Ragnar Kjartansson and Markús Þór Andrésson discuss Icelandic art in 2011
When we last spoke to artist Ragnar Kjartansson in the spring of 2009, he was on his way to represent Iceland at the 53rd edition of The Venice Biennale. A lot has happened for Ragnar since then—he’s staged exhibitions and peformances all over the world, making quite the name for himself and scoring favourable nods and write-ups in fancy art magazines. It’s safe to say he is ‘the rising star of the Icelandic artworld’.
To recap visual art in 2011, we thus thought it a good idea to get Ragnar together with curator Markús Þór Andrésson, who is an old friend and long-time collaborator of Ragnar’s, as well as a a rising star in his own right.
First question: Who is Markús Þór Andrésson?
Ragnar Kjartansson: Markús studied visual arts at the Icelandic Academy of Arts, before moving on to curatorial studies at Bard in the US. When you make art, you collect pieces and create something out of them. As curator, Markús sort of collects emotions that come from artists all over the world and creates shows out of them, making his statements in that manner.
Working with a curator is similar to being a musician and recording with a producer; he brings ideas to the table and shapes the work. Gathering what’s already there and making it presentable, as well as developing ideas. Engaging artists in discourse and finding a course or path for their work. And Markús has been doing this for the past few years. He is a very poetic curator, and a very practical. He and Dorothée [Kirch, director of the Icelandic Art Center] curated my show at the Venice Biennale—I’ve of course worked with Markús in various capacities over the years.
Markús Þór Andrésson: My graduation show from Bard was collaboration with Ragnar…
RK: …and that show lead to me working with a gallery in New York. I think we’ve affected each other’s fate in several ways; at least he’s affected my life greatly.
Then, who is Ragnar Kjartansson?
MÞA: Well, mirror to that, Ragnar and his art are important influences on my work. He is one of the artists that have recently given us a much-needed kick in the rear, a reminder to ponder what’s important in life. He is pointing the way forward. We are retreating from this kind of formal and spatial art, or socio-political art, and inwards, into the field of emotions.
RK: Exactly. Markús curated a show in Canada, ‘Emotional Blackmail’, that was about this exactly. We had many discussions about where art might be headed. It’s turning inwards and becoming more emotional than it’s been for a while.
This seems an odd time to announce ‘the end’ of discursive, critical art. Are you declaring a war on socio-political art?
MÞA: We fortunately inhabit times where everything can thrive along with everything else. We are not at the sort of modernistic peak where people commit murder because they disagree with someone or their art. There is of course space for multitudes. But this is where we seem to be headed; this is what turns us on at the moment. Perhaps we are turning away from art that—to quote Morrissey—“…says nothing to me about my life.” Art has to have something one can connect to as a human, as a person. Space, material and abstract concepts are of course relevant to us, but they are somewhat limiting on a human level. Perhaps as intellectual beings, but not as emotional ones. The critique in these forms is very cold and analytical.
The imperative is now to take our discourse to an area where the emotional spectrum is taken more seriously than it has been as a yardstick on values. This is something you hear about, read about and feel a need for. It’s like the old cliché about emotional arguments in the Kárahnjúkar dam dispute, that feelings are one thing and ‘real issues’ are another and the two are not to be confused. One could argue the world works that way, but it’s also a form you can play around with. Emotional arguments for social or environmental affairs can be just as weighty as ‘concrete’ as ‘political’ ones.
RK: And usually, emotional arguments are buried within, and masked by, the material ones. That’s what politics amount to.
MÞA: Politicians adopt the language of their trade, and its tone disguises the emotional content, even though it’s there. Our good friend Ólafur Elíasson recently opened a show he called ‘Your Emotional Future’. He words this pretty clearly—he is so well spoken—that our emotions entail responsibility and a position, and one can well tend to them in the context of building for the future. Emotion is not something you can set aside while focusing on economic, political and social issues.
At the same time, this isn’t a regression to a time when the artist sought only beauty—once you’ve encountered irony it’s hard to return. Irony ruins your chance to be 100% sincere, it is a shadow that you cannot remove.
RK: I think it’s a good kind of shadow
MÞA: That’s what’s exciting. This new interest in or turn to The Emotional that one senses all around is on ironic terms, it opens these emotional explorations to new premises that are more modern and humane. You don’t have to throw away all your arms, irony is still part of the mix but the doors have been opened for other things.
The terms are changing and there is a weariness of logic and reasoning and cleverness, of the elements of what has been executed so fabulously well in our artworld over the past years. Things are opening up for different approaches and visions, bouncing from what came before as they always do.
In 2011, the biggest events in the Icelandic artworld—certainly the most talked about ones—were probably the notorious ‘Koddu’ exhibit at Nýló and Ólafur Elíasson’s Harpa façade. You’re telling me a new era of sincerity and emotion is upon us; how do these two events reflect that?
MÞA: ‘Koddu’ appears to me as a much-needed contribution to the discourse on how the local artworld behaves. It is an institutional critique par excellence, examining how the artworld and the environment in which it resides shape and reflect one another. It expresses how the curators think art is playing second fiddle to its environment and is being overtly manipulated by it. Art never comes from a void; it is always chafing against its environment and being shaped by it, while the outer world is simultaneously influenced by the art. And at times, the nuance can go too far in either direction.
What I took away from ‘Koddu’ was the message that our art had given in to its environment to too great an extent, that it had started serving it—for instance by promoting Icelandic tourism or nature—rather than serving itself. ‘Koddu’ was a reaction to this perception and I think it was a necessary one, although you could of course debate the execution. What I took from and appreciated about the show was its critical angle.
RK: As an exhibit, it contained all sorts of interesting works. Halli Jón’s ‘forest of friends’ was incredibly poetic and cool piece that addressed this theme without being all ‘look at the Bónus pig!’ about it. There were a lot of good items in there. But then, on the subject of emotion, it was supposed to be a sober and critical show, but it very quickly turned into an emotional circus of sorts. The whole ‘Fallegasta bók í heimi’ [a controversial piece shown at the exhibit, where an artist ‘defiled’ another’s work] conversation in the media quickly swayed into reality TV territory. I liked the piece, it got me thinking about the artists involved in a new way, but the circus surrounding it started taking away from the supposedly intended critical dialogue, turning it into an emotional drama.
The exhibit’s message was that art had become complacent?
MÞA: Those are big words. Like I said, art always plays against the environment in which it is created, and the environment is in turn affected by the art. At some point art starts claiming a white, neutral border around itself, and the next day it turns into a critique of that neutral space. It balances out in the end.
I believe the critical element of ‘Koddu’ was aimed mostly at our political environment, where funding is diverted to the arts with the premise that it should serve to promote Iceland to the outside world; that culture and arts are a means of image-building and tourism advertising. And this is a very strong point; state funding for art oftentimes pressures it onto those territories, forcing an agenda upon it, while it wants to exists on its own terms like it does elsewhere in the world. This tendency, which has been almost dominant, is being criticised, and rightfully so. The exhibit’s catalogue named some interesting examples.
RK: Some of the critique in that catalogue felt a little strange to me, even betraying certain simplistically nationalistic elements, namely its claims that there was something special or about Icelandic artists seeking funds from wealthy people. That this was somehow a uniquely Icelandic thing: ‘humiliated artists feasting lobster with millionaires, begging pittance for their work.’ It might well be a strange existence, but that’s how it is, this is how it works. It is the reality of every visual artist out there, unless they’ve advanced to the level of not needing to any more.
Involving collapse-politics in artistic dialogue seems odd to me. As a young and excited artist you’re of course going to show up at the party and cosy up to the international curator. You want everyone to see your work and hear about it and talk about it. Attempting to promote one’s art through whatever means is not a subservient position, and it doesn’t mean you’re guilty of anything.
BANKERS ROASTING WHOLE PIGS
It seems that whole discourse has died down since the show…
RK: It was a good show, it was a bit J’ACCUSE!, but it got people thinking and shook things up.
I felt the collapse element of the exhibit detracted from it, however. I once remarked to the curators that all those huge collapse photographs—building cranes, partying banksters, etc—overpowered the visual art. A lot of those press photos made for intriguing pop art in themselves, all blown up to a gargantuan size…
MÞA: Which maybe leads us back to the question of: how is visual art as vehicle for concrete social critique? It is a valid question. How effective is it to stage an exhibit of press photos? How effective is an art exhibit? How effective is a seminar? If the agenda is to discuss a particular dilemma? You could place a question mark on the outcome, as it appears in ‘Koddu’—how effective was it in artistic terms?
RK: I honestly think the show would have worked better without those press photos. They’re just so nuts. Kaupthing bankers roasting whole pigs… some of the art was overshadowed by this.
Visual art in itself can often be socially constructive, there’s this Goya element. But art’s nature is also very perverted. Especially working in America, you see work that’s extremely socially critical in nature and the whole idea revolves around selling them to these obscenely rich people. It’s twisted.
MÞA: There’s a similar twist in the fact that while you’re critiquing how visual art is employed to market a nation you’re using the very same methods. Using that art to put forth the curator’s own, very critical position. Some artists were unhappy with how their work was contextualised at that show, used to deliver a message that wasn’t necessarily their own. You weren’t particularly pleased with how your work was presented…
RK: I had a video there that I acquired, of a small fire burning in Harpa while it was being constructed. A beautiful fire that I had no idea what meant, but seemed important or symbolic in some way. Then it was placed next to some moralistic ‘LOOK AT THE HARPA AND THE ALIENATION AND KREPPA AND ÓLAFUR ELÍASSON!!’ piece. It seemed so bourgeoisie and petty. Iceland’s most aggressive artists sitting around going: “Imagine! All that money! For some façade! The horror!”
ICELAND’S LARGEST SCULPTURE!
Which brings us to that other event of 2011…
MÞA: Ólafur’s façade was discussed to such an extent at ‘Koddu’ that I feel we’ve already covered the topic…
RK: Ah, the façade. The largest sculpture in Iceland. I like the idea of having a concert hall, and the façade with its light show turns into a sort of midwinter disco. I love it, it’s really cool. I refuse to view art in terms of money and I refuse to form an opinion on Harpa based on what it cost to build. It’s built. It’s done!
MÞA: When the ‘private sector’ proved unable to deliver on its commitments we were faced with either finishing the building or tearing it down, and each option cost around the same…
I think it’s an interesting building and the façade is very much in Ólafur’s spirit. He’s always diverting attention away from himself and the artwork and back to the spectator. His exhibits have titles like ‘Your colour memory’ and ‘Your black horizon’—everything revolves around the viewer. Walking or driving by Harpa, I feel the building is true to that vision, it is ever changing and dependent on your perspective, but when that screensaver starts up, it falls over itself. You become a passive spectator.
RK: I haven’t really thought about the concept. I just think it looks really cool. You know, when you just go: ‘wow’! It’s nicely opposed to the harsh and melancholic reality of Icelandic winter.
PREACHING TO THE CHOIR
How was your 2011 in general?
MÞA: Wasn’t it quite good? I thought so. A good year.
RK: I concur. I have nothing but good things to say about 2011.
What about 2012?
MÞA: I would enjoy if the artworld here was a little livelier, with more events, outrage and discourse. I think ‘Koddu’ was a step towards that direction, if somewhat clumsy, and I expect more…
Actually, the publication of the Icelandic art history tome [‘Íslensk listasaga’, a five-volume, 50.000 ISK piece that’s meant to cover Icelandic art from the late 19th century up until the 21st] last September might yet stir up some heat. People certainly argued about it in 2011…
RK: No. Wait, yes. What’s inspiring and great about Iceland is how crazy everything is, all the bourgeoisie paranoia and outbursts… and this isn’t going anywhere. Our true nature has been revealed, and this is exciting. We have to continue angrily commenting on news stories and blogs, we have to embrace and celebrate this ever-present tedium instead of letting it get on our nerves.
MÞA: You can certainly applaud the explosive force and all the possibilities it entails.
RK: Indeed! Spending all this time in the U.S. makes me love it even more. It’s so sad to observe, there’s no public discourse, the capitalistic blob dominates everything. Sure, there are some kids occupying Wall Street, but when you’re in New York you just feel powerless. It’s so huge and the power structures are so solidified, capital rules everything.
In contrast, the notion that we have this melting pot here where we are constantly in conflict over our shared values and the way our society is being run becomes insanely positive. It’s real. Iceland is a real democracy, despite all the negativity.
So the thing to do is to play on these outbursts in a creative manner. Snorri Ásmundsson has been doing a lot of that. His contribution to ‘Koddu’ for instance was a great example. It’s great that you can do something aggressive or outrageous and get entire family gatherings into heated arguments about it. The Icelandic public is so close to its art in this way. One can do so much here, it’s much more fun than in the big countries where you can shout and shout and never provoke a reaction… where it’s hard to ever go beyond preaching to the choir.