Louisiana Museum of Modern Art opens an exhibition of works by Ragnar Kjartansson
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Louisiana Museum of Modern Art opens an exhibition of works by Ragnar Kjartansson
Ragnar Kjartansson, Stillbillede fra ’No Tomorrow’, 2017. Ballet med 8 guitarer, lavet til Iceland Dance Company i samarbejde med Margrét Bjarnadóttir & Bryce Dessner © Ragnar Kjartansson.

HUMLEBAEK.- Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark opens its big summer exhibition with Iceland’s Ragnar Kjartansson (b. 1976). The exhibition is the first retrospective presentation in Scandinavia of Kjartansson, who has long had a presence as one of contemporary art’s essential voices having exhibited at leading art institutions all around the world.

EPIC WASTE OF LOVE AND UNDERSTANDING fills the museum’s South Wing with a wealth of different media: painting, sculpture, performance and major spatial installations including film and music. A selection of the artist’s best-known projects is complemented by early works as well as entirely new ones created directly for the exhibition.

Kjartansson’s emotional and political engagement with the world is reflected in the works. They embody his loving, humorous and critical dialogue with Western culture – our self-understanding, our successes, our clichés, failures, melancholy, confusion, hope and absurdities. A seam of nuanced reflections on masculinity runs through the work and the exhibition in themes spanning from existential pain to aggressive geopolitics, which also takes in Denmark’s colonialization of the artist’s homeland, Iceland.

With precision, the works quiver ambiguously between existential and political gravity and poppy lightness, and with Kjartansson you usually have to both laugh and cry. The artist’s hallmark is the tension between comedy and tragedy – as in the work Me and My Mother, 2015, in Louisiana’s Collection with which many visitors will be familiar.

At Louisiana, the exhibition follows major presentations of other leading multimedia practitioners within contemporary art at Louisiana, including Marina Abramović, Pipilotti Rist, Mika Rottenberg and Arthur Jafa, all of whom combine performance, video, sound and other media.

Selected works in the exhibition:

Epic Waste of Love and Understanding, 2023

In front of the museum’s main entrance, visitors encounter a six-metre-tall monument bearing the inscription Epic Waste of Love and Understanding. The monument, the exhibition’s title work, is built of wood and has the unmistakable character of a theatre set. It mimics a classic monument of the kind erected to commemorate important figures or historical events. Instead, Kjartansson has erected a monument to an “epic waste of love and understanding”. The phrase originally came about in an argument between the artist and his wife at home in their kitchen. Given monumental form, it stands as a grand poetic statement about the striking squandering of love and empathy found in the crises and conflicts of history and the present day, and in our relationships with each other and the world.

Guilt and Fear, 2022

The world and daily life are drawn together in this installation of hundreds of porcelain salt and pepper shakers inscribed with “Guilt” and “Fear” instead of “salt” and “pepper”. Sculptural monumentality and monumental emotions are shrunk down to dining-table format as the most basic, most banal spices of life. While at this point the clichés already stumble over one another – the salt and pepper multiples being one of them, of course – the work builds on a perception of a dominant mood of guilt and fear that quickly spread via a hotchpotch of global events: the coronavirus pandemic, Black Lives Matter, metoo, cancel culture, criticism of historical heroes and monuments, the post-colonial reckoning, political manipulation and fearmongering, the debate on gender and identity, the climate crisis, and the build-up to war.

Mercy, 2004

The work stands on the shoulders of the classic formulas of performance video art from the genre’s beginnings in the 1960s and 1970s. For Kjartansson, it was feminist art’s investigations of identity and gender clichés in particular that became the decisive impulse for his own work with gender and identity. Carolee Schneemann and Marina Abramović are among the artists he often singles out.

Many of the typical themes and formal techniques in Kjartansson’s oeuvre are to be found in Mercy. Repetition is one of the methods the artist uses most. A simple, clichéd motif is held up so that it can be seen and heard again and again. Alone with his guitar in front of a video camera, the artist spends an hour repeating the same question: “Oh why, do I keep on hurting you?” The question is as simple as it is complex, and Kjartansson leaves it hanging somewhere between rhetoric and deepest sincerity. He performs it under the identity of classic crooner, modeled after figures such as Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley, and distils the ambiguous air of melancholy, guilt and self-absorption to be found in rich abundance in the country music genre. A dialogue with the history of music and with the clichés of masculine identity and sensitivity in western culture – including how they have been popularized throughout music history – runs through his work and this exhibition like a leitmotif. These themes reappear in the video work A Lot of Sorrow, 2013-14, which is also part of the exhibition. That work is a collaboration with the American rock band The National, who spend six hours replaying their weltschmerz hit Sorrow.

The End – Venezia, 2009
At Louisiana, Mercy is being shown in a room where the walls are covered with The End – Venezia, 2009, the work that marked Kjartansson’s international breakthrough. It consists of 144 portraits of a young man in Speedos that Kjartansson painted during a six-month performance for the Venice Biennale in 2009, where he was representing Iceland. In the aftermath of the acute collapse of the Icelandic economy in 2008, the work became an antitype to capitalism’s galloping, masculine culture of performance. Two young men in the prime of their lives spent half a year hanging out, drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, listening to music, reading, playing the guitar – and painting: Kjartansson field-tested the romantic mould for the male artistic genius and painted his undressed model, his friend the visual artist Páll Haukur Björnsson (b. 1981), every day.

Colonization, 2003 and Portrait of Magnús Stephensen, 2022

Iceland was colonized by Denmark and remained under Danish rule for almost 600 years between 1380–1944. The colonial relationship is the subject of two works in the exhibition: In the early video Colonization, we see an Icelandic peasant (played by Ragnar Kjartansson) being given both a verbal and a physical thrashing by an inebriated Danish merchant who accuses him of cheating.

While the subject matter is serious and the one man’s repeated blows upon the other are unpleasant to watch, the video also makes reference to goofy amateur comedies where everything is far too melodramatic. An absurd scene in the great, human comedy.

Alongside the video is a portrait painting from 2021 depicting the last Governor-General of Iceland, Magnús Stephensen (1836–1917). He was the highest royal Danish authority in Iceland until home rule was introduced in 1904. He is depicted donning his finery on his last day in office. His expression, however, is tired and melancholy rather than proud and statesmanlike. Kjartansson painted the portrait to raise funds to pay the fines of activists from the No Borders network in Reykjavik. The fines were issued following their prosecution due to clashes with police during protests against conditions for refugees and asylum seekers in Iceland.

The Visitors, 2012

The musical performance piece The Visitors is among Kjartansson’s best known works and, in 2019, was named by the British newspaper The Guardian as the best work of art of the twenty-first century. The work is a nine-screen video installation where we see musicians playing together from separate rooms in a large, old house – the historic Rokeby Farm in New York state. The musicians are connected via headphones, and the work was recorded in a single take. Kjartansson himself lies with his guitar in a full bathtub.

The Visitors is the title of the Swedish pop group ABBA’s last album from 1981 (before they released a follow-up 40 years later in 2021) – a break-up album created while the two marriages in the group – and thus the band itself – were falling apart.

The lyrics in Kjartansson’s work are composed of texts by the Icelandic artist Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir, with whom Kjartansson was in a relationship before they agreed to go their separate ways. There is an undisguised melancholy tone to the text and the music that matches the air of past glories that hangs in the patinated rooms.

No Tomorrow, 2022

Among the many recent works in the exhibition is a kaleidoscopic guitar ballet created in collaboration between Kjartansson, choreographer Margrét Bjarnadóttir, and musician Bryce Dessner (from the American band The National), in addition to the participating dancers.

We are placed at the centre of a ring of six large screens, the dancers circling around us in taut choreography. The work has obvious roots in the genre of the musical/dance film, which flourished in the United States during the depression that followed the 1929 Wall Street Crash. Among its most iconic examples are American director Busby Berkeley’s spectacularly ornamental choreographies of dancing girls in identical costumes. The entertaining and visually exuberant genre flourished further while the world was at war during the 1940s.

The lyrics are a collage of sentences from English translations from the erotic literary canon: some from the short story “No Tomorrow” (“Point de lendemain”, 1777) by the French writer Vivant Denon (1747–1825), others from the ancient poet Sappho (610– 570 BCE). It’s beautiful, hopeful, trivial and sad. “Oh babe, no tomorrow”, the women sing with both sincerity and the greatest matter-of-factness.

Bangemand, 2023

In Bangemand, the new performance created for the exhibition, we find a tuxedo-clad man with his back to the wall, perched on a cornice. The Hollywood cliché is a familiar one. Here it is isolated as a contemporary tableau with rich interpretative possibilities.

In addition to those mentioned above, a number of other works will be presented, including a new performance video to be filmed at the museum shortly before the opening of the exhibition, as well as a classic of the artist’s oeuvre which will be placed in the museum’s park by the café and the view of Øresund: the twelve-metre-long neon sign Scandinavian Pain, 2006-2012. Bent into pink neon, “Scandinavian Pain” is partly a humorous advertisement for Nordic melancholy, a popular brand in the global culture industry since at least as far back as Edvard Munch, and partly an open and playful questioning of all the self-pity here, in one of the most privileged regions in the world.

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