Born and raised into a family of actors and theater professionals in Reykjavík, Iceland, Ragnar Kjartansson has been tightrope-walking between reality and performance for most of his life. It is therefore not by chance that many of his durational performances and video installations often explore and question the edge between fact and fiction. Still, they also fruitfully blur a number of other boundaries, such as the one between score and improvisation, dullness and unpredictability, mockery and gravitas. Opening May 7, the New Museum will present a new work by the artist, with music composed by his friend (and former member of the Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Ros), Kjartan Sveinsson. Nicola Ricciardi reached the artist via Skype in his Reykjavík home-base to talk more about the forthcoming show, his touristic routes in New York City, the hopelessness of politics, Marina Abramović going all the way, and the pathetic stunt of trying to do something beautiful.
Nicola Ricciardi (Rail): Let’s begin with your show at the New Museum, Me, My Mother, My Father, and I, which opens on May 7th in the Fourth Floor gallery. What should we expect?
Ragnar Kjartansson: It’s a work that I have basically done with my parents, and that in a way deals with parenthood. It all started with a movie they both acted in years ago, called Murder Story. It’s an erotic film about violence, incest, and the dreams of a lonely housewife, who is played by my mother. In a pivotal scene, she is supposed to vacuum the floor but instead she starts having sexual fantasies. Then, suddenly, everything turns to a soft-focus and my mother is in the kitchen and my father appears as a plumber. He’s there to fix the dishwasher.
Rail: I’m guessing that’s the reason why the main piece you’ll present at the New Museum is called, “Take Me by the Dishwasher”—
Kjartansson: Yeah, yeah. They have a conversation like, “Oh is this the dishwasher?” “Yeah, this is the dishwasher, do you think you can fix it?” “Yeah, sure I can fix it. Is it really broken?” “Yeah it is really broken.” She is kind of desperate and one thing leads to another until she just tears off his shirt and says, “Take me here by the dishwasher.” Then they lie on the floor and make love. Honestly, it is not a tremendously scandalous scene. But it was kind of a big deal in Iceland at the time.
Rail: What year was it?
Kjartansson: The film came out in 1977. It is also worth pointing out that I was actually conceived on the evening when they shot that scene. So I basically have a video of what my parents looked like when I was conceived.
Rail: You’re going to screen the original video in the gallery space?
Kjartansson: Well, it’s more a kind of performative, musical installation: my parents’ scene is playing on loop, and a composer [Kjartan Sveinsson] created nine songs out of their dialogue that play all together in the space. All of the songs are somehow different but they work together in a very harmonious way. It’s really a musical piece, when you walk into the space the room is full of troubadours, guys playing guitars, and singing.
Rail: I’m curious about how the musical aspect of the piece is, or isn’t, related to the video of your parents. There’s a lot going on in watching the foreplay of one’s conception, pairing it with troubadours is an interesting way of dealing with that. How does the piece deal with parenthood?
Kjartansson: As a matter of fact, it is a way of creating a “memorial” about my parents’ relationship. The video is both a found object and a portrait of the two people that were just about to become my parents. Adding the troubadours to the film, creating a musical piece out of it, is, for me, a step further towards the acknowledgement of role they played in my fascination with the performative, and the fake.
Rail: In the last three years, you won the inaugural Malcom McLaren Award at New York’s Performa 11 [with the performance “Bliss”], you had a very successful show at Luhring Augustine in Chelsea that was based on a project realized in Upstate New York [‘The Visitors,” 2012], and you did an acclaimed performance at MoMA PS1 in Long Island City, which was sold out months in advance [“A Lot of Sorrow,” 2013]. Now comes the exhibition at the New Museum. What is your relationship with New York City, after all these shows?
Kjartansson: My relationship with the city started many, many years ago when I was in a show at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery [Where do we go from here? 2004]. Then few years later, in 2007 I did a show at the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, in Upstate New York, curated by my friend Markus Thor Andresson [Repeat Performance: Roni Horn and Ragnar Kjartansson]. While at Bard, suddenly there comes this guy, Roland Augustine who said, “Hey! I like your stuff. I want to visit you in Iceland.” He actually came to Reykjavik, and I started having conversations with him and with Lawrence Luhring, until they asked me to curate a show of Icelandic artists, from the Reykjavik scene at Luhring Augustine Gallery, of course, which was kind of cool. My first show there was a group show, called It’s Not Your Fault. It was 2008. Then I started working closely with them and one thing led to another.
Rail: The show at the New Museum is curated by Massimiliano Gioni. Last year, he invited you to participate in his Venice Biennale, where you presented the “S.S. Hangover.” It consisted of a brass sextet playing the same song for six hours a day, no matter if it’s rain or sunny, for almost six months. All while sailing in the canals on a wooden fishing boat. Kind of a curator’s nightmare—anything could have happened. What is your relationship with Gioni like?
Kjartansson: Massimiliano is a fun curator to work with. And I think he is a guy who knows how to stay relaxed. Moreover, he really believes in the pieces he chooses. Or at least he believes in trying what on earth he can do to do the pieces. Then it’s a leap of faith, always. As soon as he asked me if I was interested in doing a show at the New Museum I said, “Yes, yes, yes.”
Rail: Do you visit the New Museum on a regular basis?
Kjartansson: It’s part of the tour. You know, I am a tourist when I come to New York City.
Rail: I like that you still consider yourself a tourist here, even if you’ve been working quite extensively in the city. What are your favorites touristic spots?
Kjartansson: Times Square, Empire State– [Laughs.]
Rail: The classics!
Kjartansson: Yeah, it is kind of the classics: MoMA, Guggenheim, the galleries. Then I take a look at hipsters in Brooklyn and finally go home.
Rail: [Laughs.] I like the ordinariness of all of this. And it’s something that comes out in some of your works too.
Kjartansson: It has something to do with the line that I am always stepping on: the very thin line between being sincere and just totally banal.
Rail: You also often say that beauty is banal too. What’s your relationship with beauty?
Kjartansson: I am kind of thrilled by the idea of beauty, by the artist’s hopeless quest to reach or to create the beautiful. I am in awe of beauty but I am likewise in awe with the irony of beauty.
Rail: What do you mean by irony?
Kjartansson: I think that trying to create something beautiful is just such a pathetic stunt.
Rail: Still, your work has a very strong “aesthetic quality.” So much that critics have argued that some of your pieces are a bit too beautiful to be critical, or even socially relevant. How do you respond to that? And what’s your take on politics?
Kjartansson: I find it superficial not to think of them as critical, or political. But I still respect that view and understand it. My works intentionally play with the norms of the critical and socially relevant. Still, it is very true that I shy away from discussing this. I believe that the work tends to become unexciting when the artist explains his good intentions. As for your second question, I am a very political person in my private life; but at the same time I feel hopeless. After the 2008 crash, after Occupy Wall Street, and everything—well, you know, nothing really changed. It makes me really depressed. Some way my work refers to an idea of escapism: I just ignore all of the injustice and stupidity and try to do something beautiful. I think it is really a political stand in that way, from a nihilistic point of view.
Rail: What’s your inspiration in this regard?
Kjartansson: Well, my interest in beauty comes from a book. It’s a sort of personal bible I was raised with. My father did three adaptations of it for the theater. The book is called World Light and it’s by Halldór Laxness. It was written in the late ’30s. The author at the time was dealing with Europe going into war, with his own radical socialist beliefs and his trip to Russia, for the Moscow trials. He was fighting for his brothers and sisters, but after the trials all his ideas were confronted with some sort of total darkness. In response, he wrote a book about a poet who is only searching for beauty. The search leads him to ignore social issues, to stay away from everything. But then, everyone around him dies; he becomes a pervert and in the end commits suicide.
Rail: That’s kind of a sad story.
Kjartansson: The book is just so beautiful, while at the same time deconstructing the very idea of beauty. Growing up with books like that makes you think that beauty is a form of subversion.
Rail: So you think beauty can be political too? You don’t talk politics very often, even if earlier you claimed to be a very political person. And despite a few works, like the one you did last year in Iceland for the elections [“For the Love of God, Don’t Vote for the Nationalists,” 2013] it seems to me that there is some sort of division between your private and public figure when it come to politics.
Kjartansson: No, not at all. It’s just that I never found a way to do an “interesting” political art piece. Other people can do that, for sure. But when I try I often end up with something so damn banal.
Rail: You said “banal” once again; you’re really fond of that word—
Kjartansson: [Laughs.] Yeah!
Rail: One might even say that your interest in banality—and in repetition—shares something with the redundancy of political speeches, don’t you think?
Kjartansson: There is hopelessness all around us.
Rail: Let’s go back to beauty and World Light. If I remember correctly, you based one of your most recent projects on that book too [“The Explosive Sonics of Divinity”, 2014]. Is that right?
Kjartansson: Yes, it premiered at the Volksbühne Theater in Berlin this February. And I’m currently also working on another project in Vienna [“The Palace of the Summerland”, at TBA21], where I’ll try to film that very same book, with the help of a lot of friends. Actually, it will be more a performance than a movie; like a movie about the situation of making a movie. But it’s a performative act in the end, where people come and see us trying to make the thing. It is just an excuse for having a lot of people painting sets, or in costumes, and trying to be in the state of ecstasy about beauty all the time.
Rail: I’m wondering about your relationship with the medium of the video. For example, in “The Visitors” [where the artist and seven singers and musicians are filmed performing the same song in different rooms of an old upstate mansion], what is it that you consider the work of art: Is it the nine-channel video installation, or is it the original performance in the moment it took place at the Rokeby Farm, in the Hudson Valley?
Kjartansson: It’s totally the video. The original performance kind of didn’t exist. I was in a bathtub singing, but I didn’t realized what was going on until I was with an editor in Berlin. And then suddenly I was like, “Wow!” and I knew what it was.
Rail: Historically there’s always been a lot of debate about the very idea of documenting a live performance.
Kjartansson: Yeah, I love to make movies out of performances. I also made a movie out of “S.S. Hangover”: it’s a two-channel video and was in the Armory Show in March. It shows the boat going from one screen to the next, and there’s a lot of tension in the symmetry. I made it because when I was looking at the performance I wanted to create a related video piece that looked like a mixture between Canaletto—the king of Venetian moods—and Roni Horn—the queen of symmetrical tension.
Rail: I’ve always wanted to ask you what you think of the “invasion” of the field by all kind of movie stars and pop singers that we’ve witnessed in the last few years. I’m thinking of the likes of James Franco and Jay Z, with the latter who even almost “stole” the idea for his performance at Pace Gallery from your piece “A Lot of Sorrow,” singing the same song for six straight hours.
Kjartansson: You can’t imagine how proud I was!
Rail: What do you mean?
Kjartansson: I think it’s just great. Everybody was jokingly saying, “Ha-ha, Jay-Z ripped you off!” But, you know, these are very obvious ideas to play with. I think that the idea itself of visual art is just so appealing, and it’s so free. You can basically do whatever you want with visual art so I genuinely understand pop singers: all of this puts them in a position where they can do things they aren’t able to do with their music.
Rail: And why not making art, right?
Kjartansson: Exactly. It’s the attitude of Marcel Duchamp slowly taking over every art form!
Rail: On the other hand, it is also true that visual artists are slowly turning into Pop icons as well. Take Marina Abramović, for example. Many people have significantly reconsidered their opinion on her work and practice after some of her more recent performances and initiatives. I know that she has been an important source of inspiration for you and I was wondering if your opinion has changed as well.
Kjartansson: I think that what she’s doing is very cool. She’s embracing her flirtatious relationship with the idea of the diva, or of the star, really going all the way. And you know what? I think it’s awesome. She totally ruined the legend of Marina Abramović, and it’s fantastic; she was an oppressive presence for me as an art student. She was the ultimate ”keeping it real” artist.
Rail: And so you think that her latest endeavors helped you to overcome the moment of confrontation?
Kjartansson: Yes! I remember that when I went to the pre-opening of her work at MoMA [“The Artist is Present,” 2010] I immediately thought, “This is the end of an era. Wow.” Today performance art has become as mainstream as any other art. Of course, at first I had a feeling in my heart saying, “Oh my god, it’s over.” But then again, it is also liberating. Because art is never about the form, it’s always about what you express.
Rail: And outside of Jay Z and his peers, you’ve been working with a lot of different genres, from pop to folk, to classical music. Any preference?
Kjartansson: No, no. This morning I was listening to Kanye West, and then to some Icelandic R&B from the countryside, and then to a requiem, and now I am listening to Holy Moon. So, it’s all over the place. No preferences. Not really.
Rail: You’ve been collaborating quite extensively with many different musicians over the years. Many of them are also long-time friends. And from what I’ve heard you’re also extremely welcoming and friendly with your occasional collaborators. Can you talk a little about how friendship is an aspect of your practice?
Kjartansson: My art is an excuse for human contact. It’s a powerful tool that can generate great situations with people. It’s probably the legacy of being raised around theaters, where there is constant collaboration, and of having been part of music bands since I was young. I just like working with people. And it’s also, maybe, a lack of talent; you know, when you have an idea, and you want to do something and then you get people to help you do it.
Rail: This raises some questions concerning labor and working conditions. It’s undeniably hard to regulate work in a friendship relationship, and I’m very curious about how you manage to pay fees, honorariums, etcetera, to the musicians and composers you work with. Also considering that what you often ask them is to play for hours and hours nonstop.
Kjartansson: It’s mainly about trying to create the situation where people want to work with you and are genuinely interested in doing it. When pieces that have been very “collaborative” are sold, of course, I have to share the wealth with my friends.
Rail: What do you mean with share the wealth?
Kjartansson: I sell the work, and then I go to the people that helped me, and I just show up with a suitcase full of money.
Kjartansson: That’s because, you know, these people have created the work with me.
Rail: Have you ever received a “thank you, but no thank you” from people you’ve asked to work with? I mean, seeing rock band the National playing the same song for six straight hours under the VW dome at PS1 [in “A Lot of Sorrow”] really made me wonder, “How did Ragnar convince them to do this?”
Kjartansson: Actually, it took nothing to convince them. I got their email from a friend who works a lot here in Iceland, but who’s also a composer in New York. And I think he put in a good word for me, because as soon as I sent them an email explaining the work they replied, “Yeah, it sounds like a good idea.” Also, I don’t believe in convincing people. Either they say yes or no. And often I’ve had people who didn’t want to do something, and I totally understand that. When this happens I just change my course and do something else.
Rail: I have one last question. I couldn’t help noticing all those books behind you [in the living room from where the artist is skyping in], and you also mentioned at length a particular book during our conversation. The significance of music and theater in your practice is clear and plain to see, but I was wondering if literature plays a significant role as well.
Kjartansson: Absolutely! Literature is very important for me. Be it novels or poems or texts or even lyrics from songs.
Rail: And is there any good book you have read recently?
Kjartansson: I just read Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov. I really like that book, but it’s tough. It’s about mediocrity and it’s very boring in many ways, but totally fantastic too.