Ragnar Kjartansson—and you thought Bjork was weird

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Ragnar Kjartansson, from God
  • Ragnar Kjartansson, from "God"
I tend to seek out in art what I seek out in people—qualities that I don't have, or don't have enough of. In my social life, I'm drawn to ebullient optimists, people with punishing work ethics, and savants who can do long division in their heads. Through them, I can patch up the little deficiencies in my own being. In art, I have long been drawn to performance work—both because the idea of putting oneself on display terrifies me and the level of endurance the work requires is pretty much unfathomable. When iconic performance artist Marina Abramovic staged at MoMA in 2010 "The Artist is Present" , sitting in a chair for six hours every day over a three-month period while steadily and silently holding the gaze of any patron who sat down across from her, she effectively conquered two of my own personal nightmares: sitting still and prolonged eye contact with a stranger. But it's Ragnar Kjartansson, performance artist and Icelandic pop star, that I've long admired for his willingness to immerse himself in the depths of monotony.

For whatever reason, when I was young—maybe ten years old—I would stand in front of a mirror and repeat my name aloud. I would do this until the sound of my name became senseless and disassociated from the object it was supposed to claim—me. The moment that happened, I would shudder and giggle and run away from the mirror. It was just a creepy little game I liked to play with myself, one I later learned Saul Kripke would be proud of. I remembered my game when I first came across a 2006 Kjartansson piece called "Guo (God)." Dressed like a midcentury crooner on a set that could've easily been designed by David Lynch, Kjartansson sings the same line—"sorrow conquers happiness"—over and over. He does this for hours, never giggling or running away. His intonation changes, his movements alter, but the words always remain the same. This commitment to the narrative fragment is a hallmark of Kjartansson. In 2011, he staged "Bliss," in which the final act of Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro" was performed with Icelandic opera singers repeatedly for 12 straight hours. For the 2009 Venice Biennale, he set up shop in a crumbling palazzo where he could be observed painting the same model (clad in a Speedo) every day for the entire six months of the Biennale's run.

At the end of the month, Luhring Augustine Gallery in New York will exhibit Kjartansson's most recent work, "The Visitors," for the first time in the U.S. Shot in a Hudson Valley mansion, Kjartansson and eight other musicians occupy nine separate rooms and sing the words "Once again I fall into my feminine ways" repeatedly for 53 minutes. Stills from the shoot allude to an air of ennui and fragility—more hallmarks of Kjartansson that I've always read as a commentary on the nature of time. But a shaky bootleg of the exhibition in Zurich's Migros Museum reveals an absolutely breathtaking and hypnotic scene. Weaving moments of soaring beauty with crushing desolation, the sound of the musicians finding their way out of physical isolation into spiritual union is unlike anything I've heard. It reminded me how in love I am with Ragnar Kjartansson for his willingness to stay in the strangeness of a moment and never, ever run away.

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