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Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson

The Best Performance Artist: Ragnar Kjartansson 0

Anna Iltnere

On the evening of November 21 in New York, at the closing ceremonies of the Performa performance art biennale, the Malcolm McLaren Award was presented  to the best participant in the festival. A string of artist take part in the Performa biennale, presenting new performances specially created for the biennale. At the awards ceremony, organized at the Bowery Hotel in downtown Manhattan, musician Lou Reed and Korean artist Young Kim stepped into the spotlight and announced the winner’s name: Ragnar Kjartansson (1976). In a single moment, the 35-year-old Icelandic artist became 10,000 dollars richer and arrived at the zenith of international art. Kjartansson received the award for his twelve-hour-long work of art Bliss, which audiences could watch and listen to from noon to midnight. During this time, Kjartansson constantly repeats the delirious final aria from Mozart’s 1768 opera The Marriage of Figaro. The performance conjures up a full-fledged scene from an opera performance, involving both the orchestra and costumed singers, as well as stage decorations. Viewers of this unique performance were allowed to freely come and go from the hall, and then return again later. The original section of the opera is only two-minutes long. Viewers can only imagine the euphoric state a person can enter by playing out a two-minute scene onstage for an entire day.

All biennale artists under the age of forty could compete for the prize, which was presented to the most innovative and intellectually provocative performance at Performa 11.

Born to a family of actors in Iceland, Ragnar Kjartansson encompasses a widespread creative field, whose integral elements are both music and stage elements; he mixes performance art with installations, video, painting, and sculpture. In ice-covered Iceland, which has served as a cradle for many eccentric artists blessed with plenty of concentrated talent (the most popular examples are Bjork and Sigur Ros), Ragnar became a local popstar with his group Traband. He spent his childhood listening to his parents study their lines and rehearse scenes; it seems as if this constant repetition somehow settled into the future artist’s subconscious. Length and cyclical activities (the artist himself uses the phrase “performance loops”) are clear elements of Ragnar’s signature style, which could first be discerned when he was a student and shortly thereafter. For example, when graduating from the Reykjavik Art Academy, his 2001 thesis project Opera was like a piece of rococo theater which Kjartansson performed in his room over the course of ten days, singing a cappella every day for four hours. In 2005, at his performance The Great Unrest, which took place during the Reykjavik Festival, Kjartansson played the blues in an abandoned cultural center in an outlying district; he spent three weeks there, dressed as a Viking. The performance was enhanced by cardboard decorations that he cut out and painted himself—icebergs, mountains, and flames. In 2009, Kjartansson represented Iceland at the 53rd Venice Biennale.

Malcolm McLaren (Great Britain), who has lent his name to the award, was the “brains” behind the legendary British punk group the Sex Pistols. In 1970s London, shoulder to shoulder with his beloved Vivienne Westwood and breathing the air of anarchy, McLaren became manager of a crazy ensemble of even crazier kids, who barely knew how to play the instruments given to them. Lead singer John Lydon didn’t even know how to sing. As the band members later indicated in interviews, this turned out to be the secret of their success.

In 1986, the always dapper McLaren—who was restless by nature and a rather intolerable fellow—left the (already broken-up) group after a lengthy court battle with the Sex Pistols’ lead singer Lydon, who in accordance with a decision in his favor earned the group’s independence from its former manager and gained along with other group members all copyrights. Malcolm McLaren died on April 8, 2010, at sixty-four years of age. Shortly after his death, Lydon admitted that their ceaseless arguing was what McLaren used to maintain a persistent development. Following McLaren’s death, it seems as if Lydon no longer has the opposite pole to disagree with, or in spite of which to do or prove something. As a child, McLaren was raised by his grandmother, who often repeated, “It’s good to be bad, but it is simply boring to be good.”

When reviewing the pre-history of the award, I must mention the year 2009, when the organizers of Performa 11 turned to Malcolm McLaren, asking him to create a performance for the upcoming biennale. He suggested giving a lecture entitled “Jesus Christ is a Sausage,” a reference to Dadaism.

Noting McLaren’s great talent for storytelling and public speaking, Steven Spielberg once described him as a “director with a camera.” Listening to his stories, Spielberg got the impression that he was watching a performance. Unfortunately, fate drew a lines across these plans. A year after McLaren’s death, in the spring of last year, one of the curators of Performa turned to his longtime girlfriend Young Kim and suggested the idea for the award. Kim has said in interviews that the idea initially seemed impossible, because it was too painful to imagine “celebrating Malcolm’s death.” Yet she decided that not looking back at the past and marching forward without compromise would be an action in accordance with McLaren’s spirit, and so the award was established.

The founder and director of Performa, art historian RoseLee Goldberg, is convinced that the flourishing of performance art is still ahead of us. The biennale was established with the aim of showing the great importance this field of art has always has had in our cultural heritage; even Leonardo da Vinci once staged a performance at a Medici family wedding. Goldberg has devoted her entire academic career to the study and development of performance art. A huge boon for performance art was experienced at the first Performa, in 2005, when young artists were enraptured by the idea of burning once again with ideas and a creative spirit, without worrying at all about the art market, which in recent years has become an increasingly oppressive power. Because it is still heard to “package” performance art for placement by the cash register.

Performa took place in 2005, 2007, 2009, and 2011. The next biennale is scheduled for 2013.