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Ragnar Kjartansson

I find myself at a hurdle that I have seen before. I come across an artist that I was not familiar with and I want to tell everyone all about them, while simultaneously I feel that part of my enjoyment of the work was having zero expectations and just being surprised at every turn - making me not want to ruin the surprise for others. So I would say if you think you can get around to seeing his work, (artist's exhibition plans: maybe save the rest of what I wrote for later and see how our experiences match up. If surprises aren't your thing and you like to know what you are getting yourself into, continue. This is all written about a week after my wife and I saw Kjartansson's solo exhibit at the Hirshhorn in D.C..

One of the basic formulas for art that I will almost love is well executed work with a sense of humor. This is where much of Kjartansson's work lies. The first piece in the exhibit, Death and the Children, is a performance piece where Kjartansson plays Death and is fielding a boatload of questions from kids in a cemetery. It plays off of the fresh perspectives that children have on the world, pokes fun at the assumptions we have about things we have no evidence about like ghosts, and actually touches on some real curiosities we all have about the afterlife. This piece gave me the mindset I needed to have for the rest of the exhibit.

Kjartansson is first and foremost a performance artist, but much of his work requires more than just him acting by himself to fully come together. So you could also credit him as director, set and costume designer, producer, playwright, singer, musician, and likely more. He has a background in theater and grew up playing in bands. His work seems to often play with how a live act can be captured on video and then how that video can then be exhibited for public exhibition. The work is often pleasantly absurd wrapped inside a comforting spectacle.

The exhibit connected many dots of Kjartansson's career. Many of his performances and happenings were projected on museum walls in a loop. He takes on many roles throughout the exhibit including a crooner straight out of the 1930's, a tortured poet, a bohemian painter, and musician. There are dozens of sketchbooks on display showing bits and pieces of his creative process and there are set pieces both from performances he directed and set pieces that worked as works of art in their own rite.

His piece(s) The End was an example of how he likes to simultaneously celebrate established understandings of what an artist is, while gently poking fun at it. In 2009, during the Venice Biennale, Kjartansson and a close friend occupied the ground floor of an old palazzo on the Grand Canal that was open to the public. Every day, Kjartansson created a painting of his friend who was wearing only a Speedo. The exhibit at the Hirshhorn included the 144 canvases that came from the performance.

Before you are done examining the sea of paintings from The End, you are hearing Woman in E. A connecting theme in these two pieces seems to be endurance. Though in this piece, it is not Kjartansson who needs to endure, it is a singular woman dressed in gold, holding a gold guitar that is being amplified on a gold speaker, she is spinning around on a white and gold pedestal surrounded by ceiling to floor gold tinsel, and she is repeatedly just strumming an E-minor chord, letting it ring out for about 10 seconds before playing it again. We could not find any evidence of exactly how long this one woman would carry out this performance at a time, but it was an impressive display of dedication nonetheless.

Perhaps the piece(s) that were heaviest on the comical side was Me and My Mother. The artist repeated this piece every few years with the help of his mother. Simply, it is video footage of the two standing next to each other, and every few seconds, his mother spits on him. Kjartansson's mother is a well-known Icelandic artist. Her maintaining a straight face for over 20 minutes for some of the performances definitely adds to the impact of the piece. This video performance was repeated four separate times over the course of Kjartansson's career.

The last piece I will mention here is Visitors. After walking my way through his other works that were all fairly absurd in one way or another, I was ready for the next joke. In retrospect, perhaps the joke was that there wasn't a joke. For this piece, Kjartansson gathered a group of his musician friends and occupied various spaces of an old mansion for a unique musical performance. Using headphones so they could all hear each other, the nine musicians, including Kjartansson, embarked on an hour-long piece that included various instruments and the harmonic repeating of the line "Once again, I fall into my feminine ways". For the exhibit, each musician was projected on a different screen around the room with her or his own audio track that you would hear more clearly as you approached. I don't know that I have ever been hit so swiftly and powerfully with emotion by a piece of art. I don't know if it was because I was caught off guard because I was expecting something silly, but I was completely absorbed by this piece. The music and presentation was so gorgeous to me that I didn't even really notice that they were just singing the same line over and over again. I had to be told by my wife that this is what happened. I partially wanted to stay in there forever, but also didn't want to spoil the experience. We did not stay for the full hour, but the fifteen or so minutes we did spend, certainly left an impact. My video below does not do the piece justice, but might help give a visualization to my description. I would recommend to anyone interested in his work to watch more professional excerpts of his work here:

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