Thursday, 4 April 2013

A Moment with “The Man”: Thoughts on Ragnar Kjartansson’s Recent Work

Ragnar Kjartansson, The End–Venice, 2009. Performance view. Venice, June 2009. Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York, and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik.

As the youngest artist ever to represent Iceland at the Venice Biennale, Kjartansson penetrated the art world’s collective consciousness with The End–Venice in 2009. This performance piece, like so much of his subsequent work, managed to be at once playful and provocative, sly and guileless. Ensconcing himself with friend and fellow artist Pall Haukur Bjornsson in a Venetian palazzo for the Biennale’s six-month run, he proceeded to churn out one painting per day, each depicting the variously posed yet invariably Speedo-clad Bjornsson.
The resulting œuvre—144 canvases in total—alluded to diverse artistic periods and riffed on numerous painterly styles. Overtly bound to the ephemeral, irretrievable conditions of their making, the canvases made explicit the duality of temporal independence and historical specificity implicit in the material work of art. Ultimately, the works inhabited an uncertain state between autonomy and implication, and despite their elemental, antic energy, they evinced a certain lack—the viewer, knowing the paintings’ role within a larger artistic project, could scarcely help but see them as material fragments of an unreproducible whole.

Ragnar Kjartansson, “The End–Venice,” 2009. 144 paintings. Dimensions variable. Installation view. Luhring Augustine, 2010. Courtesy of Luhring Augustine, New York.
The End—Venice refracted the ebb and flow—backward, forward, side-to-side—of contemporary art itself; it effectively “performed” the conditions of uncertainty, ambivalence, and contingency that inform so much art making and viewing today. The End also elucidated a particular approach to the creative act that has distinguished Kjartansson’s practice, an approach that has its roots in Icelandic history and culture. As Kjartansson has explained, “You drive through the [Icelandic] landscape, and every hill, every farm, has a story connected to it. That’s how my performance works are. I don’t believe in the idea that you have to obtain the art piece to have it—or even see the art piece. It exists as a story.”[1]
Which brings us to the artist’s recent video The Man (2010), a centerpiece of the current exhibitionRagnar Kjartansson: Song at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art. The notion of story, and a profound attunement to the mysteries of place and time, resonates with especial force in this work; in fact, the video further illuminates those cross-currents of past and present, individual and social, aesthetic and experiential that inform the artist’s ever-evolving body of work.

Ragnar Kjartansson, “The Man,” 2010. Still from a single-channel video; color, sound, 49 minutes. Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York, and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik.

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