Ragnar Kjartansson is an unlikely art star. Since his emergence onto the cultural scene as a musical and artistic provocateur, he has risen from playful, punky experimentalist to perhaps the single most successful visual artist Iceland has ever produced.
After shows at renowned institutions like the Barbican and New Museum, ‘God, I Feel So Bad’ is his first museum show on his home turf. It draws together witty and playful multidisciplinary works from 2004 to the present day in a wide-ranging look at his prolific output, whether it’s a film of The National playing the song “Sorrow” live for six hours straight, an actor endlessly strumming the chord e-minor in the gallery, or a four-screen, twenty-hour adaptation of Halldór Laxness’s ‘World Light’.
All of these pieces have an enjoyably theatrical sensibility—Ragnar comes from a family of actors and set designers, and each piece feels like it’s delivered with a raised eyebrow, with a punchline around the corner. “I think that the only true art is enjoying art,” Ragnar has stated, and it shows in the sense of boldness and spontaneity that runs throughout his practise. As curator Markús Þór Andrésson says, “Ragnar’s work reveals the degree to which we continually construct our reality, and his playful approach reminds us of the pleasure that we may allow ourselves in that process.”
But along with the light-heartedness, a feeling of deep melancholy seeps through. While Ragnar seems to fully enjoy creating art—and his performative take on the role and identity of “artist”—his charismatic clowning also feels like a strategy for fending off sadness. Looked at through this filter, the paper-thin theatre backdrops become the world as we perceive it, and the players fill their time with a variety of absurd activities before their inevitable exit from the stage.
“I don’t believe in the truth of art,” says Ragnar. “As my mother says, ‘Let’s not destroy a good story with the truth.’” So perhaps we’ll never get to the crux of whether his work is an elaborate prank, an existential cry for help, both, or something else. Nevertheless, his creations remain immersive, effervescent, and a pleasure to behold.
“God, I Feel So Bad” is open from June 3-September 24 at The Reykjavík Art Museum’s Hafnarhúsið location.