On the eve of the first American survey of his work at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., the Icelandic performance artist Ragnar Kjartansson was standing in one of the galleries, discussing a new opera project he’s been working on. Aptly, you could hear his new show — a vivid fusion of tongue-in-cheek humor and laconic sorrow — before you saw it. Throughout our conversation, a woman strummed the melancholy E-minor chord in the background non-stop, sometimes aggressively, sometimes pensively. She is one of several local musicians performing Woman in E (2016), for which they take turns playing an amplified electric guitar, surrounded by gold streamers and dressed in a gold-sequinned gown on a rotating pedestal for the entire run of the exhibition.
Here’s what you need to know about the art world’s newest star, according to Kjartansson himself.
Ragnar Kjartansson and The National. A Lot of Sorrow, 2013-2014. Courtesy of the artists, Luhring Augustine, New York and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik.
1. He has his mother spit on him every five years. “The video series, Me and My Mother (2000–15), is so influenced by the hardcore-ness and physicality of 70’s feminist art, because she’s the one spitting, denouncing her offspring. It’s a play with feminist art and biblical subjects and stuff like that.”
2. He’s a proud feminist. “My biggest influences are feminist artists, and women artists in general. I was raised by feminist 70’s parents, and then I became interested in this revolution we’ve been having in the 20th century that finally half of humanity has a voice. It’s in the arts, politics — it’s just making the world so much more interesting.”
3. He thinks the electric guitar is “the greatest American weapon ever created.” “The guitar is a sort of weapon. I was just thinking that, being here in Washington. It gets you in the gut.”
4. He knows the best way to get a song out of your head. “The best thing to do is to listen to Billy Idol’s ‘White Wedding,’ because it really erases another song, but it’s not too catchy.”
5. He was an altar boy. Then he sang the words “Sorrow conquers happiness” for 30 minutes, in a tuxedo, backed by an orchestra of 11 musicians in a room draped with pink satin curtains, and things changed. “I was really religious until I did that piece. I never understood why the work was called God (2007) until I spoke with you just now. Around that time, I just saw the light. I saw that we’re all just human beings, and it’s all sad and beautiful and we’re all gonna die. It’s as simple as that.”
6. In 2015, he sang a similar phrase, in Russian this time, with a full orchestra, for six hours. “Repetition is a tool we humans use. It’s the basis of all religion. Repeat stuff three times and it’s boring but repeat it over and over and that’s how it becomes mystical and spiritual. The more you repeat it, the more weight or substance it gets. It’s like a weird human trick.”
7. He thinks “religion gives you excuses to be assholes.” “It’s this thing where you believe in an ideology that makes you better than others, which is so creepy.”
8. He believes “art has to be useless.” “I’m a super political person. It’s always there in the subconscious. But as an artist, I always want to be ambiguous. An artwork is always about uselessness at the end of the day. If an artwork becomes a piece of political propaganda, then it’s not useless. Art has to be useless so it becomes a thing that doesn’t stop.”
9. His parents acted out a steamy sex scene for a film, then conceived him a few hours later. He made it into a performance he called Take Me Here By the Dishwasher (2014). “They say I was conceived the night after that shot. But they are also very flamboyant show business people, so maybe it’s just a good story. It’s like my mother says, ‘A good story should never suffer from the truth.’ That’s kind of a family motto in my family. All these lies and exaggerations, they are the essence of our human communications.”
Ragnar Kjartansson. God, 2007. Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik
10. His influences are all over the map. “It’s Kanye West, it’s Carolee Schneemann, Oscar Wilde, the Bible, Johnny Cash, the unknown authors of the Icelandic sagas and whatnot — the whole gamut.”
11. You can blame Bob Dylan for Kjartansson’s obsession with repetition. “It’s really fun to compose around the repetition. I started doing this because of the great song by the Nobel laureate Bob Dylan, ‘All the Tired Horses.’ It’s a song that just repeats ‘All the tired horses in the sun / How’m I supposed to get any ridin’ done?’ Hmm. It’s like this weird opus at the beginning of the record.”
12. His longest performance work, The End—Venice (2009), lasted six months; he painted a friend wearing just a Speedo once per day while being extremely drunk or extremely hungover at the Venice Biennale. “Being drunk for six months, it’s really tough. We stayed in this palazzo in Venice and just drank beer and smoked. It’s kind of like being that artist you wanted to be in your twenties: a macho drunk.”
13. His godmother said no to the Nazis, then lived in his basement for 20 years. “Engel Lund was asked to sing for Adolf Hitler in a private concert. She wrote the Nazis a telegram saying ‘Nein’ and just left Germany after that. It’s pretty cool. She moved into our basement in the early 70’s and she died in ’96, when I was 20. She’s such a big influence — an amazing singer.”
14. He sees performance as sculpture and video as painting. “I’m very old school in my head. Want to do a performance? It’s a sculpture. And when it’s a video, it’s a painting.”
15. His videos can last hours, but you don’t have to watch the whole thing to get the point. “You usually have to watch a movie from beginning to end. But most of my video works are just a feeling, like a painting is a feeling. For World Light—The Life and Death of an Artist (2015), which takes some 20-odd hours to watch, you just have to feel it, you don’t have to watch all of it. It’s about the feeling of people trying to scream out stuff about beauty all the time.”