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Natasha Tripney: Ragnar Kjartansson’s installations speak volumes about performance

Part of the Ragnar Kjartansson exhibition installation at the Barbican Centre, London. Photo: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images Part of the Ragnar Kjartansson exhibition installation at the Barbican Centre, London. Photo: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images
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The Ragnar Kjartansson exhibition, currently at the Barbican Centre in London, says more about the nature of performance than any number of books on the subject. It is also several shades of amazing.

Kjartansson is an Icelandic performance artist and a creator of video installations. His work is durational in nature. And I realise even as I write this that description makes it sound pretty deadly, but it’s really not. The opposite is true. His work is playful, silly, rich with cinematic and theatrical references, and, at times, euphoric.

Kjartansson grew up in a theatrical world. His mother, Gudrun Asmundsdottir, is an actor and his father, Kjartan Ragnarsson, is a director and playwright. His mother appears in one of his video pieces, Me and Mother. Filmed at five-year intervals, it shows them performing the same sequence of acts. Her spitting and blowing raspberries at him as he stands there next to her, impassive. They age, but their actions don’t change.

Performance is a central part of his work. It explores the relationship between repetition and spontaneity: the alchemy of performance and the effect the passing of time can have on this. Kjartansson is a central figure in many of his pieces. In an early project, he takes on the role of a plein air painter. In another, he’s an old-school crooner, dressed in a tux and singing the same lyric over and over, with a big band accompaniment. In A Lot of Sorrow, he gets the National to perform their song, Sorrow, in front of an audience. For six hours. And films the results.

The first room you enter is full of hirsute young men playing guitars and lounging in armchairs surrounded by a litter of beer bottles. It is like a woozy, late-night serenade, simultaneously intimate and communal. The men don’t acknowledge those watching. They saunter around. They have a little sit down. Occasionally they lie on the floor. Some audience members did the same, as if it was an invitation. There were lots of opportunities to sit in this exhibition. Going early in the day, I had some of the rooms to myself, a very private view, but I’d imagine my engagement with the work would be different if the gallery had been filled with people.

Part of the Ragnar Kjartansson exhibition installation at the Barbican Centre, London. Photo: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images
Part of the Ragnar Kjartansson exhibition installation at the Barbican Centre, London. Photo: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

One video piece, Death and the Children, sees Kjartansson pretending to be Death, wielding a paper scythe, while tormenting a group of schoolchildren in a cemetery. The kids are unimpressed. They are sceptical. They have a lot of questions. “Are you the enemy of God?” one of them asks (these are Scandinavian children). At one point, Kjartansson shakes his head. “Please do not argue with Death,” he says wearily.

Another performance piece, Second Movement, is only taking place on weekends. It sees two women in Edwardian dress sitting in a boat on the Barbican’s lake, locked in an eternal kiss. I am definitely going back for that.

Previously seen in London and Europe (I saw it in Bilbao and was smitten) his 2012 piece The Visitors is the highlight of the exhibition. Filmed at the 200-year-old Rokeby Villa in upstate New York, it consists of eight musicians (including members of Sigur Ros) performing a single lament over the course of an hour. Shot in one take and projected on nine screens, each musician inhabits a different room in the house (Kjartansson is among them, playing his guitar in the bath). Another view shows a group of people on the veranda occasionally joining in. Each shot is composed like a painting and beautifully lit (everything is put together with a set designer’s eye, and his Venetian video piece looks like a Canaletto). The musicians occasionally stray into each other’s frames and it’s worth watching the whole thing right the way through for the glorious coming together at the end. The Visitors explores the unifying power of making music with other people. Separate rooms, separate screens, separate voices, but the same song.

Durational work can be a tricky thing to tackle in a gallery setting. I dipped into A Lot of Sorrow a couple of times, but suspect I didn’t get a full sense of the effect the act of performing that song countless times over was having on the band members. Pieces about time require time to fully appreciate. But if you’re at all interested in the overlap between performance art, video art, music and theatre, this exhibition is essential.

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