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

Through his refreshing lack of self-seriousness or sanctimony, Ragnar Kjartansson has cut a jagged, joyful figure on the contemporary art scene. Indeed, with solo exhibitions in Boston and New York, the artist has recently been favored with the art world’s fickle attentions and is having something of a well-deserved moment.

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 exhibition Ragnar 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.

A musician as well as a visual artist, and one who studied painting before turning his attention to performance, Kjartansson infuses his multi-media works with a vitality that is visual and aural, textural and rhythmic. In The Man, music and performance, time and history, are ambiguously interwoven as the artist cedes the stage to the late bluesman Pinetop Perkins. Framing the then-ninety-six-year-old Perkins against an evocatively rural backdrop—one that immediately calls to mind a Wyeth landscape—Kjartansson observes his subject with a clear-eyed calm that is resolutely unsentimental yet profoundly humanizing.

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.

Interestingly, the naturalness of the artist’s staging is such that the viewer only retrospectively registers the scene’s essential anachronisms: an upright piano and a microphone found standing in an overgrown field; the bluesman’s slow-moving yet determined entrance on the grassy “stage,” whose austere backdrop is an abandoned farmhouse and several overhead electrical wires. Artifice and authenticity, choreography and happenstance, seem to collapse into one another in ways that seem effortless. The result is a kind of experiential interlude, a deeply personal, utterly compelling encounter with a singular man in an ephemeral moment.

The idiosyncrasies that underlie and emerge throughout The Man reiterate and affirm Kjartansson’s attunement to the omnipresence of history and the “stories” that permeate our collective consciousness. In the video, the hollowed-out, mysterious aura of the farmhouse silently collides with the frail yet animated presence of the elderly musician; similarly, the gaping desolation suggested by the house’s glassless, darkened windows is shattered by the bluesman’s lively stream-of-consciousness rhythms and commentary.

In presenting us with Perkins, an irrepressible figure whose very presence is history incarnate, Kjartansson quietly confronts us with time’s unsentimental, even ruthless, forward march, and with our own essential entanglement in a web of shared history, individual experience, and cultural memory. Wearing profundity like a blithely tossed-on overcoat, the artist leads us, finally, into unexpectedly provocative depths.

[1] Quoted in “The Ragnar Kjartansson Experience” by Justin Hopper, Carnegie Magazine (summer 2011) <>.