From altar boy to Kanye fan: How Ragnar Kjartansson found his groove

Story highlights

  • Ragnar Kjartansson is an Icelandic performance, video and fine artist
  • He was born into a family of acting professionals having grown up backstage at the Reykjavik City Theatre
  • He acted as his country's representative at the Venice Biennale in 2009

Kjartansson's exhibition will transfer in the fall to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C., opening October 14-January 8, 2017.

London (CNN)"Moobs" doesn't directly translate into Icelandic, explained Ragnar Kjartansson as he stood in the middle of London's Barbican Centre.

But it seemed an appropriate topic of conversation given the last time I saw him he was shaking them at me during a live performance in a parking lot in London's Soho area, where he held the UK premier of his video installation "The Visitors."
    His new show, opening today at the Barbican's Art Gallery, is housed in one of London's most respected cultural spaces.
    The dapper Kjartansson is undoubtedly a showman. This latest self-titled exhibition celebrates his work as a performance, video and fine artist across two floors.
    You can hear the exhibition before you can see it. Musicians greet you at the entrance, strumming their instruments and swigging beers as they sing. A scene from Iceland's first feature film -- created in 1977 and starring the artist's mother and father as a housewife and plumber engaging in an illicit exchange -- is projected on the wall behind the band. Corridors of curtains billow out of doorways, beckoning you into darkened rooms.
    The film's title is "Take Me Here by the Dishwasher: Memorial for a Marriage," and is based on a well-documented piece of family lore. Kjartansson says he was conceived the evening after the scene from the original film was shot.
    "Take Me Here by the Dishwasher" 2011-14

    Ode to Kanye

    Music is hugely important to the artist, although he's unsure he has the talent for it. "I always feel like I want to be a musician, but I really love just love music, insanely!" he says. "Last week I finished being obsessed about the Drake album, and I don't know what I'm going to do. I'm not obsessed with anything this week actually."
    From classical and opera to his passion for pop, Kjartansson's influences are broad. He was at the Beyonce concert in London last week and is a major Kanye fan.
    "I think we live in a sort of golden time of popular culture," he says. "We live in times when the most famous person in the world is a really interesting crazy artist, who is Kanye West. He's really pushing moral artistic boundaries."
    A still frame from Kanye West's music video for the song "Famous"

    Family Ties

    Not one to shy away from boundaries himself, one of his earlier, and perhaps most referenced, pieces is a series of videos, shot every five years between 2000 and 2015, starring his mother spitting in his face.
    If the sequence of four films -- titled "Me and My Mother" -- shows how Kjartansson has changed physically over the years, the rest of the exhibition -- featuring 16 works, including one new piece ("Second Movement") -- demonstrates his artistic evolution.
    It hasn't been linear -- less a progression than a series of moments, many on repeat. Why does Kjartansson avoid traditional narratives in his work? "I really look at [the videos] as these kind of singing sculptures. You just look at it," he explains. "You know nothing is going to happen ... that's a big thing for me, by repeating stuff you somehow freeze it."
    Performance of "The Second Movement"

    Losing my religion

    Kjartansson traces his interests in repetition, ritual and performance back to his religious upbringing.
    "My mother is a born-again Christian! And I was very interested in religion," he says. "I went to Lutheran church youth groups and then I also became an altar boy in a Catholic church because I thought that was so cool, to learn about the ritual there. So I was an altar boy for years and years."
    As an adult he moved away from religion, but there's no anger or bitterness towards that part of his life. He's grateful for the insight the experiences offered him.
    "It was all really positive memories and it makes you understand this idea that I am better than the others, because I believe in something. Then you somehow weirdly understand crazy [extremists]," he says.
    "I sort of know where it comes from because I know my mother, you know what I mean?" he laughs. "So it was a good education, to understand most of humanity, but I'm glad that I got out of this. This oppression."

    Art and politics

    When Kjartansson acted as the Icelandic representative at the Venice Biennale in 2009, Iceland was undergoing a period of extreme economic and political upheaval.
    Now in 2016 he's staging a show in the capital of another country in flux. Brexit has divided Britain, but despite the uncertainty over the nation's future, Kjartansson believes it could spark a creative awakening.
    "I think the weird reality, at least from my experience in Iceland, when things got bad, is there's always a sudden energy that's created, you know what I mean?" he says.
    "Which is positive for a creative reawakening. But in terms of the infrastructure around culture, that is all in a bit of danger, but the creative energy is probably going to be interesting, I bet. That's always what happens in bad times."
    While his work doesn't throttle you with political opinion, Kjartansson is insistent that every piece has subtle, political undertones. He pokes, rather than strikes.
    In "Scenes from Western Culture," another series of videos, he shows a young black couple dining in one of New York's more traditionally opulent restaurants. On another screen, another beautiful couple are having sex in a minimal, perfectly white modern bedroom -- living the dream? Or so he asks.
    "Scenes from Western Culture" 2015
    Kjartansson asks his audience to think, and his subject matter is certainly not light, but still there remains a sense of joy in the work. Perhaps this is simply because he's having so much fun making it. I asked him how it feels to walk into such a large display of his work, produced over so many years. "Yeah it always takes me back. It's always a bit nostalgic, you know, when you just like look at this painting and really remember everything around it. It's comforting thing to go back especially because the memory of like creating these pieces is always so good.
    "Life can be really hard, but then the moment when you create, it's just this beautiful escape."
    As you leave the exhibition you are serenaded once again by the same musicians who welcomed you in. The guitars and voices are melancholic -- "You've taken me/ To the bitter end," strum the men. Bitterness never sounded so sweet.
    Ragnar Kjartansson runs 14 July 2016 through 4 September 2016 at the Barbican Centre's Art Gallery in London