Archie Franks is drawn in by the work of Ragnar Kjartansson at the Barbican, London.
After 40 minutes of watching band The National perform the same song over and over (Sorrow), I was engulfed in a strange mix of emotions. On the one hand the idea of the work is so direct as to be almost idiotic; a fashionable band perform the same song on repeat in front of an audience for six hours, but Kjartansson uncovers something else within this act, something quite strange and genuinely moving.
|A Lot of Sorrow, 2013-14|
Feeling sad on my own I, along with many millions of others, have played the same song on repeat for hours on end, to wallow in sorrow as it were. So to turn this clichéd act of melancholy indulgence into an artwork is at once an obvious but also intriguing concept. I guess I was able to watch it for so long partially because I like the song, but the film of the performance and the way the band go about it are totally engrossing. One moment, in which the camera focuses on the drummer massaging his arms between his playing, brings home the difficult physical act of the performance, sorrow and melancholia enacted as a gruelling, relentless endurance test.
Essentially, Kjartansson takes ideas of cliché and narcissism and mines them for creative potential. In Nicholas Winding Refn's film The Neon Demon (2016) (which was utterly superb by the way in case you haven’t seen it) the director explores narcissism within the culture in conjunction with the inherent narcississm of the act of creating, which in order to be any good relies on the creator indulging and embracing that narcissism.
|Take Me Here by the Dishwasher: Memorial for a Marriage, 2011-2014|
Kjartansson seems to acknowledge this but also seeks to draw poetry from clichéd tropes of what it means to be an artist. In his hands even plein air painting or young men with fashionable beards surrounded by beer bottles strumming their guitars (the central live performance work in this show at the Barbican), become vehicles to explore what it means to want to create, the desires behind the drive to be an artist, rather than just irritating and hackneyed activities.
I think this is why most artists I spoke to loved the show, because they relate to and understand the romance of being an artist, even if they feel it to be ridiculous or even embarrassing. As teenagers they(/we) wrote bad poetry, made bad paintings of themselves drinking and smoking, trying to be cool whilst acting brooding and melancholic. Or had an acoustic guitar which they bored people with after a few beers or joints, or even did plein air painting, just to be like the impressionists. Creative individuals relate to those cringeworthy activities, but to turn those activities with all the associations around and make them into interesting and emotive work is extremely difficult and fraught with many pitfalls, so the fact that Kjartansson pulls it off with such aplomb is satisfying and intriguing.
|The End-Venezia, 2009|
The performance/painting piece Kjartansson made for the 2009 Venice Biennale in which he painted his friend over and over, smoking, drinking, embodying the idea of a bohemian artist, was for me the work which managed to draw out the most interesting set of results from the premise of clichéd creative activity. There are hints of Kippenberger’s practice here, but Kjartansson takes the ideas into territory that is very much his own.
I think the success in this piece, as with many of Kjartansson's most successful works, lies where the work breaks down from its starting point into something else; where fiction, reality, taste, humour, existential angst, melancholy and yes cliché all co-exist within the same strange intellectual sphere. This partly happens purely through the endurance of the performance itself, an immersive experience for both model and artist akin to method acting, but it also happens through an understanding of painting troupes. The paintings become a kind of meta-painting, but if they weren’t interesting as paintings in and of themselves the work wouldn’t be anywhere near as rich. The idea of the performance would still work and be interesting, but it wouldn’t be engrossing. It’s the understanding of how to confuse and mix up stereotypes that makes this work function. There were aspects of the show that irritated me, and if I was being super harsh I think he should focus less on whimsy and more on the strange existential bite his best work achieves, but in general this is the best show I’ve seen in a long-time. We should all look forward to seeing a lot more of Ragnar Kjartansson.
Barbican Art Gallery, London
14 July – 4 September 2016