The dynamic duo, Ragnar Kjartansson and Kjartan Sveinsson, bring ‘Der Klang der Offenbarung des Göttlichen’ to Reykjavík
Earlier this year, artist Ragnar Kjartansson and composer Kjartan Sveinsson put on a particularly subversive production at Berlin’s Volksbühne theatre. At one of the most avant-garde theatres in Europe, they staged a grandiose 60-minute performance involving giant Romantic-style tableaus along with music for a 40-piece orchestra and 16-piece choir. With no actors or storyline to speak of, its only aim was to be beautiful.
As they are now preparing to show this piece—‘Der Klang der Offenbarung des Göttlichen,’ or “The Explosive Sonics of Divinity”—at Reykjavík’s Borgarleikhúsið, a theatre that could not be more different from the Volksbühne, we were curious to learn more. “Maybe it is more obvious in Berlin, but I know the piece is going to work,” Ragnar assures me over coffee as we await Kjartan’s arrival. “Doing something beautiful in the Volksbühne is different from doing something like that in Iceland, where it won’t be so banal, but our modern time also has this element of deconstruction, so someone in Reykjavík could look at it in that context, or simply enjoy it as a beautiful evening.”
Although Kjartan has a slightly different take, it soon becomes apparent through our conversation that they are on the same page about most things. “We’ve known each other for a long time and we’ve always had these artistic conversations,” Ragnar says, explaining how he came to work with the former member of Sigur Rós. “We’ve been working in different corners all these years, but we’ve always discussed what we were doing, and I’ve been very inspired by Kjartan and his band’s music.”
What follows is a condensed version of our meandering conversation, in which Ragnar blames Kjartan and his music for the Progressive Party’s triumph in the latest parliamentary elections, and Kjartan suggests that Ragnar’s prolific career as an artist may have started with his wayside dreams of being a rock star.
IN AND OUT OF CONTEXT
Kjartan, we were just talking about whether this performance will lose any of its meaning when it is shown in Reykjavík because it was made for the Volksbühne theatre, where it was subversive given the space, and especially so given Germany’s history.
Kjartan: Oh, of course.
Okay, so you kind of disagree with Ragnar…
Ragnar: [Laughs] I always go, ‘No, no, it’s gonna be cool.’ [Laughs some more].
K: Of course, it will be very different. This theatre in Berlin is the most avant-garde theatre in Europe and Borgarleikhúsið showed Mary Poppins last year.
R: Yeah, it’s actually pretty similar to Mary Poppins.
Except you don’t have any actors or a story [or tap dancing penguins].
R: And it’s just sad. It’s very much about this melancholic feeling of searching for beauty.
SUBSCRIBING TO THE LAXNESSIAN WORLDVIEW
Right, tell me more about how this piece is inspired by the Halldór Laxness novel ‘World Light.’
R: The title is a translation of “kraftbirtíngarhljómur guðdómsins” or “the explosive sonics of divinity.” It’s a sentence in ‘World Light.’ And the cool thing is, this description of artistic epiphany, which is “kraftbirtíngarhljómur guðdómsins,” it doesn’t come from Halldór Laxness. It comes from this guy Magnús Magnússon.
K: Laxness based his character on this guy.
R: He was a poet and he kept a diary for many years, which was the inspiration for Halldór’s ‘World Light.’ He was this poet obsessed by the idea of beauty, had a hard knock life, but kind of always created this mediocre poetry. But he actually wrote this down, this sentence “kraftbirtíngarhljómur guðdómsins,’ ‘in nature I felt the explosive sounds of divinity.’ So it’s an idea that travels from him to Laxness…
You’ve said that this book has inspired a lot of your work.
R: Yeah, kind of like my whole approach to art. The book is very sincere and powerful, but it’s also very ironic. Growing up with this book and Laxness, you come to adopt a certain worldview.
How do you describe this worldview?
R: [Turns to Kjartan] How would you describe the Laxnessian worldview or approach?
K: Well, for me, the book is about this inner debate about being an artist or a good citizen.
R: Should you be politically active and be of some use…
K: …and fight for justice.
R: Or should you just watch how the light reflects on the wall…
K: …and praise beauty.
R: And you’re always stuck there between.
R: These two banal things are somehow the plus and minus that keep the battery going.
What do you think: should the artist try to change the world?
R: I think the artist always does, in mystic ways. It’s a mystery how art changes the world.
K: It kind of depends on what is going on in the world politically and artistically. My opinion was always, ‘don’t say anything, just create—that’s what’s going to change the world.’ Today, I don’t know. Maybe it’s time people speak up. Sometimes people need to say something, sometimes things are said without saying anything. Sometimes things are more controversial at their time and sometimes they don’t appear to be so until later.
THINKING INSIDE THE BOX
What’s it like working with Ragnar? Is it different from being in a band?
K: Yes, it’s very different. It’s fun. That’s the main thing. It’s fun and it’s inspiring— the stuff he does is very inspiring to me.
Kjartan, what was it like, working on this piece? You weren’t really composing music ‘to’ anything, but did you use Ragnar’s sets as inspiration?
K: That was a bit of inspiration, of course. I looked at them, but they weren’t really a starting point. Later on, I kind of decided which music fit which part, and Ragnar decided to have four sets, which meant that I was going to do four pieces.
R: And then I was actually listening to some of Kjartan’s music when I was creating the sets.
One didn’t come before the other?
R and K: No. No, not really.
K: There wasn’t really any intense collaboration, either. Ragnar was doing his stuff and I was doing my stuff.
R: You know, it’s such a joy to be able to collaborate with trust. Then you don’t have to do meetings and stuff. I do my stuff. He does his stuff. And then occasionally, we have a good time to celebrate that we’ve finished some part of the stuff.
Speaking of which, the theme of this year’s festival is “Not Finished.” Does your piece fit into that?
R: No, it is so finished.
K: Oh yeah, it is very finished.
[Lots of laughs].
K: Is that the theme of the art festival?
So you’re just defying the theme, then.
R: Yeah, we are like the exception that proves the rule. In our modern times, things are always half finished and open to interpretation, so we decided, ‘this is going to be a heavy piece, with heavy sets and we’re going to hire a really heavy, grand orchestra.’
K: It is very inside the box. We were totally thinking inside the box.
JUST A BREATHER
Ragnar, when we interviewed you in 2009, you claimed that the visual arts were the coolest art form because you’re your own boss and get to do what you like. “It’s also the most ‘anything goes’ art form,” you said, comparing it to music, which has to makes a certain amount of sense. Do you still agree with that today?
R: I don’t know. What do you think about this, Kjartan?
Yeah, do you agree with this? Do you think your job is more difficult?
K: Well, he always seems happy and open, and I’m always miserable because I’m a musician and he’s a visual artist.
R: Yeah, that’s totally the difference. [laughs].
K: I don’t know…
R: Visual artists are very lucky to have Marcel Duchamp as our hero. When he was asked what he did, he just said, “je suis un respirateur.” Just, “I am a breather.” He kind of gave us this freedom. To be an artist is just to be a professional human being. And I really like that—the respirateur part.
K: And music is probably a little bit different in that sense. It’s more difficult, you kind of have to make some sense of things, right? To a point.
R: Well, John Cage was kind of a disciple of Duchamp.
K: But I’ve always thought of John Cage as more a philosopher than a musician. He did some really beautiful pieces as well, but mostly he was just experimenting with philosophical ideas. That’s not really what inspires me in music. It’s not the philosophy behind it—it’s the emotional effect that it has on me.
R: Yeah, I kind of agree that his work is interesting, but it doesn’t have an emotional effect on me.
ROCK STARS GO TO ART SCHOOL
Ragnar, your parents worked in the theatre, you acted as a child and a teenager and theatre continues to play a role in your art. Did you ever consider just going into theatre full-time?
K: Of course he wanted to be a rock star.
R: Yeah, I mainly just wanted to be a rock star. That’s a good point. I remember thinking, ‘the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, and the Beatles—they all went to art school. That’s where I should go.’ [Laughs.] If you’re an American musician, you kind of come from the soil, but if you’re European, you go to art school, that’s pretty common.
In our last issue we featured an interview with Börkur [of i8 Gallery, which represents Ragnar] and he was pretty adamant about rejecting the idea that there is anything Icelandic about Icelandic art. What do you guys think?
K: Oh yeah, we’re all very preoccupied with that now, dismissing the fact that there is anything Icelandic about Icelandic art. That’s kind of what’s cool today.
R: Yeah, yeah. It’s also because of Framsóknarflokkurinn [The Progressive Party] that everybody just denies being Icelandic now. [Laughs.]
K: Yeah, you are very weary of talking about being proud to be Icelandic. It’s kind of not allowed anymore.
R: Then you are kind of marching with the nationalists or Framsóknarflokkurinn.
K: You see it in these Icelandic commercials for Geysir [a clothing store in downtown Reykjavík that carries upscale fashion and outdoorsy stuff], it all kind of looks like ‘Heima’ from Sigur Rós in 2005.
R: Yeah, you guys are kind of secretly responsible for the victory of Framsóknarflokkurinn.
K: Yeah, I apologise for that. [Laughs.]
R: It’s always like this. Something that was created in resistance to the materialism of the pre-crash years has now become this dreadful nationalistic thing.
K: What was happening before with ‘the krútt generation’ [he says in a flat American accent], that was more of a reaction to what was going on at the time. Everything was about materialism and greed. That’s when you get films like ‘Heima’ with Sigur Rós and all the cutesy…
…That’s still going on today though, this krútt stuff.
R: Now we just have greed in a lopapeysa. Of course it’s changed because krútt has become…
A PIECE FOR SIGMUNDUR DAVÍÐ
R: Yeah, and Sigmundur Davíð [Gunnlaugsson, PM] and Bjarni Ben[ediktsson, Minister of Finance and Economic Affairs] started their term by being krútts in Laugarvatn, baking pancakes at a cabin. They were like múm making a record. [Laughs.] I was like, ‘Nooooooo.’ So now the krútts, we’re all eating international food, hiding our lopapeysas and you know [laughs…], artists always tend to…
K: …to rebel against what’s going on.
R: The problem with this piece is that it’s created in dialogue with the Volksbühne theatre. But when we take it to Iceland, it’s like a play that Sigmundur Davíð is going to be really happy with: “It was beautiful landscapes and beautiful music” [he says in a Sigmundur-like voice and laughs].
K: Yeah, it was fun to do it in Berlin, where the goal has been to kill beauty, to destroy it, to not ever talk about it again.
R: This piece was kind of like ‘verboten.’ If you were doing this in the 19th century, it would just be like, ‘oh beautiful,’ but there are all these twists and turns after the 20th century. It’s so much fun to work with something like beauty today.
There’s also this nihilistic statement in the piece. You sit in the theatre and there’s just snow and there’s this glacier and the choir is singing ‘beauty shall reign alone’ [another line from ‘World Light’]. You know, ‘what the fuck does that mean?’ There are no humans; it’s humans pretending to be in a world without humans, just landscapes and the euphoric.
When there is only beauty, isn’t that just like when humanity has been wiped out? [Laughs]. That’s why this piece is dark in many ways. It’s full of this same hopelessness that we were working with when we did the ‘S.S. Hangover’ in Venice last year. I think all this hopelessness is a certain reaction to the hopelessness of our times now.
Do you think the times are hopeless?
R: Yeah, I had so much hope, but after Framsókn won I have no hope. [Laughs.]
K: Now you see we’re being political. I’ve never done that before.
R: You’ve never done that before?
K: Yeah, I’ve always been quiet about it.
He sucked you in…So is there anything else that you want to tell me about the piece?
K: Nobody is going to want to see this now. Everybody is going to think it’s so boring. [Laughs.]
R: Well, Borgarleikhúsið was actually our studio for this piece. All of the sets were painted there. I had to make these giant paintings. It’s about 2,000 square metres of painting. Every painting is like an apartment.
When I decided to do this, I kind of dreaded that I’d have to be in Berlin for three months painting—I’m a big homebody—so I talked to Borgarleikhúsið and they thought it would be a good idea to collaborate with Volksbühne, so they provided us with space last summer to paint. We were there three months, all day, all night, and we could take the sets up to the main stage and test them, so in a way the piece is coming home.
That’s a nice twist to the story.
Ragnar Kjartansson is an artist perhaps most well known for his performance pieces. Kjartan Sveinsson is a composer and multi-instrumentalist who recently left the band Sigur Rós. They have now collaborated on four projects, with Ragnar most recently asking Kjartan to compose music for a piece called “Take Me Here by the Dishwasher: Memorial for a Marriage.” The line, “Take me here by the dishwasher,” was uttered in ‘Morðsaga,’ a semi-erotic Icelandic film from the ‘70s starring Ragnar’s parents. (As family legend has it, he was conceived the night after his parents acted in that steamy scene.)
See also: There Are Stars… Exploding