Ragnar Kjartansson, “World Light—The Life and Death of an Artist,” 2015.
Four-channel video: 20 hours, 45 minutes, 22 seconds. Courtesy of the artist; Luhring Augustine, New York; and i8 Gallery, Reykjavík
“Ragnar Kjartansson,” the first major survey of the work of the internationally acclaimed Icelandic artist, runs Oct. 14–Jan. 8, 2017, at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. The exhibition is the first comprehensive overview of the artist’s prodigious output since his debut in Reykjavík, Iceland in 2000. It features the artist’s most celebrated works, including many never before seen in the U.S., and encompasses the entirety of his practice—live endurance performance, large-scale video installations, drawings, photography and painting.
Born into a theatrical family in Reykjavík in 1976, Kjartansson dons various guises—from a foot soldier, to a Hollywood crooner, to an incarnation of death—to both celebrate and ridicule the romantic figure of the artist as a cultural hero. Drawing from theater, film, Icelandic storytelling, rock bands, opera music and pop culture, Kjartansson stages repetition and endurance performances that explore family, society and contemporary culture with infectious humor, irony and poignancy.
In a Hirshhorn first, visitors will be able to experience a live performance of Kjartansson’s monumental “Woman in E” (2016) every day of the 12-week run of the exhibition. The work features a single, sequin-clad woman strumming an E-minor chord endlessly, rotating on a pedestal in a gold-tinseled room, a performance that walks a characteristic line between kitsch and earnest commentary on feminine objectification. A rotating cast of Washington-area musicians will play the “Woman.”
“We are honored to be showing the work of an artist who has had such a profound impact on the contemporary art world,” said Melissa Chiu, the Hirshhorn’s director. “American viewers are perhaps most familiar with videos of Kjartansson’s musical endurance performances, such as ‘S.S. Hangover,’ which was shown at the Hirshhorn last year. But few have had the opportunity to see the full range of his talent.”
“I’m thrilled to be in the canon of the Hirshhorn,” Kjartansson said. “I feel a bit like a thief in the temple. To collaborate with those brilliant people is a kick.”
To celebrate the exhibition’s opening, the Hirshhorn will host an evening discussion with Kjartansson and Washington musician and essayist Ian Svenonious (Nation of Ulysses, The Make-Up, Chain and the Gang) Friday, Oct. 14, at 6:30 p.m., and a daylong fall festival with performances by local bands and art-making activities for all ages Saturday, Oct. 22.
For more information and a full list of programs, visit hirshhorn.si.edu/collection/ragnar-kjartansson.
Exhibition highlights include Kjartansson’s most well-known work to date, “The Visitors” (2012), a series of nine life-size video tableaux of a musical performance staged at historic Rokeby Farm in upstate New York. Shot in one take, each musician was recorded in a separate room of the home or on the grounds of the farm, singing the same refrain, “Once again I fall into my feminine ways,” for just over an hour. When experienced together, the screens merge into a cinematic and harmonious composition.
One of the earliest works in the exhibition, “Me and My Mother,” is an ongoing video collaboration with Kjartansson’s mother dating from 2000. It features four video screens filmed five years apart where she repeatedly spits in his face for several minutes with an intensity 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 he and his mother, an actress,slip into their professional roles.
Kjartansson’s series of 144 paintings, “The End” (2009), made over a six-month period during the Venice Biennale, are on display for the first time in the U.S. In the midst of the 2009 economic meltdown, Kjartansson inhabited the role of a bohemian artist, day after day painting the portrait of the same young Speedo-clad model, drinking and smoking against the backdrop of the Grand Canal. His maniacal accumulation of paintings hints at the emptiness of art in the face of the real world. Drawing and painting are an essential part of Kjartansson’s practice and the exhibition also includes a selection of intimate sketchbooks and watercolor paintings.
The exhibition is conceived and organized by the Barbican, London, in association with the Hirshhorn. It is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalog featuring an introductory essay by Markús Andrésson, two commissioned essays by curator Kelly Gordon and Artforum writer Jeffrey Kastner, as well as a new text by Canadian essayist and poet Anne Carson.
Kjartansson was born in Reykjavík, Iceland in 1976, where he lives and works. His recent solo exhibitions and performances include “Ragnar Kjartansson,” Barbican Art Gallery, London (2016); “Krieg (War),” Volksbühne, Berlin (2016); “Ragnar Kjartansson: Woman in E,” Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (2016); “Seul celui qui connaît le désir,” Palais de Tokyo, Paris (2015–16); “Me, My Mother, My Father and I,” New Museum, New York (2014); “The Palace of the Summerland,” Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, Vienna (2014); “The Explosive Sonics of Divinity,” Volksbühne, Berlin (2014); “The Visitors,” Luhring Augustine Gallery, New York, Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Zurich (2012–13), Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, Vienna (2013) and HangarBicocca, Milan (2013–14); “It’s Not the End of the World,” Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin (2012–13); “Song,” Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami and Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (2011–12). Kjartansson performed “A Lot of Sorrow,” with The National at MoMA P.S.1, New York (2013). Kjartansson was the recipient of Performa’s 2011 Malcolm McLaren Award for his performance of “Bliss,” a 12-hour live loop of the final aria of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” and in 2009, he was the youngest artist to represent Iceland at the Venice Biennale.
The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden is the national museum of modern and contemporary art and a leading voice for 21st-century art and culture. Part of the Smithsonian, the Hirshhorn is located prominently on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. With nearly 12,000 paintings, sculptures, photographs, works on paper, mixed-media installations and new media works, its holdings encompass one of the most important collections of postwar American and European art in the world. The Hirshhorn presents diverse exhibitions and offers an array of public programs on the art of our time—free to all, 364 days a year. For more information, visit hirshhorn.si.edu.
# # #