Words by Gréta Sigríður Einarsdóttir
Photography by Páll Stefánsson
It’s easy to be intimidated by the thought of Ragnar Kjartansson. Before he became an artist exhibiting around the world, he was one of Iceland’s best-known musicians, most notably playing in electronic punk-pop band Trabant in the early 2000s. His music career has since been eclipsed by his career as a visual artist, with shows at Iceland’s most prominent museums and galleries, and some of the world’s most prestigious art institutions. His most recent work, Death is Elsewhere, just premiered at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Ragnar, however, doesn’t boast about his achievements. In fact, he says, he appreciates that in Iceland artists are treated just like everyone else.
An Icelandic artist premiering their work at the Met is nevertheless an exciting prospect for this small nation. The piece, Death is Elsewhere, is based around two sets of twins. They are Aron and Bryce Dessner, of American band The National, and Gyða and Kristín Anna Valtýsdóttir, formerly of Icelandic band múm fame. The idea arose when Ragnar was asked to create a performance for a music festival in Wisconsin organised by the Dessner twins and Bon Iver. “They were super cool about it, just wanted to do something fun and different and told me I could use them if I wanted. Then, all of a sudden, this idea popped up that had been simmering, to create a band made up of these two sets of twins.”
The group met one evening in Ragnar’s living room and wrote an album’s worth of songs, later performing the music at the festival. “We played with the fact that they looked like the same person but weren’t. The joke was that they looked like ABBA, but all the same. Two identical girls and two identical guys.”
Ragnar never quite let go of the concept and eventually decided to revive it in a new way. “I got the idea to make a video installation filmed in a field in South Iceland.” The inspiration was a romantic painting by Jón Stefánsson of a group resting in between field work, surrounded by pristine Icelandic landscapes. “I wanted to record a circular scene, there on the south coast. There’s a man and a woman walking around singing, and on the other side there’s another couple, romantic figures.”
The romantic imagery evokes plenty of clichés, something Ragnar is acutely aware of. “I find these western clichés so interesting, just a man and a woman walking together with a guitar. It’s beautiful, but actually, it’s a sort of visual violence,” Ragnar explains, “really oppressive to the people who aren’t ordinary.” The classic images of Western culture have become so loaded that Ragnar finds that a lack of any overt tension actually brings out their horror much more effectively. “The time we’re living in is so insane, you don’t have to do anything scary for it to be really scary.”
According to Ragnar, we’ve become desensitised to violence in art. We just assume it’s there. “I grew up with feminist art like Carolee Schneemann and Marina Abramović, as well as guys like Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley. They choose to present the horror of reality in an extremely violent way. When I enter an art exhibition, I’m always expecting some sort of violence from the art. I think it’s so interesting to exclude it, because it’s still there, at least in my imagination. And I think it’s the same for others, because art is like that, it creates tension.” Indeed, many of Ragnar’s visually pleasing and aesthetically classical works have a strong underlying sense of ominous dread. He laughs and tells me “On the surface, it looks like my works are becoming increasingly cloying and saccharine, but really, they’re dealing with an enormous darkness.”
Eldhraun lava field, where Death is Elsewhere was filmed, has an enormously dark history of its own. “Eldhraun, to me, is the craziest part of Iceland,” says Ragnar. “It’s the lava that created democracy and changed the world.” The field was formed during the catastrophic Laki eruption in 1783. The volcanic fissure spewed an ash cloud so dense that it affected weather all around the globe for years afterwards. It caused a famine in France which contributed greatly to civil unrest and eventually culminated in the French Revolution. “It was such an immense disaster. Today it’s just quiet and pretty, but this landscape changed the world. It’s a landscape that Justin Bieber was running around in without thinking about it at all. That’s fascinating to me.”
isually speaking, Ragnar’s scenes emit a certain timeless glamour. It’s an aesthetic that self-consciously highlights the relationship between truth and lies. This relationship is integral to his work, but paradoxically also of no consequence. “I’ve worked with this aesthetic for a long time, the liar’s aesthetic. I’m creating circumstances that aren’t true but become true through the performance.” He goes on to explain that by staging scenes, you make them – for lack of a better word – real. “Just by hauling all of us out to that field, the guys coming over from the States and everything that entails, to walk around some cameras – by doing it, with the weather and the summer night and the cold – all of a sudden, all the pretence becomes reality. It’s the truth in the lie.”
Growing up with both parents working in theatre, Ragnar’s always had a different relationship with truth than most. “Is Bruce Springsteen truer than Queen? Just because he stages himself by wearing jeans and a t-shirt, is that any truer than dressing like a king? I don’t think so. It’s all staged.” Ragnar is not only fascinated with the veracity of a staged reality but also the way we still believe that we value truth over pretence. Ultimately, according to Ragnar, “it’s the basis of everything: our culture, our religion.”
According to Ragnar, there’s less separation between artists and other people in Iceland. “It feels so good that around here, there is the same level of respect for professionals as amateurs. I think of it as an advantage. I can be this super cool artist with an exhibition at the Met, but there’s no real difference between me and a cab driver who paints in his free time.” Devoting his life to art also frees Ragnar in some ways from traditional metrics of success. “I think if you’re an artist, you’re already riffraff,” Ragnar quips. “If you’re looking for respect from your fellow citizens, you find something else to do. You become a doctor or a lawyer. But it’s more fun to be in the riff raff business.”
This article is an excerpt. Read the full article in the latest issue of Iceland Review Magazine. Subscribe here to get the magazine delivered to your door.
Iceland Review is the longest-running English-language magazine presenting Iceland’s community, culture, and nature – since 1963.