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Ragnar Kjartansson: The Artist as Clown

by Kyle Chayka on February 5, 2013

"The End" at ICA Boston (All photos by author)

“The End” at ICA Boston (All photos by author)

The fool, or jester, or clown is a well-established archetype in Western culture. We are taught that jesters provided entertainment for monarchs, prattling around in brightly colored costumes, poking fun at the court milieu while criticizing their masters and mistresses through their satire. The art world is pretty much like a royal court, right? It’s a self-aggrandizing community built around a central hierarchy. So who is our most perceptive clown?

Though Hennessy Youngman might provide a possible American answer, the candidate that comes quickest to my mind is Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson, whose work blends a taste for the absurd with performance-based theatrics and an underlying belief in the ability of art to provide unequivocal joy. As demonstrated in the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston’s current showcase of his work, Kjartansson appreciates a good gag. But he also uses humor to touch on some of the inherent biases and shibboleths of the rarified world of contemporary art.

Ragnar Kjartansson, "Satan is Real" at ICA Boston

Ragnar Kjartansson, “Satan is Real” at ICA Boston

The artist, who is 36, burst onto the stage with his piece for the Iceland pavilion in the 2009 Venice Biennale. “The End” saw Kjartansson fiddling as Rome burned — his homeland facing an economic meltdown, the young artist chose to spend his time drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, and painting sloppy portraits of a friend for six months straight, filling an aging, vacant Venetian palazzo (the remains of a past fallen empire) with the detritus of bohemian sloth. The piece was a perfectly aimed salvo, parodying art’s uselessness in the face of real-world trouble while presenting a self-reflexive portrait of the artist — who wouldn’t want to hang out like that? How could you resist?

Kjartansson’s work comes in live-performance and video flavors. In “Song” the ICA is showing a collection of videos that largely focus on the artist’s interest in music (he first formed a band as a teenager). As “The End” was, each work is double-edged, both reverent and incisive. “Satan is Real” has the artist topless, half buried in dirt in the center of a park, strumming an acoustic guitar and murmuring folksy lyrics like “Satan is real” as children frolic in the background. Kjartansson mocks folk’s self-seriousness, but he’s clearly enjoying himself.

Ragnar Kjartansson, "The Man" at ICA Boston

Ragnar Kjartansson, “The Man” at ICA Boston

A darker edge comes in with “The Man,” a video portrait shot in 2010 of African-American blues musician Pinetop Perkins, who died at the age of 97 in 2011. He plays meandering blues riffs that wander into nowhere, a font of knowledge and a primary source of American music slowly spinning out in front of a camera held, self-consciously, by a white artist.

“The End,” a five-channel piece created in 2009 for the Icelandic pavilion, is the star of the small show. In each of the large projections in the space, Kjartansson and Icelandic musician David por Jonson knock out dazed, spiraling, lazy riffs on an epic folk-rock song with instruments ranging from a grand piano to a bright-pink Fender. The pair play rock star, a clowning farce on Americana’s guitar gods. Set against an epic landscape of wintry mountains, the musicians fiddle with their instruments, sip whiskey, and shake out their fingers before jumping back into their rambling exercise, a project both grand and seemingly pointless, as art can often be. Yet I couldn’t look away.

Ragnar Kjartansson: Song runs at ICA Boston (100 Northern Avenue, Boston) through April 7, 2013.  

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