; other times it would be dark for days on end. This enchanted island was home to a boy called Ragnar. Like many boys his age, Ragnar liked to imagine what he would be when he grew up: the leader of a rock band, a knight in shining armour, a troubadour or even Death himself, wearing a black suit and carrying a shiny scythe. He would talk to the other kids about Death, and they thought he was a little weird, but he didn’t care. As he aged, his body got bigger, but inside he remained a kid. So he never came to believe that something wasn’t possible – he just carried on creating magical kingdoms in abandoned houses, dressing up in costumes, playing characters from his fantasy world, drawing pictures and making music.

It sounds like a fairy tale, but in Ragnar Kjartansson’s case it’s all true. The artist grew up to become, among other things, a pop star in his native Iceland, with his band Trabant. He is also recognized as an artist from performances such as The Opera (his 2001 graduation piece from the Academy of Arts in Reykjavík, in which he created a Rococo theatre in a small room and performed for ten days straight), Death and the Children (2002) or The Great Unrest (2005), in which he dressed as a Viking and sang the blues for an entire week in an abandoned theatre in the countryside.

Kjartansson grew up in a theatrical family: understandably, elements of stage and costume design inform his work. Like the never-ending days or nights of his island home, his performances often stretch over days or weeks, pushing his work into a condensed trial of endurance that separates it from the merely theatrical. The piece Sorrow Conquers Happiness (2006) was originally a live performance at the Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst in Antwerp, in which Kjartansson, dressed in a white tie and tails and accompanied by a jazz trio and a police choir, sang the words ‘Sorrow conquers happiness’ over and over again. This prolonged performance was captured on video and replayed on a loop at his eponymous Frankfurt show. The installation at Galerie Adler showed the projection surrounded by a series of drawings of differing sizes, all of which portrayed the laurel wreath of victory around the word ‘Mercy’, suggesting there was succour and glory at the end of his feat.

To navigate the remaining installation the viewer was forced to step around thigh-high two-dimensional waves that seemed to come straight out of a theatrical production, following a path that led to the artist himself. Kjartansson appeared naked, apart from his cardboard knight’s armour, sitting at an organ, playing mournful music. The walls around him were filled with his delicate pencil drawings: a hanging microphone dripping red blood in Death Mic (2006), the truncated torso of Stuffed Woman (2006) with electronic items spilling from her inside, a smoking cowboy boot with text reading ‘The Worst Place’. These drawings were accompanied by countless oil paintings depicting waves in a violent ocean – a series entitled ‘The Raging Pornographic Sea’ (2006) – which was also the title of his weekend-long performance.

I caught the tail end of his marathon on a sweltering Sunday as Kjartansson wilted over his instrument. At times he would fall asleep, but his foot would keep moving, the muscle involuntarily depressing the pedal, thus continuing to issue a melancholy moan. Sweat poured down his face and into his eyes, visible only through the slit in the visor of his cardboard helmet. Kjartansson described his Frankfurt performance as an erotic fantasy of death, longing and eternity. The piece was loosely inspired by a scene in Sergio Leone’s Once upon a Time in the West (1968) in which a man in the last carriage of a train moving through the desert gazes longingly at a painting of the sea. As the camera moves with increasing rapidity between his sweating face and the painted image, the music crescendos and the man starts to cry. Despite the obvious references to – and the actual – heat, Kjartansson brought a cool Nordic melancholia to the shady but stifling gallery. Asked in an interview why his pieces are so poignant, the artist replies, ‘because life is sad and beautiful, and my art is very much based on that view. I love life; I love the despair of it.’

Amanda Coulson is a Bahamian-American writer and curator until recently based in Frankfurt. She was one of the co-founders of the VOLTA art fairs in Basel and New York and after seven years as Executive Director she is stepping down to take up the post of Director of the National Gallery of the Bahamas in Nassau.