The Visitors (2012) is a nine-screen multi-channel video installation by Ragnar Kjartansson, filmed across multiple rooms in a two-hundred year old villa on the banks of the Hudson River in upstate New York. Featuring the artist himself playing acoustic guitar and singing in a bathtub, alongside a cast of musicians from Iceland’s tight-knit music scene, the collective performs a haunting piece of what Kjartansson calls “feminine nihilistic gospel.” The music slowly dips and wanes, equal parts evocative cacophony and barely audible whisper. In 2015, the work was exhibited at Brewer Street Car Park, a space curated by The Vinyl Factory in London’s Soho district, and was critically acclaimed as one of the year’s exhibition highlights.
It was with no small measure of anticipation then that my partner and I approached the new retrospective of the artist’s work at London’s Barbican, which was on display from 14 July until 4 September this year (and is on display at Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C., from 14 October 2016 to 8 January 2017). Featuring The Visitors as well as a selection of both early and more recent work, the exhibition was the first major showing of Kjartansson’s work in the UK.
As the audience entered the gallery, they were immediately greeted by the sight of a small band of troubadours performing surrounded by discarded beer bottles. Projected onto the wall was a video loop of a couple sharing an intimate embrace in a kitchen, framed in the gloriously soft-core aesthetics of the 1970s. The film was Iceland’s first full-length feature, entitled Morðsaga (Murder Story, 1977), and the couple on screen are the artist’s parents who are famous actors in their native country. The story goes that Ragnar Kjartansson was conceived during the same period that the film was shot; the installation then functioning as a kind of origin story for viewers as they begin to trace the artist’s career. Entitled Take Me Here by the Dishwasher: Memorial for a Marriage (2011), the performers sing the lines of dialogue with an element of poetic lyricism not dissimilar to the tone of The Visitors, stretching out the cringe-worthy exchange into something imbued with epic drama as it soars towards it’s (genuinely amusing) crescendo. The performance combines elements of repetition and endurance, traits that link Kjartansson’s work with artists like Marina Abramovic or Chris Burden, while also bringing in other elements from the artist’s background as the son of thespians.
Self-induced exhaustion is something which also appears in the upstairs space dedicated to Kjartansson’s project for the 53rd Venice Biennale in 2009. Over the course of six months, the artist painted daily portraits of friend and performance artist Páll Haukur Björnsson while he lounged around the space drinking beers and smoking cigarettes. That project is represented here by a massive collection of paintings, and a single photograph of the pair in action. The staggering amount of paintings on show are a testament to Kjartansson’s feat of endurance, while the amount of beer bottles in the photograph give the audience a similarly appreciative perspective on Björnsson’s own tenacity. Rumour has it that the singers performing at the exhibition entrance were also meant to be able to chain smoke through their gruelling eight-hour rendition, however strict health and safety laws prohibited it (much to the artist’s displeasure). The link between the two works is still clear, however.
Another of Kjartansson’s most well-known works is A Lot of Sorrow (2013), a piece that featured Brooklyn band The National performing their track ‘Sorrow’ for six hours on repeat. That video is featured here alongside the performance Sorrow Conquers Happiness (2006) captured in the video God. In the former, the band work through 105 versions of their song to a jubilant crowd, the downbeat aura of their music mirrored somehow by the ever more subdued appearance of the performers. By the time they get to the end, the group is visibly exhausted, and there is an element of palpable relief on stage as Kjartansson moves from musician to musician, whispering in their ear that their 6 hour exertion is complete. In the latter video, Kjartansson oscillates between a mournful croon and an exuberant bellow, repeating over and over the title phrase while backed by an elegantly tuxedoed band. Again, endurance, repetition, but also a tonal fixation on the sombre that seems to hover in the background of so much of his work.
In retrospective shows such as this, there’s often an unexpected highlight to be found in the older work. At the Barbican, that might be Kjartansson’s collaboration with Laddi, the alias of Icelandic comedian and performer Thorhallur Sigurdsson. Entitled Guilt Trip (2007), the 20 minute video work features Laddi walking around a largely featureless, snow covered setting. Dressed in black, and carrying a shotgun with a bright yellow bag of bullets, Laddi periodically stops to contemplate the void, before firing, deadpan, into nothingness. In a short introductory essay on the i8 gallery website, artist and curator Markús Thór Andrésson suggests “paradoxically Laddi is in the middle of nowhere aiming coincidentally at nothing – he might as well be shooting blanks. Has he wasted his life entertaining an unknown audience? Has he lost himself on the way? Are the targets for his bullets the numerous identities that he has put out there?”  The genius of the performance comes from its simplicity. One the one hand, there is the vague sense of being lost in someone’s existential crisis, completely adrift in a vacuum they cannot escape. Yet in an almost Beckettian way, the longer it goes on the funnier and more engrossing it becomes.
It’s the almost absurdist attention to the bleak in these pieces which gives Kjartansson’s work it’s haunting prescience, while his subtle but masterful comedic touches elevate the work beyond the self-indulgent and into something much more relatable and inclusive. Creating a sense of solidarity in the void is difficult enough, but with clever staging and humorous slights of hand, the artist somehow achieves it all without necessarily making it clear to the audience that that’s what they are witnessing. In each of these works, particularly the moving image pieces, you begin to identify with the performers, something which perhaps separates his work from the otherwise likeminded artists mentioned previously. The audience becomes invested, and as his profile continues to rise, it will be interesting to see how he will maintain the tension as the landscape around him begins to seem less and less empty.
By Will Gresson
Ragnar Kjartansson will be on display at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington DC from October 14, 2016 until January 8, 2017.