Ragnar Kjartansson on protest songs, the Venice Biennale and why most of his art idols are women.
While back in Iceland this spring for my own photographic work, I persuaded Reykjavik-based artist Ragnar Kjartansson to answer some questions about himself and his art over an early breakfast. He was gearing up for an afternoon of protest troubadorism, as the national elections were in full swing and apparently swinging in the wrong direction. Together we talked about what distinguishes Iceland from the rest of Scandinavia, Björk, Roni Horn, and his “performative sound sculptures.”
Sabine Mirlesse How did you start doing performance work? I know you were exposed to the theater through your mother’s acting growing up here in Reykjavik, but how did that exposure evolve into what you do now?
Ragnar Kjartansson I grew up with the theater and then I was always in bands. And then I ended up taking a course in Feminist Art in the art school here—about the movement and what came out of it—Vito Acconci and Marina Abramović and Chris Burden. I didn’t know about any of them before that so I was like, Whoa! I suddenly became interested in the fact that these things they were doing were looked upon as kinds of holy rituals. Sacred, otherworldly, ubermensch rituals. Like the Marina and Chris Burden things. . . they would just do it! I was also fascinated by the fact that at the end of the day it was simultaneously a kind of show business in a way. Like a Houdini stunt. . .
Uta Barth brings a new meaning to close looking.
Painting with light and chasing the ephemeral, Uta Barth brings us again into her Los Angeles home with new photographs that remind us not only of both the infinite and finite capacities of an eye’s perception, but of one’s bodily relationship with the background as well. In previous work Barth directs one’s awareness inward to the subconscious engagement one has with the act of looking. What feels so different about these new images however is the presence of the artist’s brushstroke—drawing attention instead to the way one can outwardly activate or interrupt a composition of space. Barth’s hands sweep back her curtains as a type of performance, an introduction to one’s own reflection, even. The narratives of light and its presence in life is the focal point of Barth’s photographs more than ever before in these images most recently exhibited at Tanya Bonakdar gallery this winter. Here the artist opens up about her beginnings and inspirations and why she might only be able to make her artwork in Los Angeles.
Sabine Mirlesse How did you begin taking photographs?
Uta Barth I was taking a painting class in undergraduate school and wanted to render certain spatial configurations and to study the light of these imagined scenes. I did not have the skill to paint the images directly, so I started to make photographs to work from. But repeatedly I found the photographs that I thought to be the disposable source materials much more interesting and more engaging than the paintings and drawings I made from them. I also found that the process of making photographs forced me to learn how to truly see, to see the light, to study how things in an image relate to the edge, how to crop and frame the most mundane and incidental subject matter into a compelling image. I remember a teacher talking about the difference of making an engaging photograph of an ordinary thing versus making an ordinary photograph of an engaging thing. So early on I started pointing my camera at the incidental, the ordinary and the insignificant information that surrounds us but that we pass by without noticing everyday.
Tacita Dean is back at the Tate Modern, and is bringing her FILM with her.
This past fall the Tate Modern in London opened its latest Turbine Hall exhibition as part of the twelfth commission in The Unilever Series. Each year an artist is asked to take on the enormous central hall of the contemporary art museum and transform it into a new work that will welcome visitors as the very first thing they enter into, bound to be dwarfed by. It is considered a major honor to be asked to complete the task and whatever the artist makes in this space is unavoidably going to be viewed as a major statement if for no other reason than its foreboding size—not only are you looking at it, you are standing in it—a kind of cement cathedral to be filled. And filled. And filled. Previous Unilever Series commissions have been undertaken by Olafur Eliasson, Ai WeiWei, and Louise Bourgeois, to name a few contemporary giants. When Tacita Dean was invited to create something for the hall this year however, many couldn’t help but wonder what she would do with the space considering how understated, quiet, and poetic her works typically have been in the past. A good example of a work that encapsulates Dean’s style would be a personal favorite—the performance of John Cage’s Stillness by Merce Cunningham in three movements in which Dean films Cage’s lifelong partner Cunningham seated in a chair in the middle of an empty dance studio, still and silent, creating an incredibly beautiful ode to their partnership itself. However, Dean did manage to make a statement, (even an elegiac one, despite her firm opposition to this interpretation) by inventing an encounter with a portrait of film itself. The title of FILM pays homage to her chosen medium and vehicle for expression. Late one afternoon in London, while at the offices of the Tate Modern, Dean was kind enough to answer some questions about this new work.
Sabine Mirlesse How did you begin making art? Was there ever a decision-making moment?
Tacita Dean I had to fight to go to art school. There was no decision. It was always, always, what I wanted to do. Even from being very young. I grew up in a legal family—apart from my grandfather who worked in cinema and in the theater—so there was the connection to that but [it was a] struggle to be allowed to go to art school.
Duane Michals on the benefits of skipping art school, becoming an atheist, and why certain art(ists) make him sick.
Decades after his first foray into painting, photographer Duane Michals recently opened a new exhibition of painted tintypes at DC Moore Gallery in New York. It is evidence of his tireless instinct to challenge the limits of the construction—or deconstruction—of photography as a medium. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Michals is probably most comfortable when reinventing himself and his work, errors and all, and truly takes personally the notion that it is an artist’s duty to evolve and explore, rather than simply keep doing what he does best, what brings him the highest acclaim, or what audiences seem to initially adore. Last November, I had the good fortune of stumbling into a screening and artist talk coordinated during the Paris Photo festival of a new documentary about Duane Michals, entitled the The Man Who Invented Himself. As I sat in the back row listening to this artist three times my age, I couldn’t help but think about how much he has to say at a moment when my own generation is tweeting endlessly yet saying in fact, very little. At 81 years old, he is full of opinions, laughter, outrage, and energy. Mr. Michals was gracious enough to spend an evening with me in his Manhattan home talking about his work, as well as his thoughts on God and his undying interest in the metaphysical.
Duane Michals FIRE AWAY!
Sabine Mirlesse So, how are you?
DM I’m very free, the freest I’ve ever been in my whole life. I like being old, and that certainly is a scary thing to say. You have to remember that the bill always comes due. People don’t understand that.
SM Where do you come from?
DM McKeesport, Pennsylvania. Andy Warhol was also born in McKeesport. . . but they got uppity and moved to Pittsburgh. My dad was a steel worker. The most I could have hoped for given my socio-economic background was to teach high school art in West Smithland, Pennsylvania, have three kids, still be a Catholic, and be suicidal.