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Ragnar Kjartansson: the great Icelandic pretender

Acting and theatre are at the heart of the artist’s show at the New Museum

Ragnar Kjartansson’s Take Me Here by the Dishwasher: Memorial for a Marriage, 2011. Photo: Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York, and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik

The Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson and his merry band of friends travel the world playing music and creating exuberant, crowd-pleasing performances that last as long as 12 hours. But the 38-year-old—whose uniform is a rumpled vintage suit and bow tie—rejects the myth of the stereotypical bohemian artist even as he acts it out.

Whether he is staging a marathon performance of the final scene of the opera “The Marriage of Figaro”, as in Bliss, 2011, or painting portraits inside the Icelandic pavilion in Venice, as in The End, 2009, Kjartansson revels in undermining the artistic lifestyle. “I’m interested in taking the heroic out of these moments and addressing the mundaneness of it,” he says.

Acting and theatre are at the heart of the artist’s first museum show in New York, which opens this week at the New Museum. Kjartansson’s mother and father are actors, and he grew up backstage, although he is now in the director’s chair. He orchestrated a musical ­performance that will run in the museum’s galleries for the duration of the show. And he is working on a film of a performance he organised with the band The National at MoMA PS1 last year. The video is scheduled to debut at Luhring Augustine’s Brooklyn gallery in September.

We spoke to the artist by Skype.

The Art Newspaper: Many of the works in the show feature your parents, including Take Me Here by the Dishwasher: Memorial For a Marriage, 2011-14. Can you tell us about it?

Ragnar Kjartansson: It is a musical installation with ten troubadours who sing at the same time. The fourth floor of the New Museum will become this kind of troubadour cathedral. Kjartan Sveinsson [the Icelandic musician and former keyboardist with the band Sigur Rós] wrote the songs based on the dialogue in a film that my parents were in. It was our idea to take the dialogue from the sex scene and turn it into songs. 

In the scene, your mother plays a housewife who fantasises about your father, who plays a plumber. It was supposedly filmed the day you were conceived. Why did you want to revisit that?

I think I’m just deeply Freudian. It’s a really weird thing to see exactly how your parents looked, what turned them on. The dialogue is: “‘Show me you’re a man. Take off my dress.’ ‘Here?’ ‘Yes. Take it off. And take me here… by the dishwasher.’” For anyone, it is strange material.

The show also features a new series of drawings you made with your father.

In winter, my father and I go out and draw the sea. The drawings are about the fact that we have the same line—we draw in a very similar way. You can hardly tell the difference. It’s some kind of genetic line. My grandfather was an artist and he had the same line as my father and me. 

Why do you collaborate with your parents?

I discover a lot of similarities between their identity and mine. This whole show is a bit of an identity crisis study. Also, my parents are super-passionate about what they do and to work with them is my only way to have contact with them. 

Do you consider your work political?

I’m always trying to make political art in my own way. When I was invited to participate in [the European biennial] Manifesta in St Petersburg this year, I wondered: “Should I be a part of this in Russia today?” But it seems like art matters in that environment. I decided to restage an old piece of mine where a band and I sing “sorrow conquers happiness” over and over. We will sing it in Russian inside a train station. It’s an emotional way to tackle all the injustice. I admire artists who can do political art and it works—it’s a very fragile thing to do art that is of the world. Art is not propaganda.

Why do you create such long performances?

Because my parents were performers, I’ve always been in awe of the theatrical, but I like to see the theatrical freezing in time. Time takes the ­narrative out and makes you look at a performance like a sculpture or a painting. 

Another difference between your performances and traditional ­theatre is that you embrace artifice.

I’m always interested in the truth that happens when you’re pretending: pretending to paint, pretending to do something. When we are pretending, we are as real as when we’re not pretending. 

That is an important part of your ongoing video project Me and My Mother, which shows your mother spitting in your face. But your teacher, the video artist Aernaut Mik, did not like the work when you began it in art school. Why?

He thought it was not fake enough—that it was not well acted. I was totally crushed. But you know, slowly, I realised that what he did not like was what made it special. My mother is a great actress, but in the act of spitting on her son, she just lost her cool and became a bad actress, because she hated the fact that she was spitting on her son. Through her performing it badly, it became real and honest. 

Do you find that you can be more honest about your own feelings when you are pretending?

No. For me, I think the performances are more like a refuge from everyday self-doubt. They have been a kind of retreat from life.

• “Me, My Mother, My Father, and I” is at the New Museum (until 29 June). For more details, visit

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