Characterized by irony, cultural criticism, and mass amounts of wit, Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson performances, paintings, and installations often overlap and interact. In 2009, he was the youngest artist to ever represent his homeland in the Icelandic Pavilion during the Venice Biennale. In 2013, he was included in the main Venice Biennale exhibition, curated by Massimiliano Gioni, where he presented the S.S. Hangover—a boat floating at the end of the hall, perhaps alluding to the end of the vernissage week, when everyone seemingly leaves with some sort of hangover (be it from frantic art consumption, alcohol abuse, sunburn, or a combination of all three). Now, on May 15, S.S. Hangover will float in Central Park as part of Creative Time’s collaboration with the Central Park Conservancy, “Drifting in Daylight: Art in Central Park.”
Born and raised in Reykjavik, Kjartansson’s mother is a well-known Icelandic actress and his father is a playwright and director. After studying painting at the Iceland Academy for the Arts, he followed in his parents’ footsteps, deciding to mix all mediums with a strong focus on performance. This shift has led him to collaborations with bands like The National for a performance at MoMA PS1, among others. For an ongoing project, he films his mother once a year. “There is no editing,” Kjartansson says. “Just calibration.”
In addition to his boat’s arrival in New York, later this week, during the vernissage of the 56th Venice Beinnale, the artist will also find out if he is this year’s recipient of the Absolut Art Award, a competition in which he is one of five finalists. This fall, Kjartansson will present an ambitious solo exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. With many upcoming endeavors, we visited the artist in March at his studio, which is hidden in a garage on a pier, jetting out from Reykjavik’s western coastline.
Kjartansson wore a navy suit splattered with white paint, Wagner’s classical compositions emanated from a vintage record player, and a drum set stood amongst easels with large-scale paintings halfway done and mustard yellow velvet couches, because, of course, the artist is also in a band.
EMILY MCDERMOTT: What are you doing to prepare for your upcoming show in Paris?
RAGNAR KJARTANSSON: Next week, I’m going to start shooting a video piece called Scenes from Western Culture. The moment the idea came to me, I was in a taxi from JFK going to New York, and there was “Careless Whisper” on the radio. Suddenly I got Western culture claustrophobia, because it’s everywhere and it’s always the same songs; it’s always “Careless Whisper” somewhere. It’s going to be scenes, kind of like paintings—a couple having a really nice dinner that’s going to take somewhere around two hours. Then there’s a woman swimming with dogs, people in guitar school, a dog and a clock, a burning house… There’s a Western idea of something tranquil and nice. They’re almost from an ad.
MCDERMOTT: You’re also one of the finalists for the Absolut Art Award. What will you do with the 100,000 Euro if you win?
KJARTANSSON: I don’t know anything about the Absolut Art Award. [laughs] We were just like, “That Absolut Award, we’re not going to take part in that.” Then, my friend was like, “It’s actually a really good award!” It sounds fancy. If I win, then we’ll have to do another interview and you’ll learn what I want to do.
MCDERMOTT: Okay. [laughs] So what has kept you in Reykjavik your whole life? Have you ever considered leaving?
KJARTANSSON: Considered it a bit, but it’s inspiring. It’s a small city with a fantastic arts scene, fantastic writers, designers, and fashion. There’s a mentality where everybody helps each other out. Iceland is almost like the pre-America because it’s the first settler culture. I really like it, but I also like coming to New York. It’s nice to see the art world as some fairyland far away. People always bitch about the art world, but when I come to it, I see a lot of good art and get inspired. It never gets overpowering and depressing.
MCDERMOTT: What’s one of the first pieces of art you saw or place you went that was really inspiring? I know your parents are both very theatrical.
KJARTANSSON: It was mostly because my grandfather was a visual artist. He was a social realist sculptor [and] good friends with Dieter Roth, the Swiss artist. There has always been crazy avant-garde arts here, since Dieter Roth came to Iceland in the ’60s. I got to know that a little bit from the backside, from my grandfather. It was alluring.
MCDERMOTT: So why school for painting rather than some sort of performance since you balance it all?
KJARTANSSON: I was very prejudiced when I started arts school. I, like all of those kids, was like, “I don’t like this modern stuff.” [laughs] I came to arts school with a very stupid, conservative set of ideas about art.
MCDERMOTT: How did that change?
KJARTANSSON: From seeing art and falling in love with artists. I had a total revelation with the feminist moment, with Carolee Scheeman and Marina Abromovic and of course Joan Jonas; that was a big breakthrough with me. And through them, [I was introduced to] Chris Burden and Bruce Nauman and Vito Acconci. You can almost call it a gang, because the works are always talking together. That stuff had a huge impact on me, but other than that, my interest had always been old paintings. Then suddenly this raw power came like beautiful culture explosions into my life and totally changed it.
When you’re in an isolated place like this you just hear the stories of these works. I only saw slides of pictures of them. [This explosion] started with my final piece from art school. It was a blend of a theatrical background and my obsession with painting and hearing about Chris Burden and Marina Abromovic. It was a little opera house inside the art school; I sang opera for the whole duration of the final show.
MCDERMOTT: This theme of repetition keeps coming up. Why do you think you’re attracted to it?
KJARTANSSON: Probably because it turns the performative into something sculptural or painter-esque. The performance stops being narrative and becomes cultural. I’m so used to being in a theater where there is always a narrative, but I’m more about the still moment, the painter inside me.
MCDERMOTT: Yet when they’re repeated, it’s different every time.
KJARTANSSON: Not so different every time. Repetition is like religion. It’s the same when you go to church. You’re never like, “Oh there’s a huge difference.” I went to church a lot when I was a teenager. My mother is very Christian—she’s a born-again Christian—and then there was Catholicism and I was an altar boy. I learned a lot of show-biz tricks from the church. The best trick I learned was when a priest came to me when I was an altar boy and said, “Always, when you make a mistake, pretend it’s ritual.” It’s beautiful! You have to make it look like it’s a ritual. Never, “Fuck I just made a mistake.” I think that sentence woke me up and deconstructed religion. I realized that it’s just a show.
MCDERMOTT: In general, what about the show as a concept attracts you?
KJARTANSSON: What attracts me to the show is the feel of it. It’s very narrow. Even for a novel, it’s not the narrative that gets me going, it’s the feel—the sculptural feel of the book or a play or a religious ceremony. What draws me to theater and religion are these rituals made to make you feel emotion. It’s so banal in an interesting way. In visual art it’s about making you feel emotional, but it’s more subtle.
MCDERMOTT: Is there a particular feeling that you want to convey in your works?
KJARTANSSON: I totally leave it up to the audience. I think my favorite Rolling Stones song is “No Expectations.” I always think and talk through songs.
MCDERMOTT: Who are some of the most influential musicians for you?
KJARTANSSON: These days, it’s mostly Wagner and Taylor Swift and Kanye West. [laughs]
MCDERMOTT: That’s a great mixture.
KJARTANSSON: It’s all you need! But something draws you—like after the MTV Awards, I am really drawn to Kanye West and Taylor Swift. They’re the most popular artists of the day, but what’s interesting about Kanye is that you have a super popular artist that is actually really, really controversial. His media persona is blah blah blah, whatever, funny. But the last album, Yeezus, it’s really dark. It really reminds me of this Nietzsche, Wagner. [gags] I think there’s this one song on this Wagner album, which is “Tot und Höller,” like death and hell. And Yeezus, it’s kind of like sex, hell, greed. He’s doing something that no other songwriter has done.
MCDERMOTT: How does Taylor Swift get thrown into that mix? She’s the complete opposite…
KJARTANSSON: She’s total country. I really love country music, just this idea of three chords and the truth. You know, it’s just “I’m going to New York, and I’m going to write a song about New York.” And everybody in New York is really angry, like “No that’s not how New York is! New York is gritty!” But I’m sorry. It’s not anymore, that’s the fantasy you want to live in. New York is a town where well-dressed girls drink white wine and talk about careers. [laughs] Once, Jay Z was the ultimate New York artist, or once, Lou Reed was the ultimate New York. But I think Taylor really gets New York. No offense.
MCDERMOTT: People aren’t going to like that! [both laugh] So going to working with so many different mediums, how do you balance it? What is the process?
KJARTANSSON: These new paintings here, they’re a series I did off of a performance with my friend. We locked ourselves in a little cabin for a whole weekend, listening to “Take It Easy” with The Eagles—just that song for a whole weekend. So we listened to “Take It Easy” and I painted him furiously. It’s trying to get a song into a painting, or the feeling behind it.
MCDERMOTT: Do people ever document your performances through photography? Or do you mostly render your own performances with painting?
KJARTANSSON: These performances are photographed, but this is documentation.
MCDERMOTT: What do you think about the translation of a performance through a video or painting? Do you think it changes the meaning?
KJARTANSSON: Sometimes. Performance art used to be much more holy, more religious. There was clean rules, like a video documentation of the performances. I often really like to play with documenting my performances cinematically. Cinematic documentation is much more interesting than the performance itself. A piece like “A Lot of Sorrow,” which I did with The National, the concept was great but it’s like the performance was the remains of the film. The film was stronger than the performance.
MCDERMOTT: What made you want to work with The National, as opposed with any other band?
KJARTANSSON: Because I’m obsessed by that song. I’ve been really into them for the last few years and I was so much into this song. I was asked by [MoMA] PS1 to do a performance and I had this dream to make a performance to turn a rock some into a sculpture or a painting. Then, once when I was doing the dishes, suddenly I thought of listening to the song for the 800th time. I was like, [gasps] “I have to contact The National!” I contacted a friend, Nico Muhly—he’s always here in Iceland—like, “Do you know The National?” and he’s like, “Yeah, I’m working with them now.” The world is small.
MCDERMOTT: For you, where does an idea start?
KJARTANSSON: It’s always something that needs to happen. [For this new series,] I was just thinking a lot about this guy, my friend, and I was asked to do a show in Wales. Then suddenly this idea came, “Wow it would be beautiful to have a performance where my friend is just listening to ‘Take It Easy’ as a performance.” And then I thought, “No it’s probably nicer as a painting.”
MCDERMOTT: Do the spaces that you’re going to be showing in influence what you’re doing?
KJARTANSSON: Yes, a lot of the stuff I’ve done is inspired by the location. Usually my works are pretty site-specific. There are a lot of shows that are older works, but often when I do new work for a show, it tends to talk to the space or the idea of the museum.
MCDERMOTT: Outside of visual art and music, where do you look for inspiration?
KJARTANSSON: A lot in books and poetry. Really influential are people like Frank O’Hara, and the Icelandic author, Halldór Laxness. He won the Nobel Prize in 1954. He died 20 years ago but, glorious writer. [His work] is very bittersweet and very ironic, but it’s irony filled with so much beauty.
MCDERMOTT: How would you define your philosophy or approach toward art?
KJARTANSSON: Living through art is a better way to live—not necessarily making art, but being surrounded by art. I think it’s just as banal as trying to show my version of the beauty in the world. It’s about beauty at the end of the day.