From Iceland — The Awesome Absurdity of Being

The Awesome Absurdity of Being

Published May 25, 2009

The Awesome Absurdity of Being


“Reykjavík, Iceland, March 13, 2009: The official Icelandic representation at the 53rd International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia will feature RAGNAR KJARTANSSON, a self-described incurable romantic, whose multifaceted artistic practice is rooted in a tradition of acting and performance with an existential and absurdist sensibility that can be linked to artists ranging from Caspar David Friedrich to Gilbert and George. Kjartansson’s exhibition for Venice, entitled The End, will feature a tableau vivant of the artist and his model that will last for the entire six-months of the Biennale, along with a monumental video and music installation. It will be presented in the Palazzo Michiel dal Brusà, a 14th-century palazzo on the Grand Canal near the Rialto, which has served as the Icelandic Pavilion since 2007.”


“Ragnar Kjartansson (b. 1976, Reykjavík, Iceland) conjures up emotions in his work that he can pass on to his viewers, with a keen eye for the tragicomic spectacle of human experience where sorrow collides with happiness, horror with beauty, and drama with humor. In his versatile artistic career, he has focused on video, painting, and drawing, with performance at the heart of his practice. Both of Kjartansson’s parents are actors, and acting, repetition, and identity are ever-recurring themes in his work. He has taken on countless roles in his performances, combining his own personality with personas from cultural history. His work incorporates a mélange of show business icons and nostalgic imagery from bygone eras of theater, television, music, and art, allowing him to blur the border between life and art, reality and fiction, and to create bold statements that strike chords with his audiences. In addition to his work in the visual arts, Kjartansson has had a career in music, releasing several albums with his bands and performing throughout the world.”

Yeah. It sure sounds like the guy. Performing throughout the world, releasing several albums with his bands, striking a chord with his audiences. That’s our man right there: Ragnar Kjartansson, sometimes known as Rassi Prump [“Assy Fartson”]. Great guy. We’ve been following his performances about town a lot, but they must have been too fun for us to figure out they were supposed to blur the line between life and art….  And what’s that whole “mélange of show business icons” bit about? What’s a mélange anyway?

So we googled mélange (“a mixture, a medley”). And we called up Ragnar to ask what all this mélange, existentialist, Caspar David Friedrich, La Biennale di Venezia bit is all about.

Little did we know.

So you’re an artist, eh?
Well, yeah. I like to think of myself as such. And it’s my job, so yeah. I’m an artist.

How’d that happen?
I’ve always been involved with the arts in some form. You could say I started out on the stage; as a child, I acted in some 200 showings of Lands míns föður [a popular local play – as noted in the above bio, Ragnar is the son of respected actor/director Kjartan Ragnarsson]. When I was a teenager, I participated a lot in the theatre, and started an “art collective” of sorts – Mambo Publishing House – with my friends from Hagaskóli [a West Reykjavík junior high]. The collective, we hung out in my garage and played “artist” to an extreme. We made paintings while Úlfur Eldjárn [of Apparat Organ Quartet] played the saxophone. We wrote plays for our school festivals, formed bands, fucked around. The artform didn’t matter: we were a teenage cross-disciplinary arts collective. And that mode of thinking’s sort of stuck with me – that it doesn’t matter what you’re doing, as long as you’re doing something, creating something.

I ultimately decided to pursue the visual arts. I’ve always thought it was the coolest form of art. You’re your own boss, you get to do what you like. It’s also the most “anything goes” artform; in music, you’ve got to make a certain amount of sense, also in the theatre. You release an album and you sort of have to succeed to an extent. Whereas in visual arts you can get away with making stuff that really sucks and just tagging it with some sort of concept. It’s like a shield – you’re protected within the field. When I was doing music, I was a lot more insecure. Because it’s so much more… direct. You either feel it or you don’t. There are a lot of grey areas in the visual arts. But it’s all jazz, man

So how come you’re representing Iceland at this there Biennale thing??
Some experts decided. Haha. I’ve slept with so many people that they just had to let me. Hah. No, not really, just… some committee decided to invite me, and I serenely accepted. 

And what exactly is the Biennale?
It’s a major contemporary art exhibit that’s held bi-annually. The world’s nations send their representatives to display. It started in 1895 and was initially just for the European superpowers, but us old colonies have been slowly getting on the bill little by little. Iceland first joined in 1960, when Ásmundur Sveinsson and Kjarval went, we’ve sent people there regularly since 1982. In 2007, some 150 countries had representatives. It’s quite an event.

So it’s sorta like the Eurovision Song Contest of contemporary art?
Well you know, this is a bit more respectable. And it’s not a contest. It forms a common ground for what’s notable in modern art at each time, so to speak. Even though it can be hard to tell what that is, exactly. You can’t really liken it to anything. It’s a special event. And of course it’s an honour to get to go there. A great one.

What have you got planned?
I’ll be showing a video piece that I made in the Canadian Rockies with Davíð Þór Jónsson [versatile, masterful musician, plays with Flís, Mugison, pretty much everyone]. It’s a country music opus consisting of five videos that all play at the same time and sync. That’ll be in one room. This place, the Rockies, it’s the end of the world, the western part of it at least, an incredible place. It was spectacular to be there, and to record in the stinging frost.

And then there’s a piece I collaborate on with Páll Haukur Björnsson, a six month long performance that consists of me painting paintings of him standing around in a custom-made bathing suit, drinking a beer and smoking a cigarette. It’s a plateaux that the guests will walk in on, I’ll keep making paintings – one each day for six months. I’ll be doing this throughout the year, every day. It’s a terrific situation; a grudging Groundhog Day for half a year. Him smoking and drinking, me painting, five hours a day. The piece will grow each day and build up emotional charge as the paintings, beer bottles and cigarettes pile up. It’ll grow more and more unsavoury, I imagine it’ll be quite an installation by the end.

And what’s it about?
It’s about a lot of things. About the painting, about the music, friendship. It’s about the moment, it’s about time, man, it’s just like Tíminn og vatnið [“Time and water,” legendary Icelandic modernist poem by Steinn Steinarr]. In fact, it’s about the water too. It’s called The End. It marks the end of something.

A lot of what you’ve done seems to be about assuming a character, whether it be with the rock bands or in your visual and performance art endeavours. And a lot of what you’ve stood for occupies the realm of the ironic. Are you ever honest or sincere? Are you… are you making fun of life itself?
We all live in some direction. When people make the decision to become artists, then they’re being active agents in their own existence, making their life into some sort of art – amplifying their existence. It’s so incredible, imagine, it’s the most egocentric, solipsistic decision you can make, saying you’re an artist. “What I have to say matters.” Amplifying oneself, exaggerating.

And sincerity and irony are such connected concepts. People might harbour some sort of notion that irony isn’t sincere – that’s a big misunderstanding. All the romantics were really ironic. If you take this… this abyss that surrounds us, if you take it too seriously, then you won’t survive. All human interaction is about joking playfulness and … it’s so based on irony. If I am indeed making ironic statements, then I am making them in full sincerity.

I think it was the French 18th century philosopher Montesquieu that said that seriousness was the shield of stupidity. That’s kind of good. When they say joy is stupid, well, that’s just not true. Making light of things is the smartest thing you can do in this horrible world. To put it dramatically.

Speaking of Drama, lot of critical discussion arose in the wake of our ever-looming economic collapse, and the local artworld was not exempt. Accusations were flung at the artistic community; that it had been complacent to the banksters, jumping on to their bandwagon and leaving necessary commentary aside, neglecting hard questions…
I’ve thought a lot about it, and I think it’s a really amusing and funny claim that artists are supposed to be some sort of moral harbingers or apostles. The artist can never represent a pure cause, no true artist can represent neo-liberalism or communism, for instance. It’s great if artists can feel like they’re representing something other than themselves, so they can fight the system or something. But I have always perceived my own role as an audience to life, an observant to it. I think the best works are always almost inadvertently political, they become more interesting that way. It’s politics of the subconscious.

That way, I’ve made a bunch of work that is somehow revealing, and have later turned out to be political commentary. These are pieces that age well, because everything went to hell, so to speak. But never with an intent. My place is within the whirlpool, reacting to it, reflecting upon it. Not judging it from above.

So you think the criticism was unwarranted?
You know, I think it’s all good and well that artists get criticized, but I also think it’s really important that artists not turn into social realistic preachers. This is especially in wake of all the post-collapse arguing, it was like a kind of “Danish resistance” that suddenly came to being.

I don’t know if it’s a myth – it might just be classic Icelandic Dane-prejudice – but the story goes that during the German occupation in World War II, the Danish resistance wasn’t very active – until the Germans started losing the war. Then they got real busy. After the occupation ended, that’s when the resistance gained momentum. Anyway, in the aftermath of crisis, a lot of people that had been basically inactive started being awfully pleased with themselves. “I didn’t do anything.”  People that had remained silent and immobile were all of the sudden righteously raging at folks like Kling & Bang – that have been doing incredibly unselfish volunteer work for a long time – procuring grants for a lot of artists, so they could pursue their work. Maintaining an arts scene in this country is a lot of work; running a gallery, running around trying to score funding or grants. There’s nothing wrong with that. There can’t be.

A certain discourse became prevalent. Suddenly you were some sort of culprit for not having focused on society and its problems directly. I never thought about that. I like thinking about poetry and the human condition, but the social realistic condition…? I did a lot of navel-gazing, to try and figure if I had done anything wrong or somehow gone off track. And I reached the conclusion that I did not. And furthermore that as soon as someone starts talking about “the role of the artist” and “the artists’ duties and responsibilities,” they’re talking like Adolf fucking Hitler.

A really fun thing happened, I was protesting at full force in the kitchenware revolution. I was leaving for home after the protest one night, and got hailed into [restaurant] Við Tjörnina, where the baroness [a famed patron of Icelandic artists, including Ragnar] was hosting an midnight champagne party. “Come on in darling,” she said, and I thought it’d be brilliant, drinking champagne in the midst of a revolution. Epic. Then I was on the balcony, having my drink, when the teargas bombs went off. That was real decadent [sinister laugh]. The, a day over, there was a “revealing article” in Fréttablaðið [free newspaper] about the artists that had dared to partake in the champagne, I thought that was really funny. People getting all self-righteous and angry about a bunch of poor artists accepting a drink from a middle-aged woman. This exemplifies the beautiful absurdity of it all.

Now, you’re representing Iceland at the contemporary art Eurovision. Is there an Icelandic angle to visual arts? As a musician that’s performed abroad, you’ve surely experienced the Björk and Sigur Rós, elves and waterfalls comparisons. Are there similar paradigms in your current field?

As for an Icelandic angle, my view of that is adopted from my mentor, Birgir Andrésson. He always spoke of Iceland as an island of stories. If something’s Icelandic, the story conveyed is maybe more important than the object itself. Because we have nothing. Just a couple of hills, maybe, but it’s the story of those hill that makes all the difference. Telling a story, over nature. If there’s an Icelandic angle, I think that’s it.

As for a Björk-like paradigm, we’re blessedly free of such expectations, although Ólafur Elíasson is maybe starting to verge on that, as he gets bigger. I did a show in New York last year along with some fellow Icelanders, and one of the critics wrote that Icelanders didn’t really have anything to talk about, that Icelandic art was best when it focused on nature, like he perceived Ólafur to do, because Icelanders “only ever have nature to talk about.” Nothing else. And then the blessed collapse came. Now we have plenty to discuss.

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