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Ragnar Kjartansson

  • Art
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

First UK survey of the internationally acclaimed Icelandic artist

The first piece in Ragnar Kjartansson’s Barbican show features ten male performers playing the guitar, singing in Icelandic and drinking beer. Playing on a screen behind them is a soft-focus sex scene, from a 1970s Icelandic movie, between a housewife and a plumber. As with all the work in this exhibition, it’s context that brings it to life: the on-screen lovers are the artist’s actor parents, and the guitarists are singing their dialogue. The work’s title? ‘Take Me Here by the Dishwasher’. Raunchy stuff. 

Kjartansson was born in Reykjavík in 1976, into a bohemian family whose Freudian baggage features largely in his art. When he appears in his work, he always cuts a slightly ludicrous figure. In multi-channel film installation ‘The Visitors’ (2012), he sits in the bath, crooning and strumming his guitar. In ‘Death and the Children’ (2002), he dresses up as the Grim Reaper and creeps up on a group of schoolkids in a cemetery shouting ‘I am DEATH!’ Rather than running screaming, they all start laughing at his paper scythe. Kjartansson plays it all with a completely straight face. How seriously are we meant to take this?

Not that he’s averse to making others look stupid, either. Case in point: ‘A Lot of Sorrow’ (2013), in which he got indie band The National to perform their song ‘Sorrow’ on repeat for six sanity-testing hours. I’m not sure which of the 90-odd renditions I walked into, but frontman Matt Berninger was certainly looking a bit frazzled. You get the sense that Kjartansson likes pushing things to extremes: telling a joke so many times it becomes painful. And then painfully funny. Or is that funnily painful?

Such contradictions – comedy, tragedy; fact, fiction; irony, sincerity – are the lifeblood of his work. And it can be maddening stuff. Many will tire at second-guessing at how far Kjartansson’s tongue is lodged in his cheek, and his refusal to make anything that can be interpreted at face value. But art with universal appeal would be a very beige thing indeed – and if you can get on board with this guy’s brand of whimsy, it could well be the best thing you see all summer.

Written by
Matt Breen


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