What do we know about Icelandic Art? For this first ever UK survey of the work of the internationally acclaimed Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson, Barbican Art Galleries charter the artist’s wide-range practice across film and performance, and his less well known work as a painter and draughtsman. Visitors shouldn’t be put off by the massive sculpture/logo on the top of The Barbican’s main entrance: ‘Scandinavian Pain’. If our artist takes inspiration from the pink neon sign above the Hotel Holt in Reykjavik and the satire around Scandinavian artists hounded by depression in the winter months, this is definitely not about unhappiness.
At the ticket hall of the Art Gallery on the 3rd floor, melodious music resonates around us. Is this part of the exhibition? Can’t even tell where it comes from. The main entrance of the exhibition is a dominant hall where the most wonderful performance is taking place. 10 musicians playing live 8 hours in a row, ‘Take me Here by the Dishwasher: Memorial for a Marriage (2014)’ refers to the video screening of Kjartansson’s parents kissing while musicians walk around the ground floor space, singing and strumming on their guitar in the style of troubadours. They do not interact; they are just playing different scores in harmony. Music, repetition and endurance are key ingredients in Kjartansson’s works.
In the back of the Lower Gallery, the exhibition focuses on ‘The Visitors’: a multi-channel video installation. 9 screens with individual speakers show solo musicians playing their part. The result can only be seen by an amazed audience, seduced by a pleasant tune while juggling between screens displaying different instruments and performers at the same time.
Surrounded by valuable artists like Kjartan Sveinsson, former member of the Icelandic rock band Sigur Rós, Kjartansson transforms visitors’ experience and ‘the dialogue into a polyphonic score’. Polyphony is no longer derogatory but a modern storytelling. Performances, video installations, drawings and paintings explore the boundaries between fact and fiction.
Made over a 6-month period during the Venice Biennale, The End (2009) is a series of 144 paintings. Kjartansson inhabited the role of a bohemian artist, painting the portrait of the same young model, day after day, drinking and smoking against the backdrop of the Grand Canal. Themes around myth and identity, incarnation of death explained to kids even, are developed in an amusing manner. The artist dressed up from a foot soldier, to a Hollywood crooner singing ‘Sorrow Conquers Happiness’ in different ways on a tacky stage with fuchsia curtains. Everything seems to have been imagined.
One of his quirkiest and earliest works is definitely the one called ‘Me and My Mother’: An ongoing video collaboration with Kjartansson and his mother dating from 2000. It features four video screens, filmed over five years apart where she repeatedly spits in his face over several minutes with intensity and vigour at once provocative, humorous and absurd. As well as exploring family relationships and the passage of time, the series also engages us with Kjartansson’s interest in the conflation of reality and fantasy as mother and son slip into their professional roles. His parents being pretty active on the theatre scene, it was probably easier to include them in a funky artistic project.
Lucky visitors will discover Kjartansson’s new work of a mirrored scene of movement and symmetry entitled Second Movement (2016) every Saturday and Sunday. If weather permits and in a theatrical reality, two women in quintessential Edwardian costume row their boat on the Barbican Lakeside embracing a never-ending kiss while Mozart’s famous composition Second Movement of Piano Concerto 21 echoing from the title, can be recognized.
Until 4th September, visitors will explore Ragnar Kjartansson’s world which celebrates and derides the romanticised figure of the artist as cultural hero. A polyvalent exhibition of a great artist!