REYKJAVÍK, Iceland — “I was told to spit on my own beloved son over and over … Everything went according to plan — I spat and spat,” so goes the essay for Ragnar Kjartansson’s exhibition Me and My Mother at i8 Gallery, in downtown Reykjavík.
The show consists of four video projections with Kjartansson and his mother, Guðrún Ásmundsdóttir, standing in front of the camera. The concept is simple: every five years, for 15 years now, Kjartansson visits his mother’s home in a nice outfit, and films his mother repeatedly spitting on him. The most recent of the four-part series is over 20 minutes long. Filled with only spitting and dramatic pauses between, the video shows the two actors, the mother and son, staring either at each other or the camera.
It’s important to understand that Kjartansson comes from a very theatrical family. Ásmundsdóttir, Kjartansson’s mother and co-star, is a famous actress in Iceland, and every Icelandic I’ve spoken with about Kjartansson’s exhibition talks about her as much as him. Kjartansson was brought up amongst actors and the theater — but in the backstage, behind the limelight. His work plays with this tension between the grandiose performer and the realities of backstage life by blurring both.
This is in keeping with other works like “The Palace of the Summerland” (2014), a monthlong performance and production wherein Kjartansson turned theater design into sculpture, blending offstage and onstage performance. Conversely, works like “The End – Rocky Mountains” (2009), where Kjartansson hauled a drum set, guitars, and even a grand piano up mountains, mythologize the performer to an absurd degree.
In “Me and My Mother,” the set and subjects (son and mother in the living room) give the false sense that this is all part of a reality TV show. Some bizarre, Icelandic version of Jerry Springer, where the characters are silent, but still spitting and throwing menacing glares at one another. At moments it’s deeply unsettling: are we baring witness to some deep-rooted familial hatred? You can’t take your eyes away, until suddenly, it’s all hilarious.
In keeping with this absurd and artificial grandiosity where all the world is a stage, the exhibition essay becomes part of the work. In the essay, purportedly written by Ásmundsdóttir, one gets the sense of a doting mother, giving no insight into the work but rather a backstory and sweet anecdotes around the work’s creation. Reading this while surrounded by videos of her spitting on her son’s face was quite a contrast and is ultimately what made the exhibit for me. The essay confirms that everything is, as they say, all part of the show.
My favorite touch is the portrait of Mother Theresa that sits on the bookshelf between the duo in the 2010 video. There is a painting of a cherub, too, off to stage left. Together with the exhibition essay/letter by his mom, Kjartansson leaves these as little comical hints that this is all staged. Kjartansson creates a tension by using a very intimate relationship and setting, the home and his mother, as smoke and mirrors to create his absurdist work. The essay disappoints those of us seeking any Freudian read of the work; Kjartansson never offers to honestly show his hand.
Me and My Mother continues at i8 Gallery (Tryggvagata 16 101, Reykjavík, Iceland) through August 22.