Ragnar Kjartansson

A pair of young women dressed in heavy skirts and high-necked Edwardian blouses are perched in a small rowing boat on the Barbican’s lake. Incongruous with their Brutalist architectural surroundings, the two women do not, as Ragnar Kjartansson apparently would have you believe, share a never-ending romantic kiss, but one which is constantly broken – a series of soft, sensuous kisses that are repeatedly renegotiated as the movements of the boat nudge the women further apart or closer together. Second Movement, 2016, is a work that integrates a generalised romantic image with a performed scene that is half-remembered in the mind of the viewer. Kjartansson proposes a re-reading of the romantic motif of the kiss.

Ragnar Kjartansson, Barbican Art Gallery, Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

Variations on performative repetition and duration, like those in this new commission, characterise Kjartansson’s exhibition, his first survey in a UK institution. Repetitions are manifest in his videos, photography, painting and drawing in an almost relentless scrutiny of characters, actions and motifs from fiction and autobiography. However, as Jeffrey Kastner notes in his catalogue essay, their recurrence yields different results every time. Hackneyed tropes of film, theatre and art history – the explorer, the washed-up musician, the figure of death, the genius artist – are re-imagined through their re-enaction.

Inside the gallery, a further performance plays out. In the tripped-out piece, Take Me There by the Dishwasher: Memorial for a Marriage, 2011-14, ten wandering musicians dressed in pyjamas and sweatpants occupy a space which contains an assortment of nylon-sheeted mattresses, chairs and standard lamps. Drinking beer and playing acoustic guitars, they sing one line melodically, over and over, their repetition extending and obfuscating the meaning of the words being sung. They are performing musicians and we are intruding on their stage. Differences in their posture, location and emotional engagement, mean that the same thing feels different in each iteration. What is odd is that there is no discernible interaction between the performers,  just the occasional glances between them and us, and, despite the beer drinking the musicians do not appear to be fully at ease in this space. Neither are we. The social interactions set up are curious – both a shared experience and an isolating one. The piece also encompasses a video projection of Kjartansson’s parents acting in an Icelandic feature film from 1977. Legend has it that the artist was conceived during the film’s shoot. But that his parents are now divorced lends the work an additional emotional layer and their hammy, soft-focus acting is recast by the strange melancholy of the troubadours’ music.

Ragnar Kjartansson At Barbican Art Gallery
Ragnar Kjartansson, Barbican Art Gallery, Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

Nearby is a nine-channel video installation titled The Visitors, 2012. Individual projections show a different musician inside the grand rooms of a romantically dilapidated New York mansion. Kjartansson himself lies in a bubble bath playing a guitar and signing, while others play cello, accordion, banjo, drums and piano. Aurally cohesive and yet separate visually, each screen has its own microcosmic narrative. One shows a bass player on the edge of a bed, while his girlfriend sleeps with her back turned away. The music of each vignette swells and falls, lapsing occasionally into silence. It is beautiful, and the repeatedly sung line is taken from a poem written by the artist’s ex-wife. Again, Kjartansson’s characters are both separate and together, forever lamenting their lost loves, trapped in these rooms and in these screens.

Further out-of-kilter looped narratives are shown upstairs. Scenes from Western Culture, 2015, comprises beautifully shot videos that look like paintings, each with its own soundtrack. The scenes include images of desire and longing: a couple having sex, another having dinner, and a woman swimming, happy children playing, but also a burning barn. Meanings flicker in and out of focus, and the narratives are subtly disrupted. The images feel familiar too. Indeed, like Second Movement, they draw upon performative images from popular consciousness, though their origin is difficult to determine and their effect is unsettling.

Kjartansson is prolific, repeatedly providing us with cyclical journeys that cover no real distance; musical performances that never build to crescendo and conversations, actions and relationships with no resolution. Though the exhibition is very full, a lightness of touch and dark sense of humour run throughout. An earlier black and white video, Death and the Children, 2002, features the artist dressed as the Grim Reaper with a paper scythe interacting with a group of children in a graveyard. The children’s persistent curious enquiries of the mysterious figure and their refusal to accept the answers they are given, seem to echo the artist’s own probing renegotiation of performance, narrative and truth.


Ragnar Kjartansson
Barbican Art Gallery
14 July – 4 September 2016

Review by Anneka French

(With thanks to Patricia Bickers for her editorial advice)