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Spotlight

11 August 2022
Ragnar Kjartansson A Partisan within Nordic Individualism

Santiago Concheiro

On June 26, 2022, most thermometers in the southern half of the Iberian Peninsula reached 40 degrees. People had to figure out how to find shelter, how much to spend on electricity for air conditioning, and how to use their phone’s contact list to find the nearest swimming pool. In this apocalyptic, postmodern situation, a paradox exists just a few meters from Atocha Street, in the basement of the Thyssen Museum.

During the same week that the dry heat made us scramble for shelter, the exhibition Emotional Landscapes, which included four durational performances by the Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson, was shown. Kjartansson developed his work in the Icelandic capital, where he coincided with figures of the cultural movement of the moment, such as Björk and the Icelandic punks and Kjartan Sveinsson (ex-keyboard player of Sigur Rós and participant in the performance The Visitors). These two figures mark the trajectory of Ragnar’s work, closely linked to music, which he uses as a vehicle of transmission, and to technology, as a method of projection of his work.

Through them he brings us closer to the four chosen scenarios, all located deep inside North America, a country of continental dimensions that shows four very different spaces. The performances of The End and God appear in exhibition spaces on the first floor. Both have an Icelandic essence in search of roots in the United States. The End utilizes banjos and yellow fur hats that contrast with the rugged landscape of the Rocky Mountains, and the country that emerges from chords communes with a virgin landscape where snow is the desert and music the oasis. In God, a work with which he will participate in Manifesta 10 in Saint Petersburg, he changes the rural aesthetic for a metropolitan one, emulating Sinatra with a touch of kitsch while invoking his mantra, Sorrow conquers happiness, typical of his durational performances, which have been heavily influenced by electronic music.

On the ground floor there are two other, larger pieces. The first is The Man, a tribute to the blues musician Pinetop Perkins, who appears playing the piano and singing in a scene inspired by Andrew Wyeth’s painting Christina’s World. Once again, Ragnar highlights the disconnect with the landscape. Due to the commodification of narratives and an appropriation of the medium, the characters cease to relate to their context, a theme tied to both this performance and that of The End.

Lastly, there is the performance of The Visitors, in which Kjartansson and his friends decided to meet in a mansion on the banks of the Hudson River, inspired by their admiration for the 19th-century Hudson River School of painters and by the bucolic nature of the landscapes of New York State. Once again, real settings are used as papier-mâché sets to convey a series of vital concerns, such as the coming and going of romantic love, in a style that emulates folk but with greater instrumental weight, like Delta blues mixed with the already mythical Ágætis byrjun by Sigur Rós.

A flight to nowhere, the finishing touch to the incomprehension of an island that already walks alone. When Ragnar represented Iceland at the 2009 Venice Biennale, the layout and themes that emerged from his work were surprising. A bacchanalia in which the work The End appeared for the first time, the exhibition took place in the Palazzo Michiel dal Brusá, next to and within the Grand Canal. Over the space of 6 months, Kjartansson portrayed the artist Páll Haukur Bjornsson day after day, creating a situation in which the artist had to constantly reconceptualize his role as creator, creating a true dialogue between the Icelandic Pavilion as a studio and Venice as a location.

Ragnar Kjartansson, Palazzo Michiel dal Brusà, Venecia

These references show us how the Icelandic artist places his own self within the dialogue, his break with traditional narratives and the establishment of new codes. His works show a dilation of time and a search for the imperishable, a clear reminiscence of a new, not very palpable reality, a generational leap that has put Iceland at the peak of contemporaneity, detached from its fisherman roots. The northernmost capital on earth, Reykjavík is home to an artistic and cultural production that keeps evolving and reinventing itself. If we look at other Icelandic artists, such as Björk, Sigurdur Gudjonsson, Katrín Sigurdardóttir, or Kjartan Sveisson and Jónsi de Sigur Rós, we see how the dichotomy between tradition and technology also stands out in their work, characterizing the creative process of all the artists mentioned.

The feedback between them is a fact, and not only in the title of Ragnar’s exhibition Emotional Landscapes, taken from a Björk song. This reality goes beyond formalism and creates multidisciplinary movements in which Sigur Rós collaborates with Björk and in which Ragnar Kjartansson accompanies them on guitar. This is a very significant fact, since in the West, or at least in Spain, people have been trying to generate a collaborative cultural fabric for decades.

Perhaps as a society we must experience a phase of extreme individualism like that which it seems we are in, in order to hit rock bottom and begin to share ways of interpreting reality. Iceland has a population similar to that of the province of Burgos and the level of wealth allows for a large number of individuals who can dedicate themselves to the creative sector. The mixture of tradition and innovation shows very well the way in which Icelandic society wants to differentiate itself from the international scene. It also indicates an exhaustion of social roles and an escape route from Nordic loneliness, presenting itself as a sort of blank canvas on which to reconnect socially.

As Ragnar commented during an event in the Folk Circle of the People’s Festival in Berlin: “I am going to sing a folk song about my country. I don’t have a guitar because my country was very poor and there were no instruments there until the Americans brought the guitars to our country.” In this way he began a massive event with dignity and respect for the roots of an island where climate has shaped the modes of communication and nature has shaped creativity.

(Featured Image: Still of the installation The Visitors, part of the exhibition Emotional Landscapes)

Santiago Concheiro. Between the limits where art ends and society begins... Or was it the other way around? Passionate about the Humanities and artistic proposals that lead to social change. Santiago Concheiro has a degree in International Relations and is currently finishing Art History.

Articles

11 August 2022

Ragnar Kjartansson

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