Ragnar Kjartansson isn’t afraid to reference other artists from centuries past in his work: His 2009 video piece, The End—Rocky Mountains, for instance, pays a deep debt to the 19th-century romantic landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich. But ask the Icelander whom he admires the most and a rather different name—and epoch—comes up. “Kanye West!” exclaims the 40-year-old Kjartansson in his excellent English. “I’d pee my pants if I met him! He works with the media of our times, and his records are like multilayered paintings.”
Last year, as Kjartansson and his partner, Ingibjörg Sigurjónsdóttir, made a road trip across the United States, they listened to West’s The Life of Pablo nonstop. This year they’re returning to North America at the end of September to begin installing a show—a variant of last summer’s exhibition at London’s Barbican Centre—at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., which will open in mid October. One of the highlights will be a piece missing from the London show called Woman in E. “It’s a woman on a glittering pedestal that turns and turns as she plays one note on an electric guitar: the melancholy E minor,” says Kjartansson. “It’s Minimalist but incredibly glitzy.”
To Kjartansson, in its Minimalism and glitz, the piece is a comment on American values. Its companion piece in London had two identically dressed Edwardian women engaged in an endless kiss in a boat bobbing on the Barbican’s lily-filled lake. “It’s this perfect English moment that I only wanted to be performed on the weekends, because it’s the perfect cliché of the perfect English weekend,” he says delightedly. “It is real theatricality played out against the truthful modernism of the surrounding architecture.”
Kjartansson is much enamored of clichés. A new series of mini-films called Scenes From Western Culture shows everything from expensively dressed German children playing in an haute garden to a young couple having what he calls “proper sex” in a tastefully bare apartment. But repetition also underpins his work. At just 33, he spent the duration of the 2009 Venice Biennale creating 144 paintings of his friend Pall Haukur Bjornsson living out the very cliché of the indolent artist: drinking, smoking and generally lolling, mostly in a tiny pair of Speedos. At the Barbican, these pictures hung dejectedly in back spaces as though the vast collection was too large to discard but not sufficiently superior to be given pride of place. That was occupied by the completely splendid Take Me Here by the Dishwasher: Memorial for a Marriage, in which a group of skinny white-boy balladeers—Kjartansson likes a posse—flop around on carpets and perch on stools, singing sadly against a backdrop of his own mother and father in a film made around the time of his conception.
Kjartansson’s mother is a well-known actor in Iceland and his father is a theatre director. He grew up in the theatre, and made the most of these artistic advantages. “When I was about nine, I remember watching a rehearsal for an Alan Ayckbourn comedy, and a couple was practicing falling onto a sofa again and again. That was the prototype,” he explains. He studied painting in Stockholm, living in a mansion with a lonely old aunt who’d married a count who left a dangerously large wine cellar behind. But by the time he returned to Reykjavik in 2001, he was working with performance and film, often taking the central role: a man dressed as death brandishing a paper scythe or a down-at-the-heels crooner backed by luscious pink satin curtains.
While Kjartansson’s work is full of humor, it is also deeply melancholic and often so ridiculously immersive that it leaves viewers spellbound. A film of a group of musicians playing together but apart—one in every room of the gloriously dilapidated Rokeby Farm in Upstate New York—lasts for an hour and many watch it right through to the end. Like the artist himself, the work is never cynical but always brave and extraordinarily generous.
It turns out that he’s a good impersonator, too. Before we part, he tells me about a clip he’d seen of Prince Charles painting watercolors on a hillside. “And he says, ‘I suppose if I had bit more time I’d be a bit more bold,’ ” mimics Ragnar in a perfect English accent. “Well, every artist wants to be bold,” he concludes. The difference with Ragnar is that he really is.