On the occasion of Icelands invitation as guest country at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2011, the Frankfurter Kunstverein
presents the first major solo exhibition in Germany of Ragnar Kjartansson (born 1976). The exhibition comprises more than fifteen video works, image series and installations of the past ten years by the well-known Icelandic artist whose six-month-long continuous performance at the Icelandic Pavilion caused quite a sensation at the 2009 Venice Biennale. Especially for the exhibition at the Frankfurter Kunstverein, Kjartansson has produced a new sculptural work.
Iceland is home to a small but very lively and diverse art scene, which is shaped by both international influences and the unique geographical and historical circumstances of the island state. Contemporary art from Iceland is characterized by intermedial and interdisciplinary approaches: many artists work at once with moving video images and still photography, with sound and electronic ambient music, with performances and situational actions, which develop into installations or arrangements of objects.
Thus Ragnar Kjartansson, with his family background in theater, also follows a multidisciplinary approach, incorporating elements of visual art, music and above all theater in his works. From this emerge happenings, installations, drawings, photographs, and videos. Kjartansson, who understands the process of artistic creation itself as a performance, acts in many of his works as a protagonist, entering different roles: The artist has appeared as a knight, rock star, revolutionary, and even as the incarnation of deathand of course, as for the Venice Biennale in 2009, as an artistic genius obsessed with the search for the ultimate image.
The use of repetitions and time loops and the related themes of duration and endurance are at the core of Ragnar Kjartanssons work. The artist pushes himself and his audience to physical and psychological limits. As backdrops, he sets up spaces or projection areas in which the great appearance, the historical or fateful moment, could take place. For instance the video work entitled God (2007) shows Kjartansson on a stage covered in pink satin in the midst of a classical orchestra setting, singing the refrain sorrow conquers happiness again and again over the course of thirty minutes. He is not, however, repeating himself exactly with each refrain. Rather, the repetitionssimilar to wearisome rehearsals of the same theatrical sceneare sequences sung endlessly, one after the other, of similar tonality, but which come out differently each time. This mantra-like exercise reflects the performers inner search and endless longing for the true form of expression, which ultimately spreads to the audience, suspending them in an ambivalent state of happiness and mourning, beauty and horror, humor and drama.
With the performance art of the 1970s as one source on which he draws, Kjartanssons continuous performances are also inspired by Icelandic storytelling. The popular narrative tradition in Iceland is based on the oral transmission and repetition of old stories. Thus Kjartanssons works alternate between regional folk tales and clichés of pop culture, offering views of history and the present that are at once moving and oppressive.
Ragnar Kjartansson describes himself as an incurable romantic, whose artistic practice is rooted in the tradition of existential performance. His works are the expression of Weltschmerz, a feeling of sorrow, distress but also of the beauty, an emotion the artist seeks to reduce to one existential moment. Thus many of his works are concerned with staging and enduring literary, musical or gestural moments of gripping emotionality and pure expression to the point of exhaustion.
Key works in this regard are the three videos shown in the exhibition: Me and my Mother (2000, ongoing). They show Kjartansson and his mother in a performance that the artist repeated in 2005 and 2010, and will continue to film every five years as fate allows. In the living room of his mother, one watches heran actress by traderepeatedly spitting at her son. In this time loop of appalling tragicomedy, Kjartansson investigates the ambivalent mother-son relationship, which moves in a field of opposing forces: emotional intimacy and trust, and distance and contempt. He sets the relationship in the context of its inexorable conclusion as time goes onan attempt, perhaps, to halt time and represent ones own existence within this, at least for a moment.
The exhibition takes place as part of the arts and culture program Fabulous Iceland - Guest of Honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2011.