Catching Up With Ragnar Kjartansson at MoMA PS1's EXPO Colony

(© Micah Schmidt)

Last week, Ragnar Kjartansson took a short break from art stardom to camp out and throw a couple of foam parties at MoMA PS1’s EXPO Colony. The Colony, part of PS1’s current environmentally themed, VW-sponsored mega exhibition “EXPO 1,” was designed by Argentinean architecture firm a77 in the museum’s courtyard and is composed of several silver streamline trailers, tents, picnic tables, and turquoise outdoor shower stalls. Seven groups of artists will live and create there for the duration of “EXPO 1.” The outdoor living space, which is meant to propose an alternative for housing and public space while also emphasizing the artistic process rather than presenting a specific product, is an ideal venue for Kjartansson’s always-collaborative performance-based practice.

For his week-long stay, Kjartansson, along with Hrafnhildur Arnardottir and Ingibjörg Sigurjónsdóttir of Reykjavik art space Kling & Bang, invited ten other artists from the Reykjavik scene to live and create in the upscale hippie commune. The itinerant tenants took full advantage of the venue, creating matching tie-dye mini-dresses and throwing two foam party/folk concert events titled “Civilization: Monumental Materialism” that were inspired by art historian Kenneth Clark’s book “Civilisation.”

ARTINFO stopped by the colony during the middle of the Icelander's stay to chat with Kjartansson about the “S.S. Hangover,” Jay Z’s 6-hour Pace performance, and Alexander Calder’s dirty little secret.

So what exactly are you doing at EXPO Colony? Is there a plan?

No. When I was doing “A lot of Sorrow” with The National here in May, working with the curator Jenny Schlenzka, she was organizing the Colony for the “EXPO 1” show. She asked me and my girlfriend Ingibjörg Sigurjónsdóttir and Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir A.K.A Shoplifter if we knew some artists who would live in the colony. So we contacted our friends from the Reykjavik art scene and they were all like, “Yeah it’s a good idea for us to have a holiday in New York, camping in Queens.”

Ragnar's tent and hammock at the Expo Colony / Photo by Micah Schmidt

So everyone is just hanging out?

No, constantly making foam and discussing poetry.

Is it a pseudo-performance?

I see it more as a pseudo-Cancun holiday.

Without the “Girls Gone Wild?”

They go wild here actually.

So who are some of the other artists from Reykjavik who are here?

Magnús Sigurðarson. He’s like one of my main mentors in art. He does this beautiful work that has a lot to do with the idea of the pathetic and the mediocre. Erling Klingenberg, Sirra Sigrún Sigurðardóttir, Ingibjörg Sigurjónsdóttir, and Anna Hrund Másdóttir. They all are fantastic artists and they run the lungs of the Reykjavik art life, which is this artist-run space called Kling & Bang. The scene in Reykjavik is very collaborative. Also connected to Kling & Bang are artists Hildigunnur Birgisdóttir and Kolbeinn Hugi Höskuldsson who both are hilarious mega-talents. Then there is also Ragnar Helgi Ólafson who is a writer and an artist, constantly saying something profound, Björk Guðnadóttir and my frequent collaborator Kría Brekkan with her boyfriend Ryan Erskine. Then Shoplifter is keeping us all safe tangled up in tie-dye. One big happy mess.

Gardens at the Expo Colony / Photos by Micah Schmidt

Do you get to spend a lot of time in Reykjavik? It seems like you are constantly traveling.

Constantly. But, I really like to live in Reykjavik. The good thing about it is it’s such a strong, tight knit scene so everything is kind of easy to do.

So you maintain your studio there?

Yeah, my studio is just in my kitchen in my home in Reykjavik. When you get those emails that say “studio Ragnar Kjartansson” that’s just me in my kitchen.

Tell me more about the project you just did with The National at MoMA PS1. What was that like?

It was fantastic. It was this idea of making music sculptural. I wanted to see a concert, like a regular rock concert, become sculptural. It was an idea for many years in the back of my head. And then I got obsessed by “Sorrow.” All last year I was constantly listening to that song. And then one day I was doing the dishes and then “ah!” I just realized that this song Sorrow” and that idea would be the thing. But then the amazing thing was I just wrote an email to The National and they were just like, “Yep.”

Did you hear about this thing Jay Z did last week at Pace Gallery where he rapped the song “Picasso Baby” for six hours? A lot of people compared it to “A Lot of Sorrow.”

I was so pleased about that. Yeah, Jay Z is ripping me off. You can’t imagine how proud I am.

What was Venice like for you this year?

It was really like a dream come true. The musicians we got are so determined, good, fantastic people, and they are now, as we are talking, playing in Venice.

Wow. They are there for the duration of the show?

I was just with them last week and they were super tired and very tanned. The way they are playing the music now after all this constant repetition is just like breathing or standing up against a wall. Effortless, bored and mundane. The sounds become very interesting.

Are you going to go back and give them a pep talk every so often?

I have to. It’s kind of like an asshole thing to do to ask people to do these kinds of works, so I feel kind of guilty.

And you just did this monument that is part of a series of outdoor interventions in Munich called “A Space Called Public / Hoffentlich Öffentlich,” that read All he wanted to do was to masturbate and eat chocolate.

It was a monument in Munich. Such a nice monument in German. German is a perfect language for it because the monument is a marble memorial, made like The Monument to the Unknown Soldier, with a wreath and then the text says “All he wanted to do was masturbate and eat chocolate truffles.” But in German it’s “Alles was er wollte, war zu onanieren und Pralinen zu essen.” It sounds so much more serious. If it was in English it would be kind of ha ha funny, but in German it seems much more profound.

People aren’t sure if it is serious or a joke?

Its serious because it is a memorial for somebody who didn’t do any harm.

Do you think of it as an anti-monument?

No, I think of it as a monument. I love monuments. Monuments are about feelings. Usually about the same ones; pride, patriotism, loss etc. There are so many feelings left to project in monuments.

The monument reminded me of “The End” in Venice, which seemed to be questioning the persona of the painter and the historical primacy of the male nude. This new monument also seems to be about questioning conventions of art history. I feel like you are turning these conventions on their heads and thinking about them in a humorous way.

For me it’s not deliberate. It’s not me being a deliberate thinker about turning things around. It’s just I’m a sucker for art history and for the lives of artists. Like Alexander Calder, he masturbated over all his sculptures. I just heard that somewhere. And now always when I see a Calder, I’m just like “Wow.” [EDITOR'S NOTE: ARTINFO checked with the Calder Foundation and although they were amused by the commentary, they found no evidence in the veracity of the statement] 

Alexander Calder?

Yeah. It’s so much more fun to look at Calder now.

I did not know that. You’re blowing my mind.

An artist is always trying to tell some truth, but then there are all these little semi-truths in their lives that skew the truth.

You’re interested in the artist’s persona and the narratives that are constructed around artists?

The whole narrative of deciding to do art. These people are like light beacons, but it’s also the ultimate egoism to say, “This matters, what I make.”

And at the same time they are total weirdos who masturbate on their sculptures.

I mean, everybody masturbates. Why not masturbate on a sculpture? It’s not a weirdo thing to do if you think about it. I think very few artists are weirdos actually.

You were a musician before you got into art. Was there a moment when you decided to become an artist? How did you make that decision?

I never really made it. It just happened. Slowly I started mixing the music into the art. Because I always felt like I was faking it when I was doing music. Like, writing a song, posing on stage. I was always pretending to be a musician. I always also have this feeling with being an artist. But it’s sort of easier to accept that you’re pretending to be an artist. A musician needs so much authenticity. 

You’ve gotten so famous. What has that been like for you?

More sex. More cocaine!

You’re planning another theater-based piece soon right?

I’m planning this piece called “Der Klang der Offenbarung des Göttlichen” or “The Explosive Sonics of Divinity” with Kjartan Sveinsson, who did the music for the S.S. Hangover. And also my frequent collaborator Davíð Þór Jónsson.

He did “The End” with you?

He did “The End,” “God,” “The Visitors” and many more. And Davíð is going to be the conductor and Kjartan is composing the music. It’s going to be theater sets and music and no actors or anything. There are going to be four sets, four tableaus. So painting, painting, painting.

How long will it be?

Probably one hour. I kind of like this idea that it is theater solitude. You just sit there in solitude for one hour.

Will that go over and over or is there a schedule?

It’s a schedule. It is on the program. Just a regular one-hour show. It’s in the Volksbühne in Berlin. It’s the most politically charged theater. They do these awesome, crazy political productions. It’s the most hardcore theater. And then there is the tension of creating a work  about beauty in the heart of hardcore in Berlin.  I think it’s going to be a big flop.

What are your favorite places to go in New York?

All of the art places. Always when I come to New York I try to educate myself. Go to the New Museum, MoMA,  PS1, go to galleries. It’s always a lot of work.

A museum marathon?

I try to catch up with the trends in the art world, man.

To see images of Ragnar Kjartansson's project at MoMA PS1, click on the slideshow.

To see Ragnar Kjartansson perform Christian country covers at an after-hours foam party at MoMA PS1's "Expo Colony," click on the video below: