In 1943, Hilla Rebay asked Frank Lloyd Wright to design a “temple for the spirit” to house Solomon R. Guggenheim’s art collection; this weekend, a feminist performance piece by the artist Ragnar Kjartansson will transform the museum into a deceptively gorgeous “church of pain.” Stationed throughout the building’s iconic rotunda are female and nonbinary musicians performing an ethereal patchwork of acoustic pop songs, all arranged in the same key to sonically complement each other. But step closer and the lyrics come into focus: “You let me violate you / You let me desecrate you” or “I'm pulling you close / You just say no / You say you don't like it / But girl I know you're a liar.”
This is the second iteration of “Romantic Songs of the Patriarchy,” a 2018 work by Kjartansson, the Icelandic artist best known for his video installation “The Visitors,” which the Guardian named the best art piece of the 21st century. Formally, “Romantic Songs of the Patriarchy” is an exercise in recontextualization; songs like The Rolling Stones’ “Under My Thumb” and Neil Diamond’s “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” really do take on a new meaning when people who could be the songs’ subjects sing them on repeat for 90 minutes at a time.
“When it becomes this dense atmosphere, I think that it really embodies what it feels like to be oppressed,” says musical director Kendra McKinley, who also performs in it. “It’s coming at you from every direction, these fragments of triggering words trailing in and out, and you can’t escape it.”
Not to mention, the piece is unwittingly a manifestation of the patriarchy itself: it is a white man’s artwork that requires women and nonbinary people to do physically draining and emotionally devastating labor. As members of the cast pointed out in a group discussion before Wednesday’s rehearsal, there is an element of cognitive dissonance to performing it. Since hearing those concerns, Kjartansson has been reckoning with the ethics of the piece, considering whether it’s wrong to ask performers to participate in a feat so taxing for the sake of making a point. “It’s just really embarrassing. I feel so embarrassed!” he says of the irony, which was unintentional but strangely confirms the work’s value. We’re sitting, masked, in the museum’s third floor café; the performers have just packed up their guitars and left for the day. “I am in this conflicted position. Why the hell am I doing this? Artistically I feel it’s right, but I don’t know morally if it’s right. The piece is basically an open wound, there’s no resolution, it’s just showing this wound. An open wound in this lovely atmosphere.”
To his credit, McKinley says, Kjartansson has been “vulnerable and humble” in the face of criticism. “The fact that you’re willing to have this conversation is a big reason it feels progressive and productive,” where another artist might have asked unhappy performers to leave.
Kjartansson nods and leans back in his chair, wide-eyed. “This morning was one of those moments you will never, ever forget.” As someone who considers himself a lifelong feminist, he is acutely aware of his privilege. “Everything I say feels really stupid, which is really good! Which is what it’s about. This piece is about confronting all these ideas, all these entitlements I hold within myself from my upbringing and from these songs and from my culture.”
He believes the patriarchy is woven through every narrative, “every song you hear. These songs are just an example, it’s almost everything you hear on the radio.” Kjartansson sees pop music as a mirror for society. “Songs are some of the fables of our times, or almost like the prayers of our times, because a song gets into your head and into your system like a prayer used to do.” He’s also interested in examining why some artists are considered serious while others are written off. “I’m raised with the idea that Leonard Cohen is a true artist and Bob Dylan is a true artist from my socialist Icelandic parents, but stuff like ABBA is just disgusting commercial bubblegum,” he explains. “Then you go 40 years onward in time, and Leonard Cohen is sponsored by Armani and Bob Dylan did Cadillac commercials and Victoria’s Secret, but ABBA was the main sponsor of the Swedish Feminist Party and they never sold out, ever. So that complicates things. This idea that pop is somewhat shallow, I don’t like that idea.”
ABBA’s aesthetic tension has been a longtime source of inspiration for him; “The Visitors” takes its name from the group’s final album. “I think ABBA is a really interesting thing, because they’re in these ridiculous costumes, and then Björn and Agnetha divorce and he writes a song where she sings the line, ‘tell me, does she kiss the way I used to kiss you?’ How fucking painful, and they’re doing this in their silly costumes!” the artist says, grinning. “It’s really hardcore, painful, brutal songs. I just love that.”
When Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion released “W.A.P.” last summer, he listened to an hourlong debate on Icelandic public radio about whether it was a feminist manifesto or pornography. “Of course the conclusion is you don’t know, it’s hard to tell. That’s what a great pop song does, it complicates things.” Also complicated: the chauvinistic songs in the Guggenheim piece are considered “fantastic songs by some of the greatest songwriters of our times.” Even thornier: some were written or performed by women, such as “‘He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)” by Carole King, which was recorded in 1962 by The Crystals. (Though intended to critique domestic abuse, the song was widely interpreted to be an endorsement of it.) “Fire,” written by Bruce Springsteen, is best known by the Pointer Sisters’ 1978 recording.
Kjartansson is the rare person to believe he was born at exactly the right time. “The interesting thing about the twenty-first century is everything is being taken into question, which is fantastic,” he says. “I’m sometimes shaking with excitement about our times, because all these things we take for granted are suddenly not.” Though #MeToo and the ongoing racial reckoning are the biggest examples, he is also interested in debates over cultural touchstones like the television show Friends, whose plotlines some Icelandic people see as perpetuating misogyny and racism. “My 11-year-old daughter and her friends are starting to like Friends. Me and [my wife] Ingibjörg had a parents’ conversation about it.” By reexamining seemingly innocuous films and songs, he says, “you start to question your own motives. #MeToo is not just about some insane monsters like Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby, it’s about how men take their position for granted and take their connection to women for granted.”
If the performers hadn’t started such a frank conversation hours before our second meeting at the museum, this write-up would look very different. A day earlier, Kjartansson enthusiastically discussed sincerity and irony in performance art, “spatial music,” the concept of “sculpturizing a song,” and removing narrative structure through repetition. He discussed his years in advertising (“The difference is like, when you’re doing artworks, you have to tell the truth, and when you’re in advertising, you have to tell a lie”) and Taylor Swift’s rerecording project (“It feels very much like conceptual art, like doing your piece again, it’s like Edvard Munch painting ‘The Scream’ many times.”) He praised Olivia Rodrigo (fittingly: “déjà vu is awesome!”) and spoke fondly of his experience weathering the pandemic in the temporarily tourist-less Iceland, where he would take morning jogs and stop by his very good friend Anne Carson’s house for breakfast. He recommended “The Gender of Sound,” Carson’s “insanely magnificent essay about women’s voices,” and showed photos of his 11-year-old daughter standing with the poet and classicist near Geldingadalir, the volcano that started erupting in March. He literally sighed with relief over how amazing! and brilliant! and totally great! the Guggenheim cast turned out to be, and even after their criticism, he still feels that way — now, there’s a newfound sense of camaraderie and unity around the piece’s intentions.
McKinley considers Wednesday’s mini-reckoning “a crucial extension of the piece,” since “Romantic Songs of the Patriarchy” was designed to spark debate. “The fact we are all having this conversation is how we can bypass cancel culture and hopefully have a major growth point.” She adds: vilifying the artist isn’t the answer.
“But I’m up for it!” Kjartansson interjects. “In a way it’s like, mission accomplished.”
At the end of the day, McKinley says, the inherent irony of the piece makes it truthful. “It feels complicated and it sounds beautiful, and therein lies the mystery of the patriarchy: we’re all seduced by this thing we’re still trapped inside.”