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. . .
SM Except when you’re Bas Jan Ader and decide to sail the ocean in a rowboat and never come back. . .
RK Right. That’s just suicide. Well, actually, that is a kind of show business suicide.
SM I have a theory that he is still alive somewhere and has opened up a casino in an exotic obscure location, or perhaps I fantasize that that is instead what happened.
RK I became interested in blending this theatrical fake world that I was raised around to the reality of performance art. My mother was an actress and my father was a director. So I was always in the darkness, always watching and learning to appreciate the repetition of rehearsal almost more than the linear completion of it itself. Repetition is just one of the most basic human elements. It’s the fundament for all religions. Religion is just basically about repeating something, and then life will follow that path.
SM So you first noticed these performances you studied as having had a certain holiness about them. Not everyone would make the connection so intuitively. How or why does spirituality and religion play into your work? A New York Times article that came out about you recently has you quoted as stating you hoped your performance pieces would result in religious moments. What do you mean by religious moments, and why is this side of things so important to you?
RK I was talking to Ulay [Frank Uwe Laysiepen, performance artist] once—just met him in a bar in Berlin, he was working with Marina in the 1970s. He was telling me he had studied so much religion and then he developed this belief in something like the humanistic art of religion. Humanistic ritual rather than religious ritual, that is.
SM Are you yourself religious at all?
RK I was. And I was really religious as a kid. I kind of lied my way into being an altar boy in the Catholic Church, because I really liked the idea of being an altar boy.
SM Catholic churches are fairly rare in Iceland, aren’t they?
RK Yeah, and also you know, it’s so rare that they didn’t really ask—although I was from a Lutheran background they didn’t even care.
SM Right, because they were probably just thrilled to have an enthusiastic child.
RK I was always interested in ritual’s repetition. There’s always this misunderstanding that it has to be about endurance or must be really hard but like in all religions there is this element of getting away from the world, getting away from it all.
SM Why do you want to get away from it all?
RK Because it’s just so depressing! (laughter) It’s nice once in a while to get away from it all. Performance art is a really good way to do it.
SM What about the stereotypes about Nordic or Scandinavian artists? I can’t get this pink neon sign that you made called Scandinavian Pain out of my head— do you think there is a lot of reaction to those stereotypes underlying the content of your work? Does it bother you?
RK I’m more. . .embracing it. Usually stereotypes are kind of true. Scandinavian Pain was like an ode, because Iceland is very different from Scandinavia. We don’t have this profound pain. We’re more lighthearted. Icelandic artists don’t have the weight of Edvard Munch and Henrik Ibsen and all that stuff.
SM But do people lump you into that category?
RK People usually know that it is a little different. Still, sometimes it happens just because we are also a Nordic country. Although thanks to Björk everybody sort of thinks we’re just—kind of—
SM Out there?
RK Like WHAAAOOWWWOUUU out there!
SM Or that! She certainly did sort of single-handedly infuse the rest of the world’s image of the Icelandic artist with. . . color.
RK I’ve always loved her sentence [from the song “Hunter” on the Homogenic album] “I tried to organize freedom—how Scandinavian of me”—it’s actually a very critical line. She’s saying in the song, Why was I behaving like a Scandinavian, why was I trying to organize freedom? There is a difference. Because in fact “organizing freedom” would not be an Icelandic thing to do. There was actually a show in Denmark when I was in art school which was actually called Organizing Freedom based on the song.
SM Your work has an important musical element to it, can you talk a bit more about that?
RK My father was a kind of political troubadour. Well, I mean, in other words, he was a protest singer. Sort of Joan Baez-like.
SM And that inspired you to incorporate music into your work?
RK Well I’ve always been a music nut. I always believed in the Schubert song Du holde Kunst—the priceless art. Music is the ultimate. I cannot breathe without music. I was in a lot of bands. I almost felt like a fake, though, whenever I was writing songs.
SM Really, why? Were you just so in love with the medium itself?
RK Yeah, I always felt like I was pretending to be this musician because I loved music so much.
SM Do you feel like a ‘fake’ now when you’re doing your performance work?
SM Do you have an imposter complex?
RK I have embraced it now! I really like it! And for some reason when I started to work with music in a contemporary art context it started to feel more natural.
SM Tell me about the Visitors project. How did you start to hang around the Rokeby farm in upstate New York?
RK It was through a friend of mine who was doing the Bard curatorial program. For his graduating piece he had a show that included a performance of mine as well as some works by Roni Horn.
SM Do you like Roni Horn’s work?
RK I adore it. She’s like the best Icelandic artist in a way. . . in terms of an artist working with Iceland. It’s been a huge influence just having her hanging around here and coming here to work.
But, yeah, I really like to stay in old houses. And my friend got to know the people at that farm. Anya, the sort of ‘mother’ of the house, is a kind of pagan/shaman type. She and her friends were going to do a kind of pagan ritual in honor of some Nordic gods, and when they heard there was this Icelander nearby at Bard. . .
SM They wanted to get him involved just in case he could communicate with the elves.
RK Exactly. My friend is very proper but with a glowing beautiful crazy mind. So he just Googled pagan rituals (laughter) and did a ritual for them! Then they became friends. I really love that this whole Visitors project started with a pagan ritual! There is so much of that in it, this kind of pagan-feminine thing.
SM It relates back to your having mentioned taking a course in feminist art as a major early eye-opener for your development as an artist. Maybe I’m totally wrong, and at the risk of making a foolish generalization, I feel after having spent some time here in Iceland myself that the idea of a male artist taking a course in feminist art is something that makes sense here—whereas I can’t imagine many male artists taking courses in feminist art let alone crediting their development to it in the States or mainland Europe. Things are more open here in that way.
RK Michael Portnoy would!
SM Yes. I generalized. But feminism does feel like a very current topic here in a way that it hasn’t been—for better or for worse—for decades in the States for example. People ask you almost right away if you’re a feminist at house parties here and at bars.
RK Yes, it’s completely ridiculous in a way.
SM The press release from Luhring Augustine gallery in New York has you quoted as calling the piece a “feminine nihilistic gospel song”—Could you explain what the heck that means?
RK Well, at the time I was going through a divorce. I was taking the words from artist performances that had this feeling of glorious defeat, this kind of nihilism. For example there this line in the work: “there are stars exploding and there’s nothing you can do”—I really love that line. It’s just giving up to everything in a very humble way.
SM It’s interesting that the nihilism goes hand in hand with religion for you—it’s a bit contradictory.
RK That’s because everything happens in the friction! The contrasts!
SM Sometimes I feel as though artists not-so-secretly use their work to invent/create experiences for themselves, whether that be traveling somewhere or learning the history of something obscure, meeting people, or enlisting friends to take part in some weird experiment. In looking at your work I’ve noticed that whether we’re talking about the project of living in a Venetian palazzo and painting your best friend every day, or secluding a group of creatives in a farm in upstate New York to make The Visitors film, or singing endlessly backed up by Icelandic musicians and friends, you make your work when you’re surrounded by those you care about. Is that a conscious choice? Compared to the romantic notion of the male artist making his work in a vacuum of solitude it’s refreshing.
RK I think that it is just probably my lack of talent, you know? You need your friends around you.
SM What do you mean lack of talent? Don’t you really mean to say it’s because they inspire and support you? Don’t be so self-deprecating!
RK They do inspire me.
SM Is it a challenge gathering people together?
RK Well you know, it’s like what Miss Piggy said—(Kjartansson imitates the Muppet’s high pitched voice)—“Kermit, make time!” There’s no economy in the art here [in Iceland]. You know you can always grab your friends to help you. We help each other. I think it’s because nobody gets paid, so we just try to keep it fun. Plus, it’s not so secret for me.
SM Using art to have fun?
RK Exactly. Or just even to use it to create an experience. I always use art to make my dreams come true, as sentimental as that sounds.
SM I’m shamelessly sentimental most of the time.
RK Me too. Even now I’m doing this very embarrassing piece at PS1. . .
SM With The National? Yeah, what is that about? And why is it embarrassing?
RK It’s simple. I just really love The National. And I really love the song “Sorrow.” I listen to it all the time. And I just thought, Wow, wouldn’t it be cool if there was just a whole day of that song played live?
SM And they agreed?
RK Yeah. It was awesome.
SM That is making your dreams come true.
RK This exists. They agreed but they had no reason to agree. I really love that. People sometimes actually have this attitude. Maybe it’s because they’re from Ohio and not from New York. I always wanted to do this with a song I know and love. I was planning to do it first with 10 CC’s “I’m Not in Love.” But then I saw DOCUMENTA, where everything was about the archive and the past and I immediately thought, Fuck this!
SM The archive is a fashionable subject at the moment.
RK Ingibjörg, my girlfriend, has this really great word for it. . . she calls it arteology. But one more thing about this National performance—it’s a serious work because I’m turning a song into a sculpture. After seeing DOCUMENTA I wanted to work with something contemporary. So I was just doing the dishes and listening to “Sorrow” for the 800th time and it came to me—“Of course! I should just email them!”
SM And you did.
RK And I did. And it was great.
SM Who are your biggest influences? I know you mentioned Marina Abramović earlier…
RK It’s mostly women artists that are my idols. Artists like Roni Horn. Much more so than Abramović or Vito Acconci though.
SM Have you had the chance to meet Horn and hang out a bit?
RK Yeah! We’ve actually become really good friends.
SM Why do you think women artists are your idols?
RK Because it’s just a more interesting stand. It’s a slightly different point of view that didn’t exist in history before and it’s almost like they are the first generation of it. It’s a much more interesting point of view than a male artist.
SM What are you working on next?
RK I’m doing a piece for the Venice Arsenale—for the Biennale.
SM Is this related to the boat you launched from Stykkisholmur last week?
RK I was invited to the Biennale for the second time. For some reason I was just flopping through a cocktail recipe book—in search of hangover-cure drinks and I came across this picture. [Kjartansson shows me a photograph of a black and white photograph on his iPhone.] So I just, you know, had this idea to rebuild this boat and make it sail. We’ve always been joking about Bas Jan Ader, me and Guido van de Werve, like, “You could always do a Bas Jan Ader, but like, it’s kind of been done.” (laughter)
SM Right. Naturally. How dull.
RK So it’s like a sound piece. All these pieces are just sound sculptures honestly. This boat that was launched in Stykkisholmur harbor has now been put on a bigger boat to get to Venice for the Biennale where it will just sail back and forth between two points. It’s also got a brass piece written for six brass players and it will be played four hours per day for the Biennale. It’s a performative sound sculpture. There’s something about the sadness of the man at the center of the photograph from the cocktail book—with everyone partying around him—and I just love how the boat just crashes into this scene—like, the hangover is coming!
SM So the title of the work is…
RK S.S. Hangover! I tried to give it my own title, but the name of the boat as it was in the photograph was already just too good. And I got this old fishing boat from Reykjavik, completely ruined, but it was perfect in terms of size. I managed to persuade this shipyard in Stykkisholmur to restore it for me, and it’s almost ready now! I asked Kjartan Sveinsson, who was part of the band Sigur Ros—the keyboard player, he was kind of the whole band, but he quit now, and he is such an incredible composer—so I asked him to create a piece for this. He’s created the most glorious melancholic brass fanfare. So you always see it sailing back and forth to this fanfare, and it’s this sort of very Wagnerian thing.
SM What’s on the ship’s flag?
RK A fat Pegasus.
SM So this is your own little mini Icelandic version of Fitzcarraldo?
RK Yeah! It is! A friend of mine actually just sent me a clip from Fitzcarraldo when he heard that I was doing this. Today I’m actually going to be doing a piece here in town.
SM Oh? I didn’t know. . .
RK Yes, well the elections are coming, which is really scary. The nationalists and conservatives are winning. I’ve got to do something about it!
SM What are you going to do?
RK I just wrote a little protest song—”For the love of God, don’t vote for the Nationalists!” and I’m going to sing it in front of Parliament. You know, it’s kind of my thing to do these endless loops—so I’ll be out there, all day, singing this.
SM Just like the title of the New York Times article about your work that was published earlier this year—”Never Tired of Repeating Himself”. . . which is attention-grabbing because of how critical it would sound in most contexts. People unfamiliar with your work would likely think they were about to read a scathing review.
RK Yeah, it’s a really cool title.
SM So you’re headed over to start the protest song now then?
RK Yup. I’ve got to change clothes and have a bath and then I’m starting at noon.
SM Baths not showers?
RK Definitely baths.
Sabine Mirlesse is a photographer and writer who lives and works in Paris.