From Iceland — Clichés From Civilization: Ragnar Kjartansson On Epic Screensavers, Theatre & Nobility

Clichés From Civilization: Ragnar Kjartansson On Epic Screensavers, Theatre & Nobility

Published January 31, 2019

Clichés From Civilization: Ragnar Kjartansson On Epic Screensavers, Theatre & Nobility
Photo by
Art Bicnick

For nearly two decades Ragnar Kjartansson has worked within various realms of art. His most recent piece—‘Figures in Landscape’—is a video installation and a sort of clock that presents an alternate perception of time. It’s his most high-tech endeavour to date, but during the challenging process of putting it together, Ragnar never lost his sense of irony and made showing up for work fun.

A natural condition

Throughout his career, Ragnar has made us question what being an artist really means—leaving some unsure how to interpret his expression. “I sincerely believe in the concept of duality,” he states. “I think beauty and irony can exist simultaneously. It’s a combination I enjoy.”

“Sincere and serious conversations always have a dash of irony.”

Ragnar considers Halldór Kiljan Laxness—Iceland’s most-beloved writer and poet—as an inspiration, and a supreme example of this sort of duality. “He wrote the most beautiful sentences the Icelandic language has seen,” the artist explains. “Yet, I envision him grinning as he wrote them. He was a modernist, way ahead of his time, playing around with romanticism.”

In Ragnar’s opinion, irony is a natural condition that makes life enjoyable. “Sincere and serious conversations always have a dash of irony,” he says. “Even when its something close to your heart, irony lurks.”

The title of Ragnar’s most recent exhibition could be considered ironic in its straight-forwardness. “It references art history directly and has a rhythm similar to classical Greek poetry,” he explains. “In Icelandic [‘Fígúrur í landslagi’] it sounds like something Jóhannes Kjarval [one of Iceland’s most important painters] could have uttered.”

Figures in landscape

‘Figures in Landscape’ is the artist’s fourth solo show with i8 Gallery, and features seven 24-hour scenes playing simultaneously on as many screens. “I wanted to work with the concept of time and the nature of painting,” he states. “Each scene resembles a painting where nothing really happens. Long moments that turn into days.”

A projection in the window of the gallery will also give pedestrians and the gallery’s neighbours a chance to experience the piece. “There is a certain presence in the streets which I find interesting,” Ragnar says. “This way I can offer two different viewing experiences of the piece. Each scene represents a day in the week, so viewing it actually takes a whole week.”

A nihilistic twist

The scenes depict people wearing white lab coats, walking around in epic landscapes. It was initially going to be situated within the mundane reality of hospital life. “The Danish Building and Property Agency for the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, University of Copenhagen commissioned me to create a signature artwork for their Maersk Tower,” the artist explains. “I immediately had a vision of a video-piece being shown in narrow corridors where staff is making the rounds. At first they’ll notice the mundane existence of the people in the white lab coats and then the epic Gone With The Wind-style backdrops they live in.”

“When a person puts on a white lab coat it instantly represents the nobility of man.”

Ragnar was inspired by the idea of medical science and human progress, and the visual propaganda that has glamourized it throughout art history. “I am referencing preachy artworks like the Soviet bas reliefs and Diego Rivera’s Ford Motor Company murals,” he says. “The figures in the white lab coats represent logic, science and human progress that roam a man-made landscape. When a person puts on a white lab coat it instantly represents the nobility of man. It’s science and prosperity with a modern nihilistic twist.”

Real-life screensavers

‘Figures in Landscape’ was inspired by the screensavers people are subjected to every day. “I find it interesting that in our everyday life we still manage to be surrounded by epic landscape on our computer desktops and TV screens,” the artist explains. “The scenes in my new piece are clichés of the world and resemble screensavers. There is some movement, but to a completely disjointed extent. It’s life floating by, and a screensaver for the whole building.”

Ragnar’s video installations have become more elaborate with each passing year. “This is my most technically complex piece to date,” he admits. “The technology exists to make it happen, but doing it is quite unprecedented. It’s been a tricky process. I find it a bit funny that this piece looks effortless, graceful and lo-fi at first glance but is actually quite high-tech. It reminds me of how a ballerina has to appear graceful, but goes through pure hell to be that way.”

A lifelong obsession

As a child, Ragnar got to know the theatre world through his parents, who were both actors. “I was always fascinated by those old hand-painted theatre backdrops,” he explains. “I got the chance to catch the final wave of theatre productions with romantic and naturalistic set designs.”

“I was always fascinated by old hand-painted theatre backdrops.”

“I remember hearing people criticise this classic way of set-design,” he continues. “People found it too fake and began using conceptual and more minimal set-design instead.” Young Ragnar then thought to himself: “This is in no way less fake than the old backdrops.”

One day he went with his mother—who was working on a play about Reykjavík’s theatre history at the time—to the attic of the National Theatre. “I will never forget seeing these old, rolled up backdrops on the floor and unrolling them,” he recalls.

The backdrops were made around a century earlier by Sigurður Guðmundsson, an early pioneer of Iceland’s theatre and arts heritage. “Seeing them gave me a life-long obsession,” Ragnar admits. “It was like unravelling a great mystery. They were the coolest things I had ever seen.”

Future influence

An aesthetic influence from the world of theatre can be found in numerous works by Ragnar, as early as his art-school graduation piece ‘The Opera’ (2001) and now in ‘Figures in Landscape.’ 

“In the summer of 2018, we constructed and painted these immense film-sets for each scene at the Reykjavík City Theatre,” he explains. “I have a terrific team of set designers I’ve gotten familiar working with from my most recent works.”

Ragnar managed to create a unique Icelandic workplace while filming the scenes. “I felt it was significant to have the figures represent civilization itself,” he says. “So we hired a lot of people from all corners of the world to create a proper workplace environment. I felt inclined to take it all the way. It was a grand scale production of people walking around the painted backdrops for days. Showing up for work was so much fun!”

See ‘Figures in Landscape’, which is ongoing 24/7, at i8 gallery from January 31st to March 16th.

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