Venice When Ragnar Kjartansson came to Luhring Augustine, his New York gallery, last March to discuss his project for the 53rd Venice Biennale, he was wearing a dark pinstriped suit and a creamy retro-patterned silk tie—the look vintage dandy and something of a trademark. The charismatic artist is an unrepentant (but rejiggered) romantic, his bittersweet temperament countered by a sense of the absurd. Born in Reykjavík in 1976, near the cutoff point of the international Millennial Generation, he is the youngest artist ever to represent Iceland at Venice
Kjartansson was a wunderkind whose many talents were evident long before his graduation from the Iceland Academy of the Arts in 2001. Cross-disciplinary in approach, he is primarily a performance, video and installation artist, although painting, sculpture and drawing are often incorporated into his diverse practice. As a musician and singer, he is Icelandic pop royalty, a star—with Björk and the band Sigur Rós—of the country’s highly music regarded scene. He has toured widely with Trabant, the most popular of his several bands.
While music looms large in Kjartansson’s art, theater has also been a decisive influence. His parents are celebrated actors, and Kjartansson designs stage sets, dons costumes and assumes roles with ease, often collaborating with other artists and the audience to erase the line between theatrical and real space, actual and assumed personae, serious expression and sheer buffoonery. For Death and the Children (2002), an early performance in an Icelandic cemetery, Kjartansson, impersonating Death in a black frock coat, brandished a scythe as he carried on a candid dialogue about mortality with young summer campers, leavening the exchange with jokes and laughter.
For the Reykjavík Arts Festival in 2005, Kjartansson produced a performance installation called The Great Unrest, an elaboration of The Opera (2001), his academy graduation piece, for which he had constructed a small rococo theater where he performed for a week and a half, singing a cappella four hours a day. To mount The Great Unrest, he partially restored a small, abandoned community center outside of the city, repairing the stage, adding a painted backdrop (he says that stage scenery is his favorite kind of painting) and inserting cut-out mountains, glaciers and flames with no real attempt at trompe l’oeil. Kjartansson was in residence there for three weeks, singing and playing a guitar, accompanied by a scratchy old blues tape. Dressed as a Viking, he seemed a revenant come to restore life to the little theater and to subdue the restless ghosts that many Icelanders—including Kjartansson—say they believe in.
Above right, Ragnar Kjartansson’s preview staging of the performance and installation The End—Venice, 2009; at the Iceland Pavilion. Photo Rafael Pinho. Above: The End—Rocky Mountains, 2009, video, approx. 31 minutes. Kjartansson photos courtesy i8 Gallery, Reykjavík, and Luhring Augustine, New York.