Once the Armory Show’s “Open Forum” schedule was announced, I knew that I wanted to meet Ragnar Kjartansson, one of Iceland’s most recognized artists and someone who, in recent years, has put Nordic performance art on the international map. Last November he received the prestigious Malcolm McLaren Award for the twelve-hour performance “Bliss”, which was commissioned by Performa 11; in the 53rd Venice Biennale, he was the youngest artist to ever have represented Iceland.
Little did I know that attending the presentation would be almost beyond the bounds of possibility, as the person joining in on this conversation would be Björk – the global superstar whose name had attracted the attention of an overwhelming crowd. Apparently, people were anticipating that the dialogue would turn into a concert. (It didn’t!) By pure luck and coincidence, I was welcomed into this exclusive event; I was thrilled to be able to absorb the long-awaited conversation, which also happened to give me the opportunity to invite Ragnar to share his artistic views with Arterritory.com. Our meeting took place a few days later.
I have heard people say that you secretly want to be a painter.
Secretly! Then it’s not a secret (laughs). I am embarrassingly trying to be a painter, but everyone just keeps politely replying – “Yes, that’s nice, but stick to your performances, kid.”
But during the performance project “The End”, which you carried out at the Venice Biennale, you managed to combine these two passions effortlessly. Could you tell us more about this experience?
I had previously visited the Venice Biennale in 2007. It was Venice and the exhibition space of the Icelandic pavilion was overwhelmingly beautiful. And the art was great, but somehow it disappeared within the power of the space. I thought it would be pointless to try and beat the surroundings, so my idea was to hang out in there and to be the kind of artist that I always wanted to be – a Bohemian creating paintings. We had to drink all the time and we had to smoke all the time. It was mandatory for the project. The guy [the live drawing model – EZ] who was with me hasn’t touched a drop since. It was also a really good rehab.
Throughout your career, you have often collaborated with other people. How do you find them?
It usually happens very naturally. I meet somebody and we start talking, and then we end up collaborating. For me, collaboration is also a way of extending a relationship with somebody. It’s an excuse to share a friendship.
Is it difficult to find people who would be willing to participate in time consuming performances, like “Bliss”?
Yes, it is difficult, but it always happens by chance. Regarding my “Bliss” piece, it was impossible to find opera singers here in New York. Everyone’s response was – “No way, José!” Then, one day I was talking to this Icelandic opera singer. I explained the piece to him and after a while he said “Ragnar, I want to do it with you and I will get you the necessary people. No problem.” He was inspired to do it. I didn’t even ask him. I didn’t dare ask him because he is such a great singer.
How did you choose the length of this performance?
Either my performances are very short, or very, very long. The twelve-hour performance was just a beautiful amount of time – from noon to midnight. It had the formal aesthetics of time and context.
But those twelve hours consisted of a repetition of two-minute “loops”.
The reason for it was quite simple – this small, two-minute part of the “Marriage of Figaro” is the best music ever written by a human being. My decision was to skip all the other stuff and just take this small section. I’ve been to this opera four times, just waiting for this part to come up. It’s indescribable. Every time it starts, I’m blown away.
Did you need to prepare for this performance?
For “Bliss”, we practiced a lot. Actually, I was away doing my residency, so my father was working with all the singers, directing them. They were doing both vocal and theatre practice, so when they came to New York, they knew exactly what they were doing. There is a good, old saying – “you should never practice for performance art.” But I am very interested in using the methods of theatre and changing them into something more sculptural.
Last November, “Bliss” received the Malcolm Award, which recogniz es the most innovative and thought-provoking performance during the Performa Biennial. What did this mean to you?
You probably already know this – all awards in art are totally stupid, until you get one yourself (laughs). It’s very nice to receive an award. It was a surprise. But even greater was the surprise of how well the piece worked. It really worked.
Is there going to be a follow up to “Bliss”?
Of course. The next piece is always a follow up. They always resonate into each other. Actually, the marble sculpture “Mercy”, which i8 gallery has exhibited here at the Armory Show, is a continuation of “Bliss”.
Could you elaborate on the connection between these two pieces?
When working with Mozart’s music, I was very interested in the friction between rococo and neoclassicism – the pure sophistication and the human who faces it. Neoclassicism has this aura of having power over a human being. It is pure visual power, graceful and eternal. And it has been used by every government and every tyrant ever since.
In the final part of “Figaro”, there is this idea of mercy and forgiveness, and I found it a thrilling subject, filled with heightened religiosity and power structures. “Mercy” has a violent element within. If not mercy, then what? That’s how the vision of a neoclassical object, which was asking for compassion, appeared. That’s how inspiration usually happens – you work on an ultimate theatrical piece like “Bliss”, which in turn gives you an idea for a marble sculpture (laughs). There is a continuation.
Here at the Armory Show, i8 gallery has also exhibited your piece “Scandinavian Pain”. Shining above the well-attended champagne bar, it is one of the most visible artworks on display.
The pink, neon sign of “Scandinavian Pain” is an old piece that I did in 2006 and displayed on a barn in Norway. This barn, this fjord was where Edvard Munch painted a lot of his paintings. If you stand there, you can recognize the scenery from Munch’s works and it takes your breath away. I felt like I was almost putting a neon sign into a well-known masterpiece. In a way, it was an homage to Edvard Munch, Ingmar Bergman, August Strindberg - to all of the Scandinavian pain which we don’t have in Iceland.
What do you mean by the term “Scandinavian pain”?
I really admire that Scandinavians are very profound in their pain. In the history of art, there has never been a painter or an artist that has had a sweeter relationship to pain as Edward Munch did. In his time, Scandinavia was a poor and uneducated part of Europe, struggling with identity. But now, 100 years later, Scandinavian pain is “Misery Deluxe”. Scandinavia is chic and rich, but still very melancholic. It’s a national heritage for well-situated and educated Scandinavian artists to maintain the pain, to keep up with the tradition. I once saw an interview with Abba where someone had asked the group the question of why were their songs so popular. To that, Benny Andersson replied - “I think they are acknowledged because we are from Scandinavia where we have a tradition of deep pain. Although these are pop songs, they are filled with Scandinavian pain.” I think that’s where the idea for the piece actually came from. So, if you think about it, for example, a song like “Dancing Queen” has a deep melancholia within. You can hear it when you listen to the song, the chords and the unfolding of the idea – once a week, in your mundane misery, you become a dancing queen – but that’s when you are young and sweet, only seventeen (laughs).
It’s interesting that you are talking about this, because within your artworks, there always seems to be a hint of humour. I guess Iceland is far enough from Scandinavia to not feel this pain.
Yes, I admire their pain, but I come from a very happy model. In many ways, I feel so hopeless about the world, about everything, that I just decide to be happy. There is no use for anything else. Humour is also the reason why I love Mozart. He was an amusing artist, who always used irony. Take, for example, an opera like “Don Giovanni”. All of the beautiful arias take place when Don Giovanni is lying – he doesn’t mean what he’s saying, he’s just trying to get some girl into bed... but in the friction of lies and beauty, Mozart’s magnificent music goes straight to the heart.