Ragnar Kjartansson (performance artist)

Ragnar Kjartansson ([ˈraknar cʰar̥tansɔn]) (born 1976)[1] is a contemporary Icelandic artist[2] who engages multiple artistic mediums throughout his performative practice. His video installations, performances, drawings, and paintings incorporate the history of film, music, visual culture, and literature. His works are connected through their pathos and humor, with each deeply influenced by the comedy and tragedy of classical theater. Kjartansson's use of durational, repetitive performance to harness collective emotion is a hallmark of his practice and recurs throughout his work.

Kjartansson has had solo exhibitions at the Reykjavík Art Museum,[3] the Barbican Centre, London, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C., the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal, the Palais de Tokyo, Paris, the New Museum, New York, the Migros Museum of Contemporary Art, Zurich, the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin, the Frankfurter Kunstverein, and the BAWAG Contemporary, Vienna. Kjartansson participated in The Encyclopedic Palace at the Venice Biennale in 2013, Manifesta 10 in St. Petersburg, Russia in 2014, and he represented Iceland at the 2009 Venice Biennale.[4] He is the recipient of the 2015 Artes Mundi's Derek Williams Trust Purchase Award, and Performa's 2011 Malcolm McLaren Award.[5]

Early life

Kjartansson was born in Reykjavik, Iceland to Kjartan Ragnarsson and Guðrún Ásmundsdóttir. His mother is a well-known actress in Iceland and his father is a director and playwright. “[H]e grew up in the theatre—the Reykjavík City Theatre, where his father directed and his mother starred in a wide repertoire of classical and modern plays. He spent much of his childhood backstage, watching actors rehearse scenes or parts of scenes again and again, and he likes to tell people that he was conceived on stage, or almost—his mother told him that it happened a few hours after she and his father acted out a steamy sex scene for a film they were making. This was in 1975.”[6]

He was in and out of bands growing up, most notably as a member of the Icelandic band Trabant. Trabant is an electronic-pop/rock band from Reykjavík, Iceland, known for its raw but powerful music and flamboyant live performances. Trabant's style of music is a blend of electronic music, punk, R&B and pop.

Kjartansson graduated from the Iceland Academy of the Arts in 2001 and also studying at the Royal Academy in Stockholm in 2000.


Kjartansson draws on the entire arc of art in his performative practice. The history of film, music, theatre, visual culture and literature finds its way into his video installations, durational performances, drawing and painting. Pretending and staging become key tools in the artist's attempts to convey sincere emotion and offering a genuine experience to the audience. Kjartansson's playful work is full of unique moments where a conflict of the dramatic and the banal culminates in a memorable way.

Selected works and projects

Me and My Mother

“Me and My Mother” began in 2000 while Kjartansson was still a student, and it is based upon a simple premise—every five years, Kjartansson invites his mother, the well-known Icelandic actress Guðrún Ásmundsdóttir, to spit on him. Mother and son stand side-by-side in her living room facing a fixed-point camera. Periodically and repeatedly, Kjartansson's mother turns and spits into his face with dramatic gusto.[7][8]

A Lot of Sorrow[9]

MoMA PS1 presented the durational performance, 'A Lot of Sorrow', by Kjartansson on 5 May 2013. "For the original work Kjartansson sought out US rock band, The National, to perform their song, Sorrow, repeatedly in a six-hour live loop. By stretching a single pop song into a day-long tour de force the artist continues his explorations into the potential of repetitive performance to produce sculptural presence within sound.

"Sorrow found me when I was young,

Sorrow waited, sorrow won ..."

commences the song by The National, whose music and lyrics repeatedly conjure notions of romantic suffering and contemporary Weltschmerz—themes Kjartansson often uses in his own work employing references as wide-ranging as Ingmar Bergman, the German Romantics, and Elvis Presley. As in all of Kjartansson’s performances, the idea behind A Lot of Sorrow is devoid of irony, yet full of humor and emotion. It is another quest to find the comic in the tragic and vice" versa.[10]

The Visitors

The Visitors is a 2012 installation and video art piece created by Kjartansson. Kjartansson named the piece for The Visitors, the final album by the Swedish pop band ABBA. The piece was commissioned by the Migros Museum in Zurich, and was one of the museum's inaugural exhibits. The premiere of the piece marked Kjartansson's first solo show in Switzerland.

The Visitors constitutes the performance of a song written by Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir, Kjartansson's ex-wife. The piece is displayed across nine different screens, each featuring musicians or artists either by themselves or in groups in different rooms of a house, or outside, performing simultaneously but separately. One screen features Kjartansson by himself. Others featured in the piece include friends of Kjartansson, both from the artist's native Reykjavík and elsewhere, as well as residents of Rokeby Farm, where the piece was filmed.

The piece was originally shown at the Migros Museum in Switzerland, and premiered in the United States in early 2013 at the Luhring Augustine Gallery. The piece has since been displayed in several museums around the world, including The Broad in Los Angeles, The Guggenheim in New York City, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, the Turner House Gallery in Penarth, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, Tennessee, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The piece returned to the Institute of Contemporary Art in February 2019. The piece came to the Dallas Museum of Art in September 2019. (https://dma.org/art/exhibitions/focus-ragnar-kjartansson)

The piece was filmed at Rokeby Farm, located in upstate New York, near Barrytown. Rokeby is a home and estate that at one point belonged to the Astor family, and later the Livingston family. The property is now inhabited by various descendants of both families, and other tenants. The property was the site of an earlier 2007 piece by Kjartansson, titled The Blossoming Trees Performance, during which he recorded himself as a plein-air painter for two days. The estate has also been used by other artists, due to the unique interiors of the main house on the property.

The Palace of the Summerland

In 2014 Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary (TBA21) commissioned Kjartansson and a group of 20 talented artists, musicians, and friends to create the two-part project ‘The Palace of the Summerland’ Between the April 3 and April 27, the artist and his troupe of musicians, actors, artistic directors, costume designers, camera operators, and technical crew lived and performed continuously in the Augarten exhibition space, transforming it into an active studio, an art factory, and a set for a film and theatrical adaptation of the epic novel World Light, by the Icelandic author and Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness. The Palace of the Summerland is a piece of performance art, flirting with literature, music, and sculpture—a manic journey into the souls of generations of Icelandic artists, presented under the guise of making a film. Kjartansson describes the project as a “megalomaniac quest,” in this case to capture beauty, art, emotion, and the essence of life. Aiming at the impossible, it is a task that has to be tried, completed, lived. It was developed simultaneously with The Explosive Sonics of Divinity / Der Klang der Offenbarung des Göttlichen, a theater piece featuring stage paintings, performed by the German Film Orchestra Babelsberg and the Film Choir Berlin and premiered at the Volksbühne in Berlin on February 19.

Laxness wrote World Light between 1937 and 1940, around the outbreak of World War II. The Palace of the Summerland, named after the second part of the novel, revolves around the tragic and fateful life of its protagonist, the folk poet Ólafur Kárason, whose constant search for sheer beauty and artistic grati cation leads to his nal tragic apotheosis.

Kjartansson states: “This story has molded my approach to art more than anything else... It colored my whole worldview... World Light is an epic about the artist. An ironic tale of beauty and artistic integrity written in the crucible of modernism, it is equally an ode to beauty and a deconstruction of it. It speaks to an important 21st-century core: the politics of beauty. The exhibition will be the process of filming scenes from this novel, which depict the utopic creative moment, the search for perfection, and the final romanticized sacrifice for art. The exhibition space will become a Fellini-style studio, a mayhem factory for building, acting, and filming a story on beauty. We are not really making cinema; we are acting out an attempt to make cinema... It is like Paul Auster’s The Book of Illusions.

The team assembled for this project was a robust group of some of Reykjavík's most prominent artists, comedians, writers, and musicians. It is a gang of the friends who have inspired him in his works. Beginning in April, they left behind their regular lives and joined Kjartansson on a Fitzcarraldo-like journey. They became The Palace of the Summerland by building it, acting it, and living it. Kjartansson's father, the theater director Kjartan Ragnarsson, was there to help direct the scenes, so there was even father-son tension. By visiting TBA21–Augarten at different times, the public experienced diverse situations: the team caught in the middle of a rehearsal; Kjartansson with his father introducing the timing of a certain scene; musicians rehearsing a score composed by Kjartan Sveinsson, the composer and former member of Sigur Rós; the production of sets, costumes, and props: literally the entire production process in front of the cameras and behind the scenes. “It will be a factory where we are building, acting, and filming an impossibly big story on beauty. The drama is on- site. We are making an epic on a softporn budget, surrounded by the audience. It is a hopeless task. A true disaster,” said Kjartansson.

From April 3 to April 27 (Wednesday to Sunday during opening hours and Saturdays until midnight), the musicians, actors, artistic directors, costume designers, camera operators, and technical crew lived and performed continuously in the Augarten exhibition space, transforming it into an active studio, an art factory, and a set for a film and theatrical adaptation of the epic novel. The venue served as the setting for a durational performance and work-in- progress in which the situation, process, and drama of each ephemeral moment are even more important than a final outcome. The public was invited to pay a visit and enter the situation, momentarily immersing itself in the scene and atmosphere and experiencing the adaptation and production of a tale of beauty and artistic integrity that has molded generations of Icelandic artists, including Kjartansson himself. Visitors were encouraged to spend time with the performance, to return and to maintain an engagement with the monthlong action. Following this four-week performance, the film/theater sets will become part of a large-scale environmental installation was on view at TBA21–Augarten between April 30 to June 8.

Laxness's magnificently humanistic novel is, according to Kjartansson, the blueprint of Iceland's artistic DNA and was frequently invoked by his father throughout his upbringing as one would cite “religious scriptures.” In the face of the indifference and contempt of those around him, the poet Ólafur Kárason, the protagonist of World Light, is driven by his sense of destiny, living a life of poverty, loneliness, death, perversity, and failed love encounters as he journeys across Iceland in pursuit of beauty, poetry, and the divine. Kjartansson and company's adaptation crystallizes around the highly romantic but also ambiguous moments of epiphany described by Laxness. These are experiences of great beauty, inspiration, and serenity when the world comes to rest, reality crumbles, and divine and earthly revelations appear in utmost clarity. In The Palace of the Summerland, these episodes will be narrated, enacted, repeatedly rehearsed, and captured on film in one single and unique take, which will later become the film scenes that are an integral part of the unique work to remain on display following the performance. Various sets, selected by Kjartansson and his collaborators, correspond to the four parts of Laxness's novel (Book 1: The Revelation of the Deity; Book 2: The Palace of the Summerland; Book 3: The House of the Poet; Book 4: The Beauty of the Heavens).

The Team for the project included: Kjartansson, Davíð Þór Jónsson, Kjartan Sveinsson, Ingibjörg Sigurjónsdóttir, María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir, Kjartan Ragnarsson, Ragnar Helgi Ólafsson, Margrét Bjarnadóttir, Sólveig Katrín Ragnarsdóttir, Helga Stefánsdóttir, Sveinn Kjartansson, Lilja Gunnarsdóttir, Halldór Halldórsson, Anna Hrund Másdóttir, Tómas Örn Tómasson, Christopher W. McDonald, Hildigunnur Birgisdóttir, Kristín Anna Valtýsdóttir, Thelma Marín Jónsdóttir, Sigríður Margrét Guðmundsdóttir, Daníel Björnsson.

The End[11]

In 2009 Kjartansson was selected as the official Icelandic representation at the 53rd International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia.

'The End’ (2009) features a tableau vivant of the artist and his model lasting for the entire six-months of the Biennale, along with a monumental video and music installation. It is presented in the Palazzo Michiel dal Brusà, a 14th-century palazzo on the Grand Canal near the Rialto.

Having transformed the palazzo into a makeshift studio for the Biennale, over the course of the Biennale Kjartansson painted the image of a young man posing day after day against the backdrop of the Grand Canal. The man modeling for him, fellow artist Páll Haukur Björnsson, smokes cigarettes and drinks beer, while clothed only in a bathing suit. For six months, Kjartansson limited his art production to the painting of this scene, producing one work after the other, with the paintings made on previous days left to accumulate around the studio. The performance is partially based on questions of the artist's self, suggesting his perpetual re-conceptualization in relation to his surroundings and previously existing works of art.

In a separate room, “The End” new video installation consisting of several scenes shot in the Canadian Rocky Mountains display Kjartansson and a collaborator, musician Davíd Thór Jónsson, playing an ambiguous country music arrangement. Recorded in the snow-covered mountains, the expansive sights and sounds in the video are in sharp contrast to the intimate and isolated performance in the adjoining room of the palazzo. Taken together, the recorded performance in the Rocky Mountains and the live performance in Venice create a dramatic juxtaposition between two iconic settings, connected by themes of creativity, camaraderie, and Weltschmerz or world-weariness.

A catalogue has been published for the exhibition by Hatje Cantz Verlag and the Center for Icelandic Art, containing among different essays a correspondence of letters between Kjartansson and artist Andjeas Ejiksson, chronicling preparations for the Pavilion.

The End was organized and presented on behalf of the Icelandic Ministry of Culture by the Center for Icelandic Art (CIA.IS) in Reykjavík, Iceland under the commissionership of Christian Schoen, and was curated by Markús T. Andrésson and Dorothée Kirch.


In 2016 Kjartansson was honored as the year's Reykjavik City Artist. This is an honorary award, given to an artist who is believed to have excelled and made his mark on Icelandic art.[12]


  • Ragnar Kjartansson: The End, Christian Schoen (ed.), Ostfildern (Hatje Cantz) 2009, ISBN 978-3-7757-2333-6
  • Icelandic Art Today (ed. by Christian Schoen and Halldór Björn Runólfsson), Hatje-Cantz, Ostfildern 2009 ISBN 978-3-7757-2295-7


  1. "Venice Preview: Ragnar Kjartansson". Art in America. 2 June 2009. Retrieved 27 January 2015.
  2. Ragnar Kjartansson - 'The Visitors' - NYTimes.com 21 Feb 2013 "Bonhomie and nihilism go hand in hand in “The Visitors,” a recent video installation by the talented performance artist Ragnar Kjartansson"
  3. UTD_Vefumsjon (2017-02-17). "Ragnar Kjartansson: God, I Feel So Bad". listasafnreykjavikur.is. Retrieved 2018-01-18.
  4. "Ragnar Kjartansson at 53rd Venice Biennale - Announcements - e-flux". www.e-flux.com. Retrieved 2018-01-18.
  5. "Ragnar Kjartansson - Artists - Luhring Augustine". www.luhringaugustine.com. Retrieved 2018-01-18.
  6. Tomkins, Calvin (2016-04-04). "Performance Art that Doesn't Bore". The New Yorker. ISSN 0028-792X. Retrieved 2018-01-18.
  7. Freeman, Nate (2017-09-11). "Hirshhorn Acquires Ragnar Kjartansson's 'Me and My Mother,' Work by Shirin Neshat, Deb Sokolow". ARTnews. Retrieved 2018-01-18.
  8. Catlin, Roger. "Why the Artist Ragnar Kjartansson Asked his Mother to Spit On Him". Smithsonian. Retrieved 2018-01-18.
  9. "A Lot of Sorrow". www.alotofsorrow.com. Retrieved 2018-01-18.
  10. "Ragnar Kjartansson A Lot of Sorrow featuring The National | MoMA". The Museum of Modern Art. Retrieved 2018-01-18.
  11. "Ragnar Kjartansson at 53rd Venice Biennale - Announcements - e-flux". www.e-flux.com. Retrieved 2018-01-18.
  12. Hafstað, Vala (2016-06-20). "Reykjavík City Artist Honored". Iceland Review. Retrieved 2018-01-18.
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