The first UK retrospective of the Icelandic artist known for light-hearted performance works featuring live bands, fancy dress costumes and cameos from his parents.
Ragnar Kjartansson admits he was inspired to become an artist because he could ‘see that it was fun’. During his career he has assumed the roles of a Viking, a knight, a 1940s nightclub singer and the incarnation of death in order to carry out a variety of endurance-focused works in abandoned theatres, graveyards and on boats.
Brought up in a theatrical family in Reykjavik, Kjartansson’s work combines elements of music, film and performance. Initially he struggled to find recognition, speaking to The Talks he recounted that while studying at the Iceland Academy of the Arts ‘I was often told that I was not a real artist’, but instead of being deterred he felt freed. Kjartansson said ‘It’s almost like a superhero pill: you can do everything through art’.
His vision paid off. In 2009 the artist became the youngest person to represent Iceland at the Venice Biennale. For his piece, ‘The End’, Kjartansson set up a studio in an old Palazzo where the public were invited to watch as he produced one portrait per day of friend and fellow artist Pall Haukur Bjornsson for the entirety of the six-month run. His sitter wore a Speedo and the pair listened to records, drank beer and smoked, allowing the debris to pile up around them. It was heralded as one of the standout events of the exhibition.
This summer the Barbican hosts the first UK retrospective of Kjartansson’s work. Performances will include Take me here by the Dishwasher: Memorial for a Marriage (2014), a live musical piece that the artist wrote to accompany a lusty scene from Iceland’s first feature film, Murder Story, starring his parents, who met on set. Reportedly conceived on the very same night, the artist presents the piece as ‘autobiographical’.
His parents – now divorced – are among his key collaborators and feature throughout the display, while examples of Kjartansson’s lesser-known paintings and drawings are also presented.