June 25, 2022

Gimme your body: Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson at @BarbicanCentre

“Gimme your body
Gimme your mind
Open your heart
Pull down the blind
Gimme your love gimme it all
Gimme in the kitchen gimme in the hall
Art for arts sake
Money for God’s sake
Art for arts sake
Money for God’s sake” (10cc)

The song is an apt simulacrum for the work of Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson, containing as it does, within these few lines, so much of what makes his work so very special: banality, repetition, music, love and performance. The work in Kjartansson’s summer exhibition at the Barbican also reflects his unfailingly playful interpretation of the philosophical notion ‘l’art pour l’art’. Even the stimulus for this song echoes Kjartansson’s inspiration, it was reportedly inspired by a saying of Graham Gouldman’s father. Kjartansson’s own work uses family as muse and is often made in collaboration with family and friends. No wonder the artist chose to sing this anthem (badly) to the assembled throng as the closing to his speech at the preview of the exhibition.

The show opens with ‘Take Me Here By The Dishwasher: Memorial For a Marriage’, a performance of endurance that will be in place for the two months of the show and reflects on his parents divorce. It comprises ten troubadours, selected from local music scene in each city that they performance is on display, in other words ‘in real life’ struggling musicians. They traverse, sit or lie within the space in various states of undress, sipping beer from a fridge provided for the purpose. They sing, and play on guitars, a song composed by former Sigur Ros keyboardist Kjartan Sveinsson. “I’m desperate”, ‘”take my clothes off”, “take me here by the dishwasher”, they sing, lines from the film projected onto the wall behind them. The film depicts Kjartansson’s parents acting together in the low budget Icelandic film Morosaga (Murder Story) his father is the plumber, his mother the bored housewife.

Singing Kjartansson’s mother’s lines, the troubadours provide a neat gender reversal. Yet, they’re neither the bored housewife, nor the ‘sexy plumber’ of the porn trope. They are the suffering artists, repurposed with the aim of transforming Kjartansson family history, each seemingly in his own room, strumming away to no one, dreaming of romance greater than that depicted around them.

Also on display are both the artist’s pieces made for (or during) the Venice Biennale. The first was featured in 2009 and is a performance in which Kjartansson spent half a year painting one piece per day in an old palazzo on the Grand Canal to create a vast body of work entitled ‘The End – Venice’. The subject is his friend and performance artist Pall Hauker Bjornsson, who was required to smoke, drink beer and wear speedos for the duration. The paintings fill the walls in a salon hang and feature block coloured backgrounds, sometimes with, sometimes without, details of the surrounding crumbling architecture and litter of empties. It’s clear that the point of the artwork isn’t painterly skill, although there is some to be seen: in this case, practice does not make perfect.
Here again Kjartansson makes fun of the artists’ life, entitled to sit, drink and smoke for hours, days or months. Like much of Kjartansson’s work, the endless repetition is nonsensical and full of ennui, yet with this artist’s deft touch this inevitably gives way to the poignant.

The second Venice piece, this time from the 2013, is a video of the performance S.S. Hangover. The performance sounds spectacular; a group of brass musicians continuously play a composition, made just for this performance, by Kjartan Sveinsson. As the boat takes a turn on the Grand Canal, musicians are dropped off one by one to play alone on the pier as the boat sails away with the remaining musicians still playing. Here, the performance is translated into a twin channel video and, inevitably, loses much of it’s magic.

Boats appear to be a new interest for the artist. His new commission for the Barbican features two women in Edwardian costume in a rowing boat on the Barbican lakeside embracing in a never-ending kiss.

It’s not often one hears gallery goers utter more than a murmur while perusing artworks, but one piece in this exhibition provoked outbursts of laughter. ‘Me and My Mother’ is a set of four videos each filmed five years apart and showing the repeated action of the artist’s mother spitting into his face. Kjartansson’s actor mother, clearly trying not to laugh herself, is engaging and expressive. The mirth is tinged with the pathos of aging, of expanding chins and creeping wrinkles.

There’s lots to see in Kjartansson’s exhibition, his first major show in Britain and the first time The Barbican have staged a solo show of a living artist since Christian Marclay in 2005. The show represents something of a risk for the arts centre, but there is a broad appeal to Kjartansson’s work that means the gamble will pay off for any who do venture inside.

The exhibition continues at the Barbican Art Gallery until 4th September 2016

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