The daffodils are out in Reykjavik. It must be summer. Walking into Ragnar Kjartansson’s studio, one of a long terrace of low concrete units lining the harbour, there’s an upright piano by the door, a guitar against the wall, and a drumkit and amplifiers set up on a patch of carpet. Originally built for net-mending and for fishermen to store their gear, the studio looks more like a rehearsal room than artist’s atelier.
When I arrive the artist has been working on a big watercolour of gloomy, purplish skies and wondering whether to give the painting a German title. “Cheesy stuff gets an evil edge when you use German in the title,” he explains.
The last time I saw Ragnar (Kjartansson is a patronymic, not a surname), he was stripped to the waist and doing something unseemly with his man-boobs, while fronting a band at the Vinyl Factory in Soho, where his nine-channel film The Visitors was having its London premiere. Today, he’s wearing a three-piece suit and a raffish neckerchief.
In The Visitors, whose title is a homage to Abba’s final album, the artist lies naked in the bath, singing the refrain “Once again I fall into my feminine ways”, a bearded bloke strumming a guitar in the suds. I tell him that one of the things I envy young people for is their freedom to think about gender in different ways. In fact, he tells me, the lyric was taken from a performance piece by his ex-wife, Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir. “I always love it when people don’t change the gender in a song,” Ragnar says, and also understood her lyrics as a commentary on what he calls the “common defeat” of their marriage.
Next month, his mid-career survey opens at London’s Barbican, where The Visitors is one of the highlights. In every room of a dilapidated mansion owned by the Astors in upstate New York, Ragnar’s friends (some from Icelandic group Sigur Rós) play different parts of the same song, which repeats, over and over for almost an hour, shot in real time. “There was a week of rehearsing,” he says, “and then we just shot once, at sunset”, all the musicians audible to one another in the different rooms through headphones.
The Visitors feels exhilarating, but has a tugging plangent melancholy, a feeling constant in his work. “There is a German word for it,” he says, “sehnsucht. A bigger word than longing.” No wonder that, in 2013, he chose to work with American band the National, and had them play their song Sorrow, live, over and over again for six hours at MoMA’s PSI in Brooklyn. “They are the kings of nihilistic melancholy,” he announces, gleefully.
Even in the piece where your mother spits on you, there’s a lightness to your art, I observe. Every five years since leaving art school in 2000, Ragnar gets together with his mother Guðrún Àsmundsdóttir, an actor, and she spits on him, on camera, trying her best to act angry as the spittle flies. It is a very theatrical catharsis. “I consider myself a bit of a rococo man, really. I am so inspired by Mozart and Watteau. On the surface they look lovely, but they were really kicking ass, emotionally and politically.” Ragnar believes this is also an Icelandic thing. “Probably because there was so much suffering here, the art that was born out of this suffering was kind of light, in the same way as jazz was born in the US.”
Behind the drumkit in the studio, painted orange and yellow flames disguise a doorway, like a cartoonish portal to hell. “A lot of texts, written by Icelandic priests in the 18th century, had the idea that the Hekla volcano was the entrance to hell,” Ragnar tells me. As I write this, the volcano is predicted to blow again. Iceland is elemental. In an eruption just before the French revolution, so much ash blew over that it provoked the famine in France.
“Life here was brutal until quite recently. My grandmother, who is still alive, was born in a mud hut, and her insane grandfather was kept in a cage in the room where they all slept.”
This takes a moment to digest. A cage?
“You couldn’t send him to an institution. He was just in his bed.” Ragnar grimaces. “But all her memories of that time are wonderful. She was lucky. Her parents were good people.” Elsewhere, farmworkers were beaten and raped and there was a lot of family abuse on isolated farms. “It is a horrible dark story. I was raised with this idea that Iceland is the end of the world. Now everyone wants to come, and go on hikes. I’m scared of Icelandic nature. The older generations think nature is death here. But now the Icelandic government makes videos of hipsters jumping into the sea.”
Recovering from the banking crisis, and promoting tourism, Iceland is on the up again. I called Ragnar after Iceland’s Euro 2016 win against England. “Reykjavik has gone crazy. No one can believe it. We just caught your country at its worst possible time. But I had a moment of pure joy imagining Nigel Farage watching the game. He’s got such a punchable face.”
Still he has no illusions about his own country. “Iceland is profoundly corrupt,” he explains. “That’s why it’s in the Panama Papers. We are like Sicily, with volcanic activity and huge family bonds, and a really strong mafia. The Sicilian mafia by comparison is totally amateur, so resorts to violence. Ours just rules. Iceland got one of the best deals out of the second world war and gained its independence from Denmark. Old people would arrogantly call it ‘the blessed war’, because the economy started booming. Two generations ago, we were the total scum of the earth. Now you go to every border control, and you are white, and from a cute country, with so much privilege.”
Being a successful artist is a privileged and conflicted position, wherever you are from. Lots of swanky dinners, hotels, aeroplanes. “It’s like life at the court of the 1%. You really feel like a court jester. Then you go home and take the kids to the kindergarten on the bus.”
Ragnar’s grandfather was a ceramicist, who became a great friend of Swiss fluxus artist Dieter Roth, who moved to Iceland in 1960. “My father’s best friend was also a conceptual artist. But I was a total twat at art school. I wanted to be a proper painter and learn how to become a pop star. Then I discovered Duchamp and the power of the conceptual. People respect the poet here, and think that artists are cool.” I’m never sure when Ragnar is being serious. Everything he says comes with a smile or a gleam in the eye.
“It’s not a visual culture here. It’s a culture of stories. That’s why when Fluxus and Roth came, they got it. They really got it.” Conceptual art is really the last redoubt of romanticism, he thinks. For London, he’s working on a new piece, with two young women in Edwardian clothes, kissing in a boat floating about the Barbican lake. The watercolour he later emails me bears the caption: “Helena Bonham Carter Kissing Helena Bonham Carter.”
“I really like to toy with romanticism, because I find romanticism so wrong.” I tell him he has a cheeky look on his face, saying that. “I think I am a very critical, good-thinking political person, or try to be. But art is a slippery, devilish thing.”
Both Ragnar’s parents are actors, and his father worked as director at Reykjavik City theatre. His elder sister played in the claustrophobic Icelandic TV thriller Trapped, now going into its second series. He was also strongly influenced by his godmother, a singer who, when invited to perform for Hitler, sent a telegram simply saying NEIN, and skedaddled out of Germany. Retired, she also became Björk’s music teacher. There was also a benign old relative Ragnar remembers as a boy, who had been the only Icelander in the SS. He got away with it because he was the son of the first Icelandic president after independence from Denmark.
You’re really a performer, I suggest. “I just feel that everything is putting on a show. I never change. I just put on a different suit.” His parents also inspired Take Me Here by the Dishwasher, a kind of family romance first performed at New York’s New Museum in 2014. The live troubadours, wandering around and singing in the gallery, were captivating. I hung around for hours. “I take it as a total compliment if my artworks are entertaining. I always have the ambition to create a painting – you can look for as long as you like, or you can walk by. It’s always amazing when people want to stay.”
And now, at 40, you are having a retrospective. So what’s next, I ask. “I just want to continue being in this most fabulous con-man business on earth.” Coming from Iceland keeps Ragnar grounded, he says: “It’s like all the Icelandic adventures, when someone gets really lucky and walks into an elf stone.” An elf stone?
“People really believe in elves here. Someone is working on the farm, being beaten and abused, and suddenly a stone in the cliff just opens to the elf world where everything is fabulous. It was really a lucky strike that I became an artist who can work all over the world. It’s ridiculously fantastic. I don’t take it for granted. One day you have to get out of the cliff and go back to work.”
- Ragnar Kjartansson is at the Barbican, London, from 14 July to 4 September, then travels to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC from 14 October to 8 January, 2017.