FACT or FICTION

Ragnar Kjartansson: Scandinavian Pain and Other Myths

text and images courtesy of Phoenix Art Museum

Above: Visitors at Phoenix Art Museum exhibition of Ragnar Kjartansson: Scandinavian Pain and Other Myths. Forefront, neon sign;  Ragnar Kjartansson, Scandinavian Pain, 2006. Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik. Artworks on display; Ragnar Kjartansson, The End – Venezia, 2009. 144 Paintings. © Ragnar Kjartansson; Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik.

Ragnar Kjartansson creates art that’s nothing less than evocative. Viewers around the world have been known to smile, laugh, cry, even cringe when they encounter his performative installations and paintings that break with what is often perceived as the seriousness and severity of contemporary art.

Valley residents now have the opportunity to experience some of  Kjartansson’s performance-based artworks, including his renowned video installation, The Visitors. On view through April 14, Ragnar Kjartansson: Scandinavian Pain and Other Myths showcas\es three artworks by the Icelandic artist, and although each represents a different facet of his practice, all are quintessentially Kjartansson, examining the myth of identity through performance, music, humor and text.

Above: Ragnar Kjartansson, Scandinavian Pain, 2006. Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik.

“We are excited to share works by Ragnar Kjartansson with Phoenix Art Museum guests,” said Gilbert Vicario, the Selig Family Chief Curator and the curator of the exhibition. “Ragnar is one of the most interesting performance artists working today, and The Visitors is considered one of the best video installations of the last 20 years.”

Raised in the theater and a self-proclaimed fan of the blues, Kjartansson (b.1976) uses performance and humor to interpret and convey larger-than-life emotions, including themes of sadness and solemnity. One of his favorite topics to explore through his art is the idea of Scandinavian pain.

“There is something so sad about Scandinavia,” the artist said wryly in an interview with Louisiana Channel. “It’s like this ideal part of the world, but it is just so black. It’s Sad-inavia.”

Above: Ragnar Kjartansson, The End – Venezia, 2009. 144 Paintings. © Ragnar Kjartansson; Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik.

Kjartansson examines this contradiction in identity most directly in the exhibition’s  aptly named Scandinavian Pain (2006-2012). At 11 meters long, the bright pink neon sign was originally installed on a barn in Norway. Surrounded by trees and grass, and at times nearly engulfed by fog, it popped up in an otherwise bleak and gloomy landscape.

Now the monumental object stretches diagonally across the floor of the Museum’s Anderman Gallery. Removed from any roof, wall or outdoor space, the sign explores identity through language and color, representing an all-too perfect interpretation of the Scandinavian condition – a region marked by intense gloom but often perceived as home to “the happiest people on Earth.”

Above: Ragnar Kjartansson, The Visitors (detail), 2012. Nine-channel video. © Ragnar Kjartansson; Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik.
In contrast, The End – Venezia (2009) explores the myth of the artist, satirizing the artist’s identity and what it means, or should mean. The genesis of the 144-portrait installation was Kjartansson’s endurance art performance at the 2009 Venice Biennale. Secluding himself in a fourteenth-century palazzo, Kjartansson made one painting per day for six months, each depicting the same friend in a Speedo. The multi-colored installation of semi-abstract portraits may feel manic at first, but when experienced together, the paintings offer a whimsical view into the life of one man.
Above: Ragnar Kjartansson, The Visitors (detail), 2012. Nine-channel video. © Ragnar Kjartansson; Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik.
The exhibition’s final work is undoubtedly Kjartansson’s most famous to date. The Visitors, is an hour-long, nine-screen video installation that features nine performers, including Kjartansson, in different rooms of the hauntingly beautiful Rokeby Farm in New York State’s Hudson Valley. Each performer is shown playing an instrument and singing a song with lyrics by Kjartansson’s ex-wife. As with many of Kjartansson’s works, the song lyrics are limited and simple, but through repetition, their meaning changes as the installation progresses, resulting in an emotionally charged and moving experience. Drawing inspiration from pop-music sensation ABBA, the installation is named after the band’s final album, which is all about divorce.

Above: Ragnar Kjartansson, The Visitors (a section of the installation), 2012. Nine-channel video. © Ragnar Kjartansson; Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik.

Ragnar Kjartansson: Scandinavian Pain and Other Myths offers Museum guests the chance to experience first-hand one of today’s rising contemporary stars. Kjartansson’s artwork is more than a series of paintings or a simple video; it is a master- class in elevating the mediocre, playfully facing failure, and finding new ways for audiences to personally experience the artistic process without even lifting a paintbrush.

Through April 14

Ragnar Kjartansson: Scandinavian Pain and Other Myths

Phoenix Art Museum

www.phxart.org