To get to Ragnar Kjartanssons countryside studio, I flew to Reykjavík, drove to a scarcely inhabited fjord called Borgarfjörður an hour north of the city, splashed across a tidal waterway in a four-wheel-drive vehicle, and pulled up to a bluff overlooking the glacial river Hvítá. There, in a small cottage, I found the artist fixing a proper Icelandic repast of dried haddock and headcheese and bottles of Egils Gull beer. This old-school welcome, offered in a studio otherwise redolent of modern bohemian life — an electric guitar thrown on the sofa, DVDs strewn about the room, an easel at the window — seemed at once a straight-up country snack and a marvelous mise-en-scène. As I was soon to learn, this young Icelandic artist has made a career of turning the deepest Icelandic traditions into works of performance that are part myth, part put-on, and part spontaneous adventure. Tapping into a rich storytelling lineage and dramatic sense of place, the artist has captured the creative resilience of this complex island nation. As he cheerfully handed me another helping of rice pudding, I could already see that for Kjartansson, every waking moment is a glorious, unscripted act.
Born into a family active in Iceland’s theatrical scene, Kjartansson, 33, likes to say he was conceived on the set of the nation’s first erotic thriller, Morðsaga, wherein his mother plays a lonely housewife and his father a plumber called to fix the dishwasher. (His conception took place the same month the love scene was filmed.) He would come home from school and sit in the darkened hall where his parents variously performed, wrote, and directed, listening to actors rehearse their lines. In Kjartansson, this repetitive toil of the stage struck unusually fertile ground. As a student at the Icelandic Academy of the Arts (he graduated in 2001), he was drawn to what he calls "performance loops" whose Beckett-like routines push toward the transcendent. Since then, the artist has pursued the liberating magic of dramatic art. His preferred medium — an amalgam of music, theater, and painting — is an arena for time-based works with sometimes soaring payoffs. Drawing on a boyish realm of knights and Vikings, wandering troubadours and pop idols, he concocts a fantasy world where anything goes. To some degree, as he readily acknowledges, an escapist urge fuels these acts. "Performances are these fantastic experiences," he says. "It’s like a holiday from the real world."
Yet for Kjartansson, that journey is anything but happy-go-lucky. Though his works are often animated by a canny sense of comedy and easy-to-grasp, pop-culture riffs, Nordic foreboding is never far behind. The 2003 video Colonization shows a Danish merchant beating up an Icelandic peasant, but recent works are more nuanced. The video Mercy (2005), for instance, presents an alt-country ode consisting of a single lyric — "Oh why do I keep on hurting you" — which Kjartansson, standing alone with a guitar, sings over and over in front of the camera like an actor perfecting his role. Now plaintive, now crass, now searching, now pleading, the line takes on a haunting quality not quite undercut by the tune’s tongue-in-cheek twang. The work introduced a recurring motif in the artist’s repertoire: the slick-haired singer, a persona Kjartansson has honed in real life as front man for the synth-heavy Reykjavík rock band Trabant, now on hiatus. The band’s performances — as seen on YouTube, anyway — have been blowout affairs, full of rock ’n’ roll swagger and screaming teenage fans. Mercy was a first step toward connecting this sassy streak with the artist’s maturing explorations of Icelandic identity.
That breakthrough moment came with Kjartansson’s most powerful work to date, the video installation God (2007), starring a troubadour in modern-day guise: the crooner. Backed by 11 musicians on a soundstage draped with pink satin, he repeats one single refrain — "sorrow conquers happiness" — to bewitching effect. For a half hour, he sings on as the music swells in melancholic grandeur. But far from being downbeat, as he stands before his microphone and smiles into the camera, Kjartansson exerts a boundless exuberance. Here that melancholy aspect so celebrated in Icelandic literature is transformed into something wholly amazing, just as the nation’s hardscrabble landscape — portrayed in writings like Halldór Laxnesss defining novel Independent People — becomes redeeming. Kjartansson’s work has only gained in emotional resonance with the nation’s economic collapse, almost as if he had sensed the impending disaster. As the artist told me of the nation’s capitalist adventure, "There was a mood here in Iceland, something really weird going on, and you couldn’t put your finger on it." With God, he preemptively turns Iceland’s ruin into a stubborn sort of joy.
A concomitant interest in place has also deepened his work, most notably in a monthlong performance staged in a ruined theater in the south of Iceland. Held in connection with the Reykjavík Art Festival, The Great Unrest (2005) entailed Kjartansson strumming a guitar, clad in Viking regalia and moaning a dirge for eight hours each day. He decorated the walls with his own small drawings and paintings, and scattered wailing cassette players around the space. The remote location attracted few art pilgrims, which made the work all the more sensational. "I had not so many visitors," the artist recalls. "One day it was only an old lady. Another day it was a herd of cows that accidentally wandered in." Playing to a bovine audience in the middle of nowhere could not have pleased him more. The site’s splendid desolation and his lonely routine again tapped that hard-bitten Icelandic identity as a nation built on the backs of lowly sheep farmers, fending off the elements. As if he were paying tribute to those who came before him, the artist fittingly sang the blues, weaving stories out of grief.
Kjartansson has an affinity for pioneers like Chris Burden and Marina Abramovic, whose physically exhausting works of the 1970s were complex feats of endurance. But he draws equally from the world of cinema, and this lends his one-liners an appealing heft. In his video Guilt Trip (2007), for example, the Icelandic actor and comedian Laddi, an icon of Kjartansson’s generation, is filmed against a bleakly gorgeous winter landscape. With an air of irresolution, Laddi fires a shotgun into the distance, pausing now and again to pull handfuls of shells from a yellow plastic bag. Trudging aimlessly in this super-Icelandic scenery, Laddi radiates both defeat and a defiant will to go on. "He’s always had this melancholic aura," Kjartansson explains. "Like most funny people, he’s kind of a bluesy guy. I met him in a bar, and he was very depressed. He said, ‘If I don’t do anything new, I’m going to have to kill myself.’ So I had to make this piece to save him." The scene’s absurdity has only deepened with time: Laddi’s shopping bag bears the piggy-bank logo of Iceland’s Bónus supermarket chain, whose owner has been blamed as a key player in the nation’s economic crash. As in many of Kjartansson’s works, a near slapstick humor — in this case, Laddi wrestles again and again with a balky shotgun mechanism — gives way to piercing emotional truths, a quality the artist traces to classic Hollywood films. "It almost goes back to Charlie Chaplin," he says. "There are no movies that make you cry as much as Chaplin movies. Because you manage to laugh at the absurd things, then when there’s something that’s emotional, it’s mega-emotional."
Kjartansson also draws deeply on the tradition of the Icelandic sagas, those bloody fables of conquest that are the country’s national treasure. "This island has always been a storytelling place," he says. "It was always the poorest nation in Europe, and the only identity it had were these sagas. I often think of my works more as stories than as visual pieces." As with God, those stories can wring redemption out of weltschmerz. For the weeklong performance Schumann Machine (2008), at Manifesta 7, he memorized the 16-poem song cycle of Robert Schumann’s Dichterliebe, a composition whose romantic air and laughing-through-the-tears sense of triumph he found in tune with his work’s dominating interest in melancholy. Singing in sonorous German for eight hours each day, while drinking prosecco and smoking cigars with his collaborator the pianist Davið Þór Jónsson, Kjartansson turned this bittersweet story — sung in the voice of a jilted lover who renounces his grief — into a furious ode to hope. That the piece was performed at pell-mell speed in the courtyard of an old tobacco factory in the northern Italian town of Rovereto made it all the more evocative, as if one had suddenly stumbled upon a beautiful tombstone to a vashished love, and indeed, a vanished way of life.
In his offhand virtuosity — opera, theater, music, and, most recently, painting — Kjartansson has followed Icelandic custom. "Icelanders are very good at being amateurs," he explains. "It’s this carpe diem thing. You’re not afraid of stepping into any field, because it’s not serious. It’s like the bonus of Iceland and also the reason for the Icelandic fall, this lack of seriousness. It’s a very good quality to have as an artist, but it’s a horrible quality to have as a banker."
Iceland has indulged its Viking son, awarding him one of the government’s coveted artist salaries, a two-year grant that has funded his wayward creative ventures. "I just love the idea of being an artist," says Kjartansson, who, when not in residence at his rustic cottage, lives mainly in Reykjavík with his wife, the artist sdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir, "because people are coming to your studio and having a cigarette and a chat. That’s like my favorite part."
As he has probed more deeply into Iceland’s artistic traditions, his work has gained in complexity. The marvelous one-liners remain, but are now layered with considerations of artistic practice and place. This expanded performative spirit will be on display at next month’s Venice Biennale, where the Icelandic Pavilion hosts what promises to be his most monumental work yet: a residency wherein he’ll continuously paint a Speedo-clad male model while both of them quaff beer, smoke cigarettes, and soak up the Venetian light. "It’s just me looking at him and painting him, and then the beer and the paintings and the cigarettes are going to pile up. It’s a process piece with this one moment, this everlasting moment for six months." The work is still cheerfully absurdist, but as an Icelander in Venice, he’s thought about how the Grand Canal’s lapping waters will echo the fjord where he has painted from his cottage window. As he gazes at his comrade under the Italian sun, he’ll once more make the most of every moment.
"Ragnar Kjartansson" originally appeared in the May 2009 issue of Modern Painters. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Modern Painters' May 2009 Table of Contents.