– Interview with Ragnar Kjartansson
By Christian Schoen
You seem to be gifted with a lot of talent. Why did you
choose to become a visual artist?
When I was young I wanted to become either an actor, a priest or a visual artist.
To become an actor seems kind of logical with your background
growing up in an actor’s house, spending a lot of time in theater
behind and on stage.
Yes, I even acted in a play that was 200 performances; I was ten at that time. That is probably somehow related to the endurance aspect in my work today. It was a musical my father wrote with the composer Atli Heimir Sveinsson about Iceland during World War II. But I was always wery excited about the visual artists around the theater, like Grétar Reynisson. He was always cool, wearing black clothes, smoking rolled up cigarettes and just lived in the world of his ideas. Seemed to be the place to be I guess.
But why priest?
Well, that was because of my religious background. So theater and religion are my foundations... halleluja. My mother is very religious and I was too when I was a teenager—good old Lutheran. And my dream was to become a Lutheran priest. At some point after school I had to decide whether to apply to art school or acting school. The priest idea had died by then already. I felt very insecure about becoming an actor probably because I knew how brutal it is, but on the other hand I was not scared of visual art. I was prejudiced but at the same time excited about visual art. That was in 1997. Although my mother encauraged me a lot to go to the theater school, I decided to become a visual artist. In fact—judged now from the distance—I believe that I always knew that I would become a visual artist.
So, in comparison to performing arts you see more artistic freedom in visual arts?
Theater is just a very limited show business. Art is whatever. And then I remember always saying as a joke that there are so many exhibitionistic actors in comparison to relative few exhibitionistic artists—so I probably would be better off there. That’s a good field to be the only exhibitionist —at least in Iceland. Well, also because times were different: That was before the Icelandic Love Corporation or Gabríela Fríðriksdóttir. It was a very conceptual, serious time in art in Iceland. The mayhem was on the horizon.
Your graduation piece was a constant performance called “The Opera” (2001).
I had a course with Eva Heissler about feminist art; we were also
talking about the other artists of that generation inspired by the
physical challenge of femist art like Chris Burden’s (b. 1946)
and all this endurance performance stuff and the banality of feminist
art—the hard core early 70s stuff was not ironic at all. Wery
inspiring. And then I went as an exchange student to Stockholm and
the idea for my piece was just brewing there. It was a reaction to
the course at the art school and also to the works of Gillian Wearing,
especially the long-exposure photographs.
And then for “The Opera” I decided to turn a small room in the academy into a proper rococo stage. And on this stage I was performing for ten days in a rococo costume, singing repetitive opera elements. I had all the props, a cloth from a lady, a sword and champagne I drank. But the whole thing was kind of improvised.
The opera was very abstract, though I followed some stations, like: taking the lady’s cloth – singing – taking the sword – singing and so on. But there was no story but some clichés referring to women, desire and war underplayed with melancholy. One play took about 40 minutes and was repeated constantly for five hours a day. After a while this play became a psychological and physical challenge for me. I managed to merge my love of the theatrcal with the hard core physical.
Did you develop the loop in respect of the spectator who
could enter and leave the performance any time, or is it rather a
reference to concept and body art of the 1970s?
Yes I wanted to make a sculptural theater you could enter or leave as you liked. The loop makes the viewer understand that. It also made it easier for me to have something to hold on to. Constant improvisation, makes you wery bored and crazy. Then there is always something 70´s about every aspect of that piece. For some reason I felt I was refering to the Vienize actionists with the loop aproach, I have no Idea why.
Were you aware at that time of what happened in the art world? Did you fear that someone else was doing this already?
I never thought of what I am doing as original. I just never believe in originality as criteria. I aim to have an interesting interpretation of an idea. I follow a bit Bob Dylan’s approach; he said that he is never original. When I first heard this I was thinking this is just bullshit, but the more you listen to his music the clearer it becomes: It is true. There is no originality in it.
The art business demands a high degree of originality and the constant reinvention of yourself…
No I actually think the art business demands limited originality.
It can´t realy handle hard core originality. But reinventing
oneself has nothing to do with business it is just basically human.
We somehow have to keep the spark.
How did you approach this first big exhibition project? That was for the Reykjavík Arts Festival 2005.
For a long time I had the idea to do something in this abandoned house at the south coast of Iceland. With the country band we even had planned to have a concert there. And when I got the invitation, I took the opportunity to release my ideas.
What is the idea behind “The Great Unrest”?
It started off with the space, this old theater and former dance
hall in the nowhere of Iceland. I decided to turn this into an installation
with a constant performance. In that sense it was following what I
did with “The Opera”. But the concept of “The Great
Unrest” was much more vivid and much more of an overall romantic
When one entered one was confronted with enormous creative energy and a lot of poetry, broken cassette recorders and record players. I was performing on the stage, dressed as a knight, buzzing to blues chords from my guitar. It was very strange to put up the show, which was a part of a big art event, but nevertheless it was far away from the festival’s center. Who would care about this piece? Well, and then on the opening day I just started the performance. And in doing so I intended to turn up the romantic volume of this place with its history, to amplify the isolation and loneliness. What for me of course was very important was to create a legend around the piece itself. I knew from the beginning that only a few people would see it (I think it was not more than 150 people who came during the four weeks) and hopefully it would be come a verbal piece in the hands of those few poeple.
It of course sounds suspicious talking about creating stories, myths or legends around an art piece. As if this is a part of a marketing strategy. But when you think of it, this is a very exciting part of art in general that it creates a sort of new reality.
Indeed. Think of the dramatic Chris Burden shooting performance.
The video documentation of that is very rarely shown, and with good
reason: It is just a mundane short and harmless sequence. It is nothing
in comparison to the idea and the story itself.
But of course what also influenced me was both my work in a PR agency, where you are just thinking about the impact, and in my theater family, where this was also the way of thinking.
Let us turn to your Manifesta piece. In contrast to “The Great Unrest” and “Scandinavian Pain” you won’t be in an abandoned place but in the center of the show.
Well, there was the possibility of using an abandoned place too, but it was not so exciting in the context of the piece. It bears the title “The Schumann Machine” and refers specifically to Robert Schumann’s “Dichterliebe”. I am sure it will be much stronger in the courtyard of the exhibition venue than in any abandoned house. Strong also because it seems not to make any sense in the art world at all. There will be a just two guys performing “Dichterliebe” over and over again with some strange props. And it will not be linked to anything else, not to the art world or any social or political topics... just Schumann!
Schumann’s “Dichterliebe” is based on Heinrich Heine. But why Heine, why Schumann?
I don’t want to make sense. The art world today strives so
much to make sense, and I think it is more interesting to leave some
free space for an individual, emotional approach.
What is art about? I want to create a momentum, a sensational moment. To create a bit this out-of-body experience. And it is such a sensitive and vibrant breathing poetry with this fantastic music.
You seem to think a lot about the audience, perhaps more than other visual artists do?
Well, that is perhaps because I was raised with my family thinking about the audience a lot. Of how theater could make an impact. But you are right, though I very much admire all those who don’t give a shit about the audience. But I cannot get out. I am from a very crowd-pleasing environment. It is funny and perhaps even dangerous to admit this, but I am trying to face it.
Thinking about the audience seems to link automatically to commerce…and pop…
Yes, that is pop. And I have very mixed feelings about total self-expression,
but I never do pieces just because of strategic plans. I am doing
performances because I have to do them. I frequently get this romantic
feeling of: I can’t help it. I have to do it the way I am doing
it. In that sense I never do things just to please people. I want
to create my own sensation. So it is first and furthermore about me,
my fantasy, my sensation. It is such a kick to step out off the world,
such euphoria. For example, when we were doing the final recording
for “God”, a performative video with a singing repetition
of the phrase “Sorrow conquers happiness” accompanied
by an orchestra—Wow, that was so unbelievable after all the
preparation phase to finally create this very unique moment. That
was such a kick. And that is the kick of the performer and that is
very much pop. But of course, I do very much fear the audience and
I hope people get something out of the work. I am following the notion
that I am alive I get in touch with a second alive person, and we
both have "sex". That is very important for me: the contact
through art. "Sex" through art.
This interview is an excerpt of the one which will be published for the Venice Biennale 2009. The title of the interview quotes Heinrich Heine: „Buch der Lieder“, set to music by Robert Schumann (1840); 10. „Hör ich das Liedchen klingen / When I hear the sound of the song.“
LIST Icelandic Art News. Page last updated 29 May 2008. Texts and images copyright © 2008 by the authors. For inquiries and contact information see about us.