Get us in your inbox

Ragnar Kjartansson, Me and My Mother
Ragnar Kjartansson, Me and My Mother

Five things you need to know about Ragnar Kjartansson

The Icelandic performance artist opens his first major UK show this week at the Barbican. Here’s why you should care about this wild-eyed Viking nutcase

Written by
Matt Breen

1. He’s Icelandic

And when you see his work, it makes sense that he comes from the land of geysers, volcanoes and total football. It’s a country rich in mythology, and this runs through Kjartansson’s work. Expect lots of theatrics, lots of play-acting and lots of tongue-in-cheek humour. Don’t expect any of it to make sense.

2. His mum spits on him

Both his parents were actors, and Ragnar claims he was conceived on stage – although he is known for telling tall tales. What we do know for certain is that every five years, in an ongoing video piece called ‘Me and My Mother’, he and his mum get together so that she can spit on his face. Gross? Yep. But when you see the half-concealed smirks that pass between the two, it’s also rather sweet and endearing.


3. He likes Abba

Most self-respecting artists might keep such a guilty pleasure a secret, but Kjartansson went so far as to name one of his best works, ‘The Visitors’ (2012), after the Swedish pop quartet’s final album. The 64-minute film, which was shown at the Vinyl Factory’s car park space in Soho, features the artist starkers in the bath, playing a guitar and singing lyrics to a song written by his ex-wife. If it sounds a bit cringe, well, that’s Ragnar’s style: close to home, close to the bone.

4. He’s not averse to a bit of old-fashioned painting

While film and performance make up the bulk of his work, he still indulges in a spot of painting from time to time, albeit on his own eccentric terms. When he represented Iceland at the Venice Biennale in 2009, he set up a studio in a palazzo and painted one portrait each day of a mate dressed in a pair of Speedos. They’re not exactly up there with Rembrandt, but hey, he did a whopping 144 of them. Sometimes quantity beats quality.


5. He likes making audiences suffer

For his 2013 piece ‘A Lot of Sorrow’, he got American indie band The National to perform at New York arts space PS1. Dressed in smart suits, the band played their 2010 song ‘Sorrow’ over and over again, for six hours, to a bewildered and mesmerised audience. That’s a lot of sorrow. Look, stop asking why. Just head over to the Barbican to see his brilliantly insane work for yourself.

    You may also like