This issue features a microinterview with Ragnar Kjartansson, a performance and video artist from Iceland. Kjartansson’s work often involves heroic acts of repetition and the removal of clothing, occasionally in odd locations. He once filmed a piece in which his own mother cleared her throat and spat viciously in his face. A six-month performance for the Venice Biennale, The End, involved the artist showing up each day to drink, smoke, and paint 144 portraits of his peer Páll Haukur Björnsson. For his art, Kjartansson has paid gypsies to lie on a grave in a public cemetery, dressed as the grim reaper and addressed a gaggle of schoolchildren, and gotten drunk at a blue-chip gallery party while singing “Ode to Joy.” Kjartansson is also the former flamboyant front man for an actual, successful rock band, Trabant. The Believer conducted this microinterview with Kjartansson at the Modern, a bar on MoMA’s first floor.
THE BELIEVER: In those performances, when you’re singing the same phrase over and over again: If I was standing in an audience watching the performance for an hour, for two hours, my attention would drift. I’d let my mind wander, but I’d come back to it.
RAGNAR KJARTANSSON: Your mind starts traveling and goes back. And I’m so interested in that because I used to be really religious when I was a teenager. Once, the priest said: “God speaks to when you are asleep, so never feel ashamed of falling asleep in church.” So I thought toward art, a concert, in a theater. It’s not bad if you go to sleep. One of my favorite movies, La Dolce Vita—I’ve seen it five times but I’ve never been able to finish it. When the psychedelic, crazy part starts—I don’t know, I think it’s psychedelic because I always fall asleep at that part. La Dolce Vita is the ultimate art piece: you follow it, you fall asleep, and then you wake up at the end. It’s so great.
BLVR: Many ’70s performance artists were lacking, to a degree, this really robust sense of humor. Is there an Icelandic sense of humor?
RK: In a way there is kind of this Nordic sense of humor: Icelandic, Swedish, and Finnish humor. It’s totally depressing, kind of like Ingmar Bergman movies. They’re ridiculously funny. I think it mainly comes from all the Lutheranism, this very dry religion, really heavy shit. In most religions, you are not totally responsible for your sins. In Lutheranism you are totally responsible. There is no middleman between you and God, and that’s depressing. It’s totally an impossible situation. It’s just guilt, and guilt, and guilt, and guilt. But then again, in most cultures humor and irony are the essence of how we talk together, how we relate to each other. “Seriousness is the shield of stupidity”: I always loved that phrase. I love that story where there was this lady who wrote Chekhov after seeing The Cherry Orchard: “I loved your play so much! It made me cry!” And he wrote her back: “Madame, you totally misunderstand: it’s a comedy.”
BLVR: One thing in your video pieces that’s readily apparent is the importance of repetition. You sing phrases, like “Sorrow conquers happiness,” over and over again, often for up to an hour. What does repetition do for you?
RK: With repetition, a musical phrase stops being a melody and becomes something totally formless. Also, repetition makes things very much formalistic. Mostly, I stumble on something I find very important, and somehow, with repetition, I manage to turn it into something almost religious and sculptural. I glorify a small thing with repetition. It’s like the core of things. It’s to celebrate the earnestness of it. The one song that had a huge influence was this Bob Dylan song called “All the Tired Horses”: “All the tired horses in the sun / How am I supposed to get any riding done? Woo-woo-ooo / All the tired horses in the sun.” Repetition’s always been a common thing in music. It starts to take on little tiny details. It bends and changes. But I stopped making pop songs; I just decided to do the essence of the song. I think I’m always doing the same piece over and over again. As humans, our ideas are so limited. We’re always telling the same story, we’re always doing the same thing. And every artist does a little bit different thing from the other artists. I probably couldn’t make a drastic move, because I’d move back to what I am, which is a small, simple thing. All artists are small, simple things; an artist has a world, and it’s small and simple.
BLVR: How would you say your experience of gallery openings in New York differs from Iceland?
RK: There is less booze in New York openings. In openings in Iceland, everybody gets fucking pissed. There’s more liquor, more of a party atmosphere, because it’s just a village. A good part about growing up in the art scene in Iceland is there’s no ladder-moving-up in the art world and blah, blah, blah. You just do your stuff and people are like, “Oh, it’s good.” Or they don’t care. The healthy part about coming from Iceland is that you don’t care so much about your career. What I’m worried about is making a decent art piece that I’m happy with. And, mostly, that other people are going to get something out of. And it’s totally a weird luxury to be in a good gallery in New York. It’s like saying, “I’m in the C.I.A.” You get a little bit of respect. I always think somebody’s bound to find out soon that it’s all a big misunderstanding. Do you know what I mean? It’s like “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” I think that every artist feels that he’s a bit of a fake. I saw an interview with Stanley Kubrick’s wife and she said the great director was always like, “They’re going to find out soon, they’re going to find out soon.” I was glad Stanley Kubrick felt like that. It’s healthy to feel like that: They’re going to find out soon; it’s a big misunderstanding.
BLVR: I purposely don’t read press releases from galleries anymore. I definitely don’t want to read this crap before I go see it. How do you feel about that need to package a show? “We’re going to tell you what this means, we’re going to situate you within some larger idea.”
RK: It’s kind of an evil necessity. I don’t think people are prejudiced about art. People are just scared of it as something too elite and intellectual because of those press releases, the language in it. People can have crazy opinions about a Pink Floyd album, but they wouldn’t dare to speak out loud about an Andy Warhol piece. “I don’t know how to talk about it, because the stuff that’s written about it is so intellectual, I cannot go there.” I think all art is super-accessible. But I felt like I had to go to art school to understand that there was nothing to understand. It’s visual art. It’s just what it is. If your senses are totally open, that’s all there is to understand. It’s like sitting down with poetry: you just have to read it again, read it again, give it time, and then you’ll understand it.