They have never let their diminutive size get in the way of their definitive voice. In the last decade, a new voice has emerged: Ragnar Kjartansson, now taking the art world by storm. He is a 43-year-old polymath who in just a short amount of time has already been graced with a retrospective and shown everywhere from the Barbican to the Biennale. It’s his mesmerising, unconventional and confrontational approach to art that has deeply resonated with people. Kjartansson finds refuge in the fascinating repetition of pop culture and the madness of Western civilisation, pushing our boundaries of taste and throwing stones at the stiff walls of the elite art world. Entering his world as the viewer, you ultimately never quite know whether Kjartansson is letting you in on the joke or if you’re a part of it. But then again, that’s all part of the allure of Ragnar Kjartansson.
I first came across your work in the Guggenheim in Bilbao and I found it deeply unsettling and strange but also new and refreshing. You’re now recognised internationally. How does that feel?
Pretty good, I can’t complain. It’s fantastic that my work is being shown abroad.
Tell me about the piece you are about to unveil; there seems to be a lot of mystery and intrigue surrounding this work? So far I know that it is a piece that will stretch across 5 weeks, for 5 hours a day, and a series of organists will perform the same song on an 18th-century organ. Is that right?
Yeah. It’s in an amazing space where they have always shown these gorgeous 18th-century paintings in Cardiff, with painters like Sir Joshua Reynolds. But for this piece, all the art will be taken out so it is just an empty space with this lush light blue wallpaper and a high ceiling with the organist just constantly performing this song Il Cielo In Una Stanza, or The Sky In A Room.
The Sky in a Room by Ragnar Kjartansson at National Museum Cardiff
You often take these contrasting and disparate elements and try to put them together. Somehow it works. You’re a fan of Mozart and this really ostentatious period but you work in a very contemporary environment.
Totally and it was such an amazing time because it is where all of our modernity and ideas of common sense come from. So you have the first encyclopedia and Enlightenment but then you also have the opera and crazy pink clothes. I really find that amazing.
There is one theme I find really important in your work but I don’t think it is talked about a lot. When I viewed your retrospective, which seems funny to say at your age…
Yeah at first it’s insulting but then it’s great. It’s like being at your own funeral.
"It’s like being at your own funeral."
Ragnar Kjartansson on attending his own retrospective
Yes well I thought your funeral was great.
I went into this room where you were playing an operatic song about sorrow. Personally, I feel like the theme of madness is very present in your work and I wanted to hear what you have to say on that because you have said that ‘repetition becomes spiritual’, but I’m not sure I agree. I actually think I take an emotional beating when I view your work like I’m going a bit mad to see how much I can take. What do you make of that?
Maybe it is some kind of madness but when I am working I do feel like I am creating an order out of something that is mad. It’s like this repetition and making it stoic and solid that somehow takes the madness out of it.
What I’m trying to say is the more I enter this world you create the more I feel like I am going mad.
Wow. You should probably just leave.
But do you think there is any truth to what I’m saying or am I looking into it too deeply?
Well there must be some truth to it because I absolutely have full respect for each person’s take on my work and what it creates in oneself. When you create a visual art it is basically like writing a poem; it goes out there and then people will take it to heart depending on how it makes them feel.
I also really understand this uneasiness and this feeling of tension and madness. It’s a really good point because it’s probably why I am so intrigued by this form that I’ve been working a lot with; it feels so calm and soothing yet at the same time there is this tension in it that makes it more interesting.
One thing I really love about the song in this piece in Cardiff is that Gino Paoli wrote it in 1959 after having sex with a prostitute. He had fallen completely in love and was sitting looking at the space around him, thinking that love had transformed the walls of the brothel into endless woods, and the purple ceiling into a starry sky. A few years later he was so heartbroken he shot himself in the heart, but the bullet did not kill him – it is still stuck in his ribcage now as an 80-something-year-old man. That was the madness of Gino Paoli, but isn’t it beautiful?
Would you find it insulting if I were to call you mad?
No, that would actually be a compliment because when you are trying to be ‘arty’ you need to be a bit mad. I think one always strives to be mad in one’s art and foster that madness. But I don’t really feel like it is madness – you could say that creativity is madness but it’s a good madness. I know both kinds: sometimes in my head I have this bad madness that is just totally destructive, so I’ve been working hard to at least tame that beast.
For me, creating art has been a sensible place of order away from the madness in my head.
It’s funny because I see it as the complete opposite; I see it as a window into your mind. It’s like you are presenting in your art what you are trying to get away from in your mind, if that makes sense?
That makes total sense.
"I have this bad madness that is just totally destructive, so I’ve been working hard to at least tame that beast."
One of the other tensions that build alongside this madness is the humour in your art. You play a lot with wit and sarcasm – putting an ensemble of organists in this decadent gallery in Wales just feels like a big practical joke, but it’s not. It’s like you’re the jester in the royal court, always laughing but serious at the same time.
Yeah, I actually think that most artworks are jokes that have gone too far. I think a joke is sometimes the absence of human creativity – we make jokes to get to know each other and it’s all a part of being alive and part of a community. We have all these little ‘in’ jokes we have with our colleagues, family members or whatever.
You’re quite fascinated by the very neat, almost clinical aesthetic of Western culture and the evil machinations going on underneath it all.
Yes, I always found this idea of Western culture really fascinating because it’s so proper but so violent at the same time. It’s like how colonisation wanted to make the rest of the world ‘proper’.
You should see a film called The Square. It plays a lot on these themes.
I’ve seen it and it does play a lot on these ideas of properness and what it’s right to think or do.
Ragnar Kjartansson, “God,” 2007, single-channel video projection, color, sound, with pink curtains, 30 minutes
(Courtesy the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York and i8 Gallery, Reykjavík. Photo: Rafael Pinho)
Exactly, like sitting at the dinner table but pleasuring himself underneath perhaps?
Yes, and what I find fascinating about this person pleasuring himself is that he makes it seem like he is saner than the person not jerking off under the table. I’m just fascinated by people who are really proper and in middle ground because I find that weirder than being crazy.
You take on popular culture in your work a lot – you’ve collaborated with The National and you quote Kanye West, talk about Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra. You seem to have melded together the worlds of hipsters and contemporary culture, but I get the feeling that you don’t know how to be embraced by either the elite art world or these hipsters. It’s almost as if you caught between?
Maybe not unsettling but I think it’s all just a big misunderstanding. I think it comes from living where I live, which is so far away from it all, so I come to a show I have in London and I find it crazy to see all these people there for my work. It’s a dream or a misunderstanding, so I haven’t really fathomed the reality of it yet.
But you don’t spend 20 hours a day creating your art; you’re more of a polymath which maybe unsettles the art world somehow?
Maybe but I don’t know if it unsettles it. I would say the art world is pretty cool in many ways. I’ve been really lucky with being pretty well understood and appreciated in the art world so I don’t feel like I’ve been some kind of trickster playing them all. It was a big surprise for me, just doing my stuff in a little place and then suddenly being embraced by the art world.
I think your ideas are so unconventional but not in a contrived way. Like the piece where your mother spits at you – have you ever thought about doing it the other way round where you spit at your mother?
That’s the funny part. When we did the piece the first time my mother was like, “So darling, how are we doing this – are you spitting on me or am I spitting on you?”
I really like the violent matriarchy of the mother in this piece. I think that’s what it’s about so at the end of the day it says a lot about our relationship in reality. I find that out more and more as I get older. There’s an awful truth in it but I find truly beautiful at the same time.
When you are composing a piece, you think about what is right, and in this, it felt so right that she is spitting on me. Obviously, it is all pretence but there is a deep truth in it and all the Oedipus complex narrative and what not.
"I come to a show I have in London and I find it crazy to see all these people there for my work."
They say the most traumatic moment in our lives is being born, so everything after that is just trying to overcome it.
Yes. I have a friend who actually remembers being born and says it is the most horrible memory. We are all designed not to remember it but weirdly he does seem to remember the feeling.
Where do you see the viewer fitting into the art you create? I think there is sometimes an awkward tension that comes from a viewer looking at some of your more unconventional work, like the spitting piece, and wondering how to feel about it.
I think that is a very natural reflection for any viewer. That’s sort of the art riddle – be it even with an old painting you are always wondering what it is and how you should look at it.
The Sky in a Room by Ragnar Kjartansson opens on the 3rd February until the 11th March at the National Museum Cardiff