“I never look forward to seeing a film when I’m in it,” says actress Guðrún Ásmundsdóttir, 79, as she pours coffee and lays out cheese and biscuits on the dining table of her Vesturbær home. “But it will be okay, I’m sure.”
Guðrún is busily preparing for the opening of an exhibition by her son, the celebrated contemporary artist Ragnar Kjartansson, at Reykjavík’s i8 Gallery. The work on show is entitled ‘Me and My Mother’, and features four videos, filmed five years apart, in which Guðrun spits repeatedly in her son’s face. The work is provocative; it seems to troll the viewer for reaction, whilst somehow coming off as simultaneously transgressive, melancholy, and like a humourous art-prank.
It began with a phone call, fifteen years ago. “Ragnar called, and asked me, ‘Would you be in a performance I’m going to do?’” explains Guðrún. “And of course, I said, ‘Yes darling! Anything you want.’ I’d do anything for that boy! So I asked, ‘What will I be doing?’ and he said, ‘Well. You’ll be spitting on me.’ I said right away, ‘Okay! I’m just glad it’s not the other way around!’ It was quite a relief.”
Guðrún never hesitated in agreeing to the performance. “He knew I would agree to whatever nonsense he would start, right from the beginning,” she laughs.
Keep it in the family
Ragnar often includes his family and friends in his work, as seen in the performance ‘Song’ (2011), which featured three of his nieces, and in the ambitious multi-screen film ‘The Visitors’ (2012), in which Ragnar formed an ensemble cast of music-scene friends to perform in a grand US manor house. Over the years, Guðrún has gotten used to being called upon to take part.
“I remember when he was finishing art school,” she recalls, “he had a performance—an opera. He made the scenery. And there he was, in costume, with curly white hair. He was there singing, for a whole week, from one o’clock to six o’clock each day. Singing, and eating. So I was there warming up the meals he’d be eating, and on the fifth day, he came out and said, ‘Mother, I’m so glad! I haven’t lost my voice, or been taken to the mental hospital! I think this is going fine!’” She laughs, but then furrows her brow, and continues: “He often pushes himself too far, in his mother’s opinion. But you know how it is—you love your mother, but you won’t take her advice.”
Guðrún is a big personality, bustling around the house as she recounts anecdotes, takes calls, and points out paintings and photographs by her artist friends. She admits, whilst showing me an early Ragnar painting, which happens to feature a movable newborn baby that pops up from between its mother’s legs: “I never expected this spitting piece to become so famous! It seems to be appreciated all over the world.”
A tale of two cities
Ragnar seems to take pleasure in sharing his work, his travels and his triumphs with his family, and especially Guðrún. When travelling to be with him at the Venice Biennale proved a little pricey for Guðrún, Ragnar asked if she could be flown in to serve Icelandic fish soup at his opening. When he had a big opening in New York City, he called on another prominent family member to help make it possible.
“When Ragnar was in New York City,” recalls Guðrún, “he was doing a work based on ‘The Marriage of Figaro’, repeating it again and again, the way he does. Björk is a relative of ours—I’m her grandmother’s sister—and she invited us to stay at her flat in New York.”
Guðrún didn’t have the energy to stay out for the inevitable wrap party. “I went to bed early,” she smiles, “as I usually do. But sure enough, he came to see me at seven or eight o’clock in the morning, still slightly drunk, and said, ‘Mother, we got the most wonderful review in the New York Times!’ And he sat on the end of the bed and read it out to me. So that’s my memory of New York. He always finds ways for me to be there.”
Laughter in the dark
As ‘Me And My Mother’ has become more visible—and infamous—Guðrún has found herself with some explaining to do. “I have many old friends, some of whom I’ve known for fifty years or more,” she says. “One of them, Joanna, said to me, ‘Did you know, you can see work by Ragnar online, with you spitting on him! What nonsense is this?’ She’d been telling people what good friends Ragnar and I are, you see. And I said, ‘Joanna, I really don’t know why this work is like that…’ It’s been quite a lot of work trying to convince some of my friends about it!”
Despite her reluctance to speculate on what the piece means (one of the first things she says after opening the door is a pre-emptive “Please don’t ask me what it means! I don’t know!”), the tragi-comedy of the piece is not lost on Guðrún. “I’ve always agreed that comedy should be painted onto a black surface,” she explains. “In my experience in the theatre, if you can make people laugh, they open up their hearts… then, they trust you, and you can really talk about serious things.”
Nevertheless, making the work was understandably challenging for the proud and doting mother. “It’s not easy to spit on someone who’s done nothing but make you happy in life,” she says, “which he has. All my children have. He’s the youngest, with this delightful sense of humour… but, knowing Ragnar, I know there’s deep sorrow in him, too. Deep sorrow, behind a smiling face. But a son doesn’t come home and tell you about all his sorrow! It goes into the work, instead.”
Guðrún isn’t sure if there’ll be another addition to the work in five years’ time, saying: “I’m not sure if there’ll be any more spitting! I’ll be eighty-four in five years—I think I might not be up to spitting so much!” But something tells me that if Ragnar comes calling, Guðrún will be ready to step up to the plate once again.
‘Me and My Mother’ runs from June 11 to August 22 at the i8 Gallery, read the full listing here.