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Ragnar Kjartansson: Rocky Mountain Rag

"Ragnar Kjartansson: Rocky Mountain Rag" by Tatiana Mellema, Spring 2010, pp. 54-56

The mythology of Canada’s wilderness has enjoyed a remarkable longevity, and the Rocky Mountains are no exception. Drawn to the remote, ageless nature of the Rockies after a brief visit in 2008, the Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson returned to Banff the following year with the musician Davíd Thór Jónsson to create The End (2009), which was presented at the 53rd Venice Biennale last June. The project was a grandiose video/sound installation set in the heart of the area’s snow-capped mountains. For Kjartansson, it was the ideal stage on which to perform in the guise of an outlaw country musician. Playing nostalgically on romantic expressions of nature and evoking the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, The End opens up questions of representation and the cultural understanding of the artist as inspired genius.

Conceived on the set of Iceland’s first erotic thriller, Morðsaga, and the former front man for the pop band Trabant, Kjartansson has a long-standing relationship with the dramatic. He works primarily as a performance artist, using videos, paintings and drawings as props and documentations of his actions. His pieces tend to be absurd loops whose pastiche settings and nostalgic cultural references blur the boundaries between art and the everyday. For example, in his Schumann Machine (2008), he sang Dichterliebe, a 16-part song cycle about a jilted lover by the 19th-century German composer Robert Schumann and the poet Heinrich Heine, for two weeks straight, eight hours a day, while drinking Prosecco and smoking cigars. In his well-known video installation God (2007), he slips into the part of the crooner, singing the words “sorrow conquers happiness” over and over while backed by 11 musicians on a stage draped in pink satin.

In the thin, frosty air of Banff, Kjartansson set out to create a video that he was determined would “create a little Stendhal syndrome.” Kjartansson and Thór Jónsson arrived at the Banff Centre in February of 2009 equipped with guitars, furs, cowboy boots and a boundless enthusiasm for the picturesque terrain. Each day the two journeyed through the woods to their studio, where they immersed themselves in bourbon, war poetry and the music of the Band, Woody Guthrie, the Byrds, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Bob Dylan, Morton Feldman, Hank Williams and Dolly Parton, among others. After three weeks, they had composed a disfigured folk/country song in the key of G using acoustic and electric guitars, a banjo, bass, drums and a piano; they paired the melody with the haunting lyrics “I’ve got the hell, and you’ve got the heaven.” Over the course of a week Kjartansson and Thór Jónsson recorded the work’s instrumental parts in five different sites around Banff, braving temperatures as low as minus-20° Celsius. The resulting footage was arranged as a five-channel video projection whose parts were synchronized to create a single musical arrangement.

Kjartansson describes the projections in The End as living paintings. A radical post-romantic, he elicits the existential in this work by tapping into the terrifying infiniteness of the surroundings. In each video, the artist is dwarfed by the mountainous expanses that frame his performance. In one breathtaking shot, Thór Jónsson plays a grand piano in the middle of frozen Lake Minnewanka while Kjartansson walks towards the icy mountains, turning into a speck on the blanket of snow. The 19th-century romantic painters similarly turned to overwhelming, fear-inducing subject matter in order to evoke the sublime. They attempted to discover mysterious correspondences between inner and outer worlds, to express the transcendental. Kjartansson, however, uses landscape playfully, questioning our enduring faith in art and our understanding of the artist as a mythical truth-seeker—an idea that is the touchstone of modernism.

Kjartansson uses performance to dramatize the social and historical factors that shape the construction and reception of art. While playing the parts of the lonely country musician and the obsessive painter, he stages a world of heroic pathos and grand gestures, a mode of existence often associated with canonical art and rock stars alike. His performances interrogate the absurd, sometimes pathetic narrative of the inspired male genius with disarming humour and playfulness. While in Banff, Kjartansson proved intensely committed to his persona, adopting cowboy attire and lingo throughout his entire stay. Kjartansson’s self-reflexive works also draw on the 1970s performance work of the artists Chris Burden, Marina Abramovic, Carolee Schneemann and Gilbert & George. These artists pushed their bodies to their physical limits, creating expressions of radical engagement that demonstrated the social construction of meaning. The endurance component of their performances is also relevant to The End: while filming, Kjartansson and Thór Jónsson played for hours outdoors in sub-zero weather, sometimes until their fingers were frostbitten and bloody. By staging elaborate scenarios that borrow characters from legend and gossip, Kjartansson reveals how cultural histories and inherited stories mediate art’s creation and its public reception.

Dramatizing the romanticized role of the artist in the hyper-romanticized location of Banff, Kjartansson plays on our perceptions of the wild while encouraging curiosity about the terrifying unknown. It is in fact his genuine soul-searching that makes his art so compelling and intoxicating. As exhibited in a sun-filled Venetian palazzo at the fringes of the famed biennial, in concert with a six-month “living painting performance,” Kjartansson’s folk/country video conveyed a melancholic beauty that simply made your heart ache. It communicated what the artist describes as “a lighthouse at the edge of the world watching the verge of nothingness,” forcing us to face the beautiful and terrifying abyss of nature. All the while, our grand narratives are undone, and we are in fact left facing an unsettling, all-too-contemporary void.

This is an article from the Spring 2010 issue of Canadian Art.

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