Ragnar Kjartansson (performance artist)

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Ragnar Kjartansson in his installation, Migros Museum, Zürich, 2012

Ragnar Kjartansson (RAG-ner kuh-YART-un-sun) (born 1976 in Reykjavík)[1] is an Icelandic performance artist.[2]

Early life[edit]

Kjartansson [3] was born in 1976 in Reykjavík, where he still lives today.[4] His mother, Guðrún Ásmundsdóttir, is a well-known actress in Iceland and used to perform with his father, Kjartan Ragnarsson, now a director and playwright.[5] Through both of his parents professions, Ragnar was exposed to the theater from an incredibly young age. He was in and out of bands growing up, most notably as former member of the Icelandic band Trabant. He soon transferred mediums to visual art as he felt "like a poser" playing music. He began with visual art, and attended the Royal Academy, Stockholm, Sweden in 2000. He also attended the Icelandic Academy of the Arts, painting department. Here he took a course in Feminist Art - and learned about the works of Marina Abramović, Vito Acconci and Chris Burden. This is where he found interest in blending the fake, repetitively rehearsed world of theatrics with which he was raised, and the newly found world of performance art. Since then his career has been characterized by experiments with visual art, music and theater. He works simultaneously as an artist and a musician and considers himself mainly as a performance artist. Ragnar currently lives and works in Reykjavik. His pieces are characterized by the play between contradicting feelings; sorrow and happiness, horror and beauty, drama and humor… [6]


Ragnar's work is recognized for its playful darkness, its brilliant fusion of humor and sorrow. He uses humor as a tool to disarm the audience, and allow them to approach more serious topics of discussion. Repetition is a reoccurring trait in his works, stemming from both a background in theater and in religion. The theater, repetition for rehearsal.. and religion as a repetition to bring one closer to a greater path. This is embodied through any duration pieces, repeating process across many hours, days, months, even years.

In a work entitled, "Me and My Mother" Ragnar has his mom stand in front of a recording camera and spit on him. These videos have been made every five years since his graduation in 2000.

In a 2002 work called Death and the Children, he dressed up in a dark suit and carrying a paper scythe, leading young children through a cemetery, trying earnestly to answer their questions about fate.

In his 2006 live performance Sorrow Conquers Happiness, captured in the video God, he wore a tuxedo and played the role of an 1940s nightclub crooner on a pink-draped stage with an orchestra, singing, “Sorrow conquers happiness” over and over as the music swelled.[3] That same year, in his two-day piece The Blossoming Trees Performance, he assumed the role of plein-air painter in the mode of the Impressionists or Hudson River School artists at Rokeby Farm, a nearly 200-year-old house in the Hudson Valley.[5]

Kjartansson represented Iceland at the Venice Biennale in 2009, claimed to be the youngest artist ever to do so.[1] For his exhibition at Palazzo Michiel dal Brusa near the Rialto Bridge, the artist relentlessly painted the portrait of fellow Icelandic artist Páll Haukur Björnsson who poses before him in a black Speedo, cigarette and beer in hand. Ragnar made a painting a day for six months, totaling in 144 paintings produced of the same model. These paintings were then displayed covering the walls in very close proximity. [3]

In 2011, Kjartansson won the inaugural Malcolm Award at Performa 11, the visual art performance biennial.[7] He won for his 12-hour work Bliss, which was performed without a break at the Abrons Arts Center involving repeated performances of the denouement of Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro”, the moment when the count gets down on one knee and asks his wife for forgiveness, which she grants in an aria. Kristjan Johannson, an Icelandic tenor, played the count, with members of his master class in the other roles.[8]

Also in 2011, Ragnar made Song 2011 in the Carnegie Museum of Art. This work involved his three beautiful nieces, sitting in the center of the museum surrounded by neoclassical sculptures, singing the same elegant refrain for six hours. "The weight of the world is love." The melancholy misremembered lyrics of an Allen Ginsberg poem and its romantic deceleration that accumulates to the cathartic force of a prayer through repetition, the neoclassical plaster casts of ancient sculptures looking down at the scenery as if watching an other worldly spectacle, and the three nieces passively embodying both classical and contemporary ideals of beauty in a trance.

Ragnar's six-hour video A Lot of Sorrow shows the indie rock band The National onstage before a live audience in the VW Dome at MoMA PS1 in May 2013; in front of up to six cameras that constantly provide different views, the band plays its popular lament, Sorrow, roughly 3:30 minutes, repeated for six hours. The lyrics change, the melody changes, the energy changes.[9]

For a 2015 Creative Time in New York's Central Park, Kjartansson created S.S. Hangover: in a square-sailed boat resembling a Viking ship, a formally attired brass sextet plays a beautiful composition as the vessel slowly motors around Duck Island in the Harlem Meer. The composition was originally created based on the acoustics of the space; it was highly considered how the sound would resonate and be absorbed and at what points you could hear it the best. The sound was literally made for the space! [10]

In 2016, Kjartansson filmed a series of videos supporting the Left-Green Movement during the Parliamentary elections. The ads generated controversy for their content, which included a naked woman wearing a mask. [11]



  1. ^ a b "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. ^ a b c Randy Kennedy (June 3, 2009), Over and Over: Art That Never Stops New York Times.
  4. ^ Ragnar Kjartansson Luhring Augustine Gallery, New York.
  5. ^ a b Hilarie M. Sheets (January 2, 2013), Never Tiring of Repeating Himself New York Times.
  6. ^ "Off the Wall: 2011 - An Evening with Ragnar Kjartansson and Friends". Warhol. Retrieved 11 January 2011. 
  7. ^ Felicia R. Lee (November 22, 2011), Ragnar Kjartansson Wins Performa Award for ‘Bliss’ New York Times.
  8. ^ Roberta Smith (November 19, 2011), A Magical Musical Moment, Extended to 12 Hours New York Times.
  9. ^ Roberta Smith (September 18, 2014), A Concert Not Live, but Always Living: Six Hours of the National in ‘A Lot of Sorrow’ New York Times.
  10. ^ Ken Johnson (May 21, 2015), Review: ‘Please Touch the Art’ and ‘Drifting in Daylight,’ Outdoor Art at the Parks New York Times.
  11. ^ K. Jóhannsson (29 October 2016). "Left Green election ads in Iceland causing controversy (Videos)". Iceland. Retrieved 29 October 2016.