Ragnar Kjartansson at the Barbican
From a family of thespians, Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson combines theatrics in performance art, examinations of endurance in repetition, and painting in his first major UK exhibition at the Barbican, which spans his earliest to his present work.
Upon entry the show reveals several musicians playing guitar and drinking beer, repeating part of the soundtrack to a 1970s film made of the artist’s parents, Take Me Here by the Dishwasher: Memorial for a Marriage, portraying a housewife and plumber in an adulterous interaction (apparently the artist was conceived the following day) as a “drive-in movie” style projection on the wall. The ten troubadours appear as quasi-hippies, lying around, strumming guitars and re-playing the same refrain for eight to 11 hours a day, an element of Kjartansson’s “musician torture” theme.
Clearly a comment on our childlike denial of mortality, is a video of children following a man with a sickle who claims to be “Death”. “You are just an elf with a stick,” the children proclaim. “No I am Death.” “I thought there was a light at the end of the tunnel, not you.”
With 144 oil paintings, The End – colourful works that seem to jump out at you as if in film format – portrays the artist in his underwear lounging around or playing guitar, and is based on Kjartansson’s six month stay at a 14th century palazzo in Venice.
From videos of his mother spitting on him (Me and My Mother) to another of the artist as a nightclub crooner singing about sorrow, the mood of the show is melancholic but mischievous. His Scenes From Western Culture – moving images of a landscape, a couple making love, children frolicking near a gazebo, a bonfire, a man in a tux looking pensive, a black couple in a chic restaurant listening to a verbose waiter, a grandfather clock and panting dog – express tongue-in-cheek irony about human illusion.
The artist has said: “Life can be really hard, but then the moment when you create, it’s just this beautiful escape.” Yet although there is humour, this collection speaks more of entrapment and pain than escape and joy: sorrow, the inevitability of death, musicians imprisoned by tortuous repetition. An interesting look into the psyche of an artist, with an amusing play of ideas and motifs, the exhibition is an innovative, voyeuristic journey via performance through Kjartansson’s personal experiences and his somewhat morose contemplations on life.
Ragnar Kjartansson is at the Barbican from 14th July until 4th September 2016, for further information visit here.