July 25, 2016

Ragnar Kjartansson @ Barbican Centre, London

Ragnar Kjartansson
Barbican Centre, London

Through 4 September 2016

Opening 14 July 2016 at Barbican Art Gallery, this is the first ever UK survey of the work of the internationally acclaimed Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson, charting his wide-ranging practice across film and performance, and his less well known work as a painter and draughtsman. Born into a family active in Iceland’s theatre scene, Kjartansson draws from a varied history of stage traditions, film, music and literature from Icelandic storytelling to opera music to contemporary pop culture. His performances, video installations, drawings and paintings explore the boundary between fact and fiction, as well as constructs of myth and identity. Donning various guises from a foot soldier, to a Hollywood crooner, to the incarnation of death, Kjartansson both celebrates and derides the romanticised figure of the artist as cultural hero.

Ragnar Kjartansson said: “I am extremely pleased to have my works in the legendary Barbican. The interdisciplinary buffet that the Barbican is fits my unfocused practice. Seriously I love the building the utopian feel and the programme that has kept me coming and coming as a tourist since my parents took me there in the 80´s.”

Jane Alison, Head of Visual Arts said “It is a pleasure to welcome and present Ragnar’s work at the Barbican, an artist who, incredibly, has never had a sizeable show in London or a survey on this scale this side of the Atlantic. After two highly memorable presentations at the Venice Biennale, and a host of new commissions across Europe and the United States, Ragnar is an artist at the forefront of contemporary art and I’m thrilled this show will bring his eclectic practice to a wider audience.’

Music, repetition and endurance are key ingredients in Ragnar Kjartansson’s video and performance works and the exhibition centres around two major works combining these elements. Shown to much acclaim at the New Museum in New York, Ragnar Kjartansson’s autobiographical performance, Take me here by the Dishwasher: Memorial for a Marriage (2014) is presented. Full of romance and humour, 10 male troubadours are spread throughout the lower gallery, singing and strumming their guitars against a projected soft focus love scene acted by Kjartansson’s parents. The actors met on set and family legend has it that Kjartansson was conceived at the time the film was shot in 1975 . In homage to the interweaving of the real and the fictional, Kjartansson invited Kjartan Sveinsson, former member of the Icelandic rock band Sigur Rós to transform the dialogue into a polyphonic score.

Ragnar Kjartansson’s celebrated video installation, The Visitors (2012) is also on show in the lower gallery, comprising of a series of nine life-size video tableaux of a musical performance staged at historic Rokeby Farm in Upstate New York where Ragnar Kjartansson has been a frequent visitor since 2007. Shot in one take, each musician was recorded in a separate room of the home or on the grounds of Rokeby, singing the same refrain ‘once again I fall into my feminine ways’ for just over an hour. The s ynchronisation of the screens in the exhibition space merges the individual interpretations into a cinematic and harmonic composition.

One of the earliest works on show, Me and My Mother , is an ongoing video collaboration with his mother dating from 2000, and features four video screens, filmed over five years apart where she repeatedly spits in his face over several minutes with intensity and vigour at once provocative, humorous and absurd. As well as exploring family relationships and the passage of time, the series also engages us with Kjartansson’s interest in the conflation of reality and fantasy as mother and son slip into their professional roles.

For the first time in the UK, Kjartansson’s series of 144 paintings, The End (2009), made over a 6-month period during the Venice Biennale, are on display. As his native country was in the midst of an unprecedented economic meltdown, Ragnar Kjartansson inhabited the role of a bohemian artist, painting the portrait of the same young model, day after day, drinking and smoking against the backdrop of the Grand Canal. While the project served to document the artist’s own experience, his obsessive repetition of the same subject and maniacal accumulation of paintings hinted at the nihilism of art in the face of the real world. Drawing and painting are an essential part of Kjartansson’s practice and the exhibition also includes a selection of his intimate Moleskin sketchbooks and watercolour paintings for his durational performances.

To coincide with the exhibition, Kjartansson has conceived a new work of a mirrored scene of movement and symmetry entitled Second Movement (2016) for the Barbican Lakeside every Saturday and Sunday. In a theatrical reality, two women in quintessential Edwardian costume row their boat on the Barbican Lakeside embracing in a never-ending kiss. With gentleness and tension and the feeling of Mozart’s famous composition Second Movement of Piano Concerto 21 echoing from the title, the performance is in stark contrast to the Brutalist surrounds of the centre.

Ragnar Kjartansson was born in Reykjavík, Iceland in 1976, where he lives and works. His recent solo exhibitions and performances include, Krieg (War), Volksbühne, Berlin (2016); Ragnar Kjartansson: Woman in E , Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (2016); Seul celui qui connaît le désir, Palais de Tokyo, Paris (2015—16); Me, My Mother, My Father and I, New Museum, New York (2014); The Palace of the Summerland, Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, Vienna (2014); The Explosive Sonics of Divinity, Volksbühne, Berlin (2014); The Visitors, Luhring Augustine Gallery, New York; Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Zurich (2012 — 13); Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, Vienna (2013) and HangarBicocca , Milan (2013—14); It’s Not the End of the World, Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin (2012—13); Song, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami and Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (2011— 2012). Kjartansson performed A Lot of Sorrow, with The National at MoMA P.S.1, New York (2013). Kjartansson was the recipient of Performa’s 2011 Malcolm McLaren Award for his performance of Bliss , a twelve-hour live loop of the final aria of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and in 2009 he was the youngest artist to represent Iceland at the Venice Biennale.

Barbican Art Gallery, London