Ragnar Kjartansson, happiest sorrow 

  I write mostly about the exhibitions that I have enjoyed/loved, Ragnar Kjartansson’s show (b. 1976, Reykjavik, Iceland) at Barbican Art Gallery joins the list. I didn’t expect to like the exhibition – or the music – quite so much.

Barbican shows performance art with brio

It may be challenging to show performance art but the Barbican does it with brio, exhibiting videos, paintings, sets, photographs and an actual performance. ‘Take Me Here by the Dishwasher: Memorial for a Marriage’ (2011) is a live performance with ten troubadours singing every day for up to eight hours

Kjartansson, hardly an unknown artist

Kjartansson is hardly an unknown artist: he represented Iceland in two recent Venice biennales (2009, 2013) and both works are shown at Barbican. In ‘The End – Venice’, he created 144 paintings of his friend and performance artist, Pall Haukur Bjornsson, or one painting per day, inhabiting a 14th century palazzo in Venice during the Biennale. 

The End – Venice

Between performance & cinema, sculpture & opera, plein air painting & music

As described by New York gallery, Luhring Augustine, Ragnar Kjartansson’s work is singular and a cross between performance and cinema, sculpture and opera, plein air painting and music. Kjartansson’s videos indeed resembled paintings to me. ‘Scenes from Western Culture’ (2015), also shown at the Barbican, displays idyllic Watteau-inspired, cinematic-like paintings.

Marina Abramović, a clear influence

Marina Abramović is cited as a clear influence of Kjartansson, and I can see why in the way he puts himself at the centre of a performance, with endurance a leitmotif. I believe he takes performance art a step further though, personifying plein air painters for instance, even singing. ‘The Visitors’ (2012) is a nine-channel video installation of synchronised screens depicting Kjartansson and his musician friends singing.

The Visitors

Smitten by the melodies in the exhibition 

Music was a strong theme in the exhibition. I was smitten by the melodies, disregarding at times humorous lyrics of ‘Take Me Here by the Dishwasher’ or the simple and repeated chorus of ‘Sorrow conquers happiness’. Since viewing the exhibition, I keep listening to ‘Sorrow’ by The National, a US rock band who performed their song repeatedly in a six-hour live loop at MOMA PS1.

  There is melancholy and feeling of romantic suffering in ‘Sorrow’ and Ragnar Kjartansson’s music, but I did not feel melancholy at the Barbican exhibition – on the contrary, in fact. Ragnar Kjartansson runs at Barbican Art Gallery until 4 September 2016 and at Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden on 14 October 2016-8 January 2017.

The End – Venice (detail)

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