Ragnar Kjartansson, Barbican Art Gallery July – September 2016

The focus of this piece was originally intended as a review of Mary Heilmann’s’ retrospective ‘Looking at Pictures’ at London’s Whitechapel Gallery. It had summer blockbuster written all over it; light, bright abstract canvases referencing Californian surf and pop sensibilities revered across the board by art press and all of the painters I know who have made the trip. I was won over by its very premise.

But we all know what they say about best laid plans. A visit to Kjartansson’s mid career retrospective later the same day managed to squash and stem the squeals of delight elicited by Heilmann’s bold canvases, and rather surprisingly, her particularly effective ceramics subtly displayed in the lower gallery. A note on this:  whilst not distracting from the strength of the works on view at Barbican, this may well have something to do with the fact that my fellow gallery goer and I had too much to catch up and ended up rather abruptly scooting around the works faster than they deserved.  So if you are in any doubt, ‘Looking at Pictures’ is definitely worthy of your time.

Kjartansson’s mid career retrospective had been on my radar. The effusive reviews have been hard to miss, having been splashed across most of the printed material I’ve picked up since its opening last month. Nevertheless, it is to all intents and purposes, a show I envisaged may have been a hard sell to many. After all, Icelandic performance art could somewhat stretch the open mindedness of those usually happy to take a cultural punt. It took an out of the blue message from a friend claiming the absolute importance of seeing Kjartansson’s UK outing and wholeheartedly implicating me in making this a reality that clinched the deal. Thank goodness for that.  It’s the most subtly thought-provoking and life- affirming collection of works I’ve seen this year, possibly longer.

Kjartansson certainly knows how to command your attention, his projects for two editions of the Venice Biennale being notable examples.  For many people, his white-sailed boat disappearing across the remotest harbour of the Venice Arsenale in 2013, carrying a crew of musicians performing an exquisite lament from dawn to dusk, has proved unforgettable. For his 2009 work, The End  Kjartansson assumed responsibility for round the clock drinking, smoking and painting hundreds of portraits of a fellow Icelandic performer. This homage to the clichés of the romanticised artist, finds form in the first work encountered in this retrospective.

On entering the galleries, Take Me Here by the Dishwasher: Memorial for a Marriage (2011) presents ten troubadours lounging around on the kind of furniture and in the kind of set up that elicits student living or a bohemian existence. It is clear from the no nonsense approach to the scene, that the artists is riffing on the cult of the artist and reflects his broader appropriation of guises and positioning of the ‘performer’ which reoccurs in several works. Beer bottles strewn across the floor as the musicians relax on well-worn mattresses and chairs languidly perform sections of a composition referencing lust, desire and melancholy for eight hours at a time. Individually, the chord sequences and lyrics are simplistic. But like much of the artist’s work, such simplicity belies a complexity and fuller experience.  This can be attributed to the transformation of the dialogue by Kjartan Sveinsson, ex-member of Icelandic rock band Sigur Rós, into a magnificent, ten-part polyphonic score. The structure, layout and timing of the performance creates a rich, layered harmony which weaves seductively thorough the gallery space. The scene perfectly encapsulates the generosity, honesty, humour and sense of community the artists work exudes.

Behind the performers a looped video shows a kitchen sex scene featuring Kjartansson’s parents, who originally met on the set of Murder Story, a film shot in 1975. Projected large onto the wall of the gallery, the artist’s mother Guôrún Ásmundsdóttir, a highly respected actress in Iceland, dreams of an erotic encounter with the plumber, played by her future husband. The fake romance simmers away on screen as the bored housewife rips off the tradesman’s shirt while urgently whispering, “Take me here by the dishwasher.”  Much has been written of his upbringing and the performance dynasty he was born into and it is of little surprise that Kjartansson’s work seems to inhabit a liminal space where the real and the fictional merge surreptitiously.

A familiar trope within performance practice, repetition is a familiar theme within the works art, as is music. In the video God, (2007) he assumes the persona of a forties crooner complete with slicked-back hair and a knowing grin. Red satin curtains line the room and reference  matching those which frame the stage. The orchestra plays out a schmaltzy ballad as the artist sings ‘Sorrow Conquers Happiness’. More affecting is ‘A Lot of Sorrow’ (2013) featuring rock band The National performing their song ‘Sorrow’ for an audience at MoMa PS1 in New York continuously for six hours. Lyrics such as “Sorrow found me when I was young/ Sorrow waited, sorrow won”, intensify as the song loops and the strain is visible on musicians faces as they persevere through this test of endurance and attempt to maintain the authenticity of their performance.

Far and away the exhibition’s highlight is The Visitors (2012), an immersive, nine-screen video installation about the divorce from his first wife. The piece was shot at the rather illustrious and picturesque Rokeby Farm in Upstate New York.  Each screen focuses on a musician performing in separate room of the house: a banjo player in the library, a pianist in the drawing room and Kjartansson on guitar in the bath. Isolated from one another and filmed separately yet concurrently in one take playing their individual parts, they play in unison for an hour.

The artists respect and admiration for each of the Reykjavik-based musicians he has enlisted is apparent through large-scale projection, creating portraits of each performer. In addition to their respective distinct visual space in the gallery, as the composition builds, your attention is commanded by each one in turn. The guitarist is particularly mesmerising as he protectively lurches over his instrument and listens intently to his headphones. In his tableau, Kjartansson returns to the refrain: “Once again I fall into my feminine ways”, lyrics provided his former wife Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir, after the couple had broken up. Viewed in isolation this scene is tinged with melancholy. But it is laced with the right level of absurdity to avoid being overly dramatic and is just one fragment of the remarkable ensemble.

The strength of the work lies in his phenomenal understanding of pacing. The repeated loops of music gently rise and fall until the composition majestically builds, uniting the musicians into a glorious and uplifting piece of music. The film closes with the performers triumphantly walking away into the surrounding countryside, singing their song with carefree abandon and vigour. They depart as long-lost friends I look forward to reuniting with.

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