"I was lucky to be raised in the darkness of the theatre."
Our interview with Icelandic performance artist Ragnar Kjartansson
Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your background? Your parents are both actors, right? Where did you study art?
Yes, they're both actors, I was lucky to be raised in the darkness of the theatre. And to be around chain-smoking people in costumes and makeup, its a pretty cool memory. I studied art at the Iceland Academy of the Arts, which is a school here in Reykjavík. I graduated in 2001.
You have an exciting new performance at the National Museum in Cardiff, with a series of revolving organists performing the 1959 hit song, "The Sky in a Room". Can you tell us a bit about this piece? And why you chose that song?
It's basically a song I've really, really loved for years. It's a beautiful Italian song by Gino Paoli, It's a love song and it's about how space transforms when you're in love. Visual art has always been about transformation of space and this is the only song I know that addresses this concept directly.
He wrote it in 1959, in bed with a prostitute, feeling the love in this weird space, in a brothel. And he starts thinking, you are here with me, the walls, the endless woods, the violet ceiling becomes a starry sky. And the harmonica, I hear, sounds like an organ. Reality changes and space transforms. There's this beautiful version of the song which he recorded, where it's just an organ. And when I was doing Artes Mundi in Cardiff a few years ago, I thought, how cool it would be to do a performance in that space with just that song and being performed on repeat. I think the idea for this piece just came from always having this song in my subconsciousness and listening to it a lot. And then just coming into this space in Cardiff with its– light blue, velvety– damask wallpaper, with light's coming in from the ceiling with this 18th-century gorgeous organ in the middle of the floor. I've always said– The space just asked for this performance to happen. And now weirdly it's happening, and I'm crazy excited about that.
The gallery is full of 18th-century British paintings but all the works will be removed, leaving the room empty. Could you tell us what's behind that decision?
When you take the paintings out of the room, it just becomes a space with that song in it. If you have the paintings there, then the song will be accompanying you watching the paintings. I think it's also great for people who love these paintings and love this place. It's like when the paintings go away for a bit, you start missing them and you become really happy when they come back. But the main reason is if you have the paintings in there then the piece would not work.
Your ongoing piece called "Me and My Mother", is a video of your mum spitting on you for several minutes. You both do this every five years. Can you tell us a bit about this work, and has it affected your relationship with your mother at all?
Its become a really nice kind of gory family thing to do. It tells a mysterious story about our bond and about parent-child relationships too. And yes, I think it is actually good for our relationship, to do this every five years. I mean, it's a piece that my mother has become really proud of, and that makes me very happy. It's crafted out of an art school thing and it's just grown with time, and by repeating it, it becomes more and more important for us. It kind of gains weight as a work of art, I think.
There's a lot of repetition in your work. Do you feel by repeating something enough times it can change its meaning and also, with repetition it can be quite comforting as well?
Yes, I think it can be singularly, weirdly comforting. That's why we like habits, traditions, and comforting repetitions. Also by repeating something enough times can change its meaning. This idea of repetition makes a narrative or performative thing something that you can really look at, and I really like that. I like this idea of a song like Il Cielo In Una Stanza becoming a portrait of the song. Suddenly, it's "look at that song. Is that song as an art piece. A sculpture" But then it's a song also that can just come and go. I find that fascinating. I've worked a lot with repetition, I look at it as a tool of artistic expression, like yellow. It is like drawing something and when you draw it again and again and again, this kind of repetition of the drawing somehow gives it some weight and becomes interesting to look at.
Has there been any artwork you've seen recently that has resonated with you?
Yes, I'm always seeing something that I really like. All the time. One of my favorite pieces I've seen recently was in a show here in Reykjavík by this artist called Huginn Þór Arason. It was a great piece. It was called "Current". It's just a video of him and a really beautiful young man Posing like Brooke Shields in that famous Calvin Klein ad. They were reading Icelandic mid 20th-century poetry. This piece sort of blew my mind. The most recent one to blow my mind anyway.
Could you tell us a bit about how you spend your day? Like studio routine? What's your studio like?
My studio is a concrete bunker by the sea where they used to store fishing nets and equipment. I work here with my studio manager Lilja and my wife Ingibjörg. We collaborate a lot. As for studio routine, I'm not one of those artists who just go to the studio at o'clock, has a cigarette and watches the empty canvas. It's more just like the life and art mix into each other constantly. So like today I did not go to the studio, I went to the swimming pool and was just chatting with people. The swimming pools in Iceland are sort of like a pub in England. You just meet people and chat. But chatting and socoalizing is really important for my practice.
Apart from the Cardiff show, is there anything new and exciting in the pipeline you would like to tell us about?
In the fall there will be a performance in San Francisco called "Romantic Songs of the Patriarchy" which I'm quite excited about. And then I'm doing a sad awful epic opera here in Reykjavík called "War" with the composer Kjartan Sveinsson.
Ragnar's "The Sky in a Room" will be on show from 3 February–11 March 2018 at the National Museum Cardiff.
Banner image: "The Sky in a Room" by Ragnar Kjartansson (c) Polly Thomas
All images courtesy of the artist, National Museum Cardiff and Artes Mundi
Interview publish date: 15/02/2018