THE END: Ragnar Kjartansson
53. Esposizione Internazionale d'Arte Venecia
The man was painting. Although he seemed concentrated on the canvas, he would check the liquid that rested in a bottle on the floor, next to the easel. After a number of brushstrokes, he bent over to pick it up and had yet another drink. Then he dried off his lips with the back of his hand and resumed painting. In front of him posed an almost naked, drowsy, and, to a certain extent, defiant model with the light striking the scene from a couple of open portals which gave onto the waters of the Grand Canal. It was an act of certain slow and contained passion, like a conversation in low voice sustained perhaps during a calm night, a night of good music and smoke. In this case the music also sounded in the painting room, some blues. A wide collection of vinyl spread on a sofa helped to keep inspiration in good rhythm, while the day advanced and the waters of Venezia were stirred by the passing gondolas and vaporetti. Let us begin then with this image: a man who paints, who drinks, who listens to some music. Mostly, an artist working. His name: Ragnar Kjartansson.
Life is sad and beautiful, and my art is very much based on that view. I love life; I love the despair of it.
Ragnar Kjartansson, Frieze Magazine (Issue 102, October 2006)
The enactment of the activity of a painter: that could be the most direct description of the performance held by the artist in the 53 Biennale of Venezia in the Iceland Pavillion.
His project involves working for six months in this hallway of the Palazzo Michiel dal Brusà at the Venetian neighbourhood of Cannaregio. There Kjartansson develops a performance that not only includes the artist and his model but also invites the public to participate in the staging of the work of a painter. Thus, instead of offering a finished product created in a close room by the author, the Icelander leaves the door opened. Having in mind the notion of "extended moment", i.e., the prolongation in time of the same action, Kjartansson protracts the execution of dozens of coloured canvas one after the other with the same model posing in front -in swimsuit generally, sometimes with a guitar- whilst visitors from all over the world watch and take pictures of the scene. In a room next door a series of projections show the Kjartansson's musical facet on a snowy landscape of Canada.
The first impression that overcomes the spectator is the sudden feeling of intrusion in the creative process of a man faced both with the blank canvas and his demons. Empty bottles, painting tubes, cigarettes, records, paintbrushes and recipients of all varieties are scattered over the floor. It seems to be the adequate context for the pictorial activity, a place that smells of 'inspiration at work' according to the old romantic conception of the artistic method. The architecture of the room adds to the scene, the windows overlooking the Grand Canal; one can say that the atmosphere breathes the warmth of an old rite, that archetypal creative moment of passion when a painter is captivated by the creative act.
Paintings hang from the walls and pile up in the corners, the canvas scattered without order show the same motif and the same model, Páll Haukur Björsson, whose image Kjartansson has been painting for months. The idea of repetition and obsession appears combined in a cheeky game in front of the observer. There is an inevitable link to the repetition that was once characteristic of the Impressionist painters hunting for the light at different hours of the day as it reflects on the facade of a cathedral or a train station. In this case, however, the repetition pursues a very different objective. Rather it is a performative repetition: to paint once and again to act as a painter.
What is then Kjartansson's intention when painting? Clearly, his pictures are simply instrumental and they are not the final goal of his performance, for Kjartansson is interested in representing the modus operandi of a painter. So, instead of carrying out an exploration within the language of painting, The End presents a mis en scene of an old artistic practice: a representation of the tormented, drunk and unsatisfied soul who looks for an encounter face to face with Beauty. A pre-Hirst artist, so to speak.
That would partially explain the name of the exhibition. Through the appeal to the imitation of the artistic mechanism, The End suggests the analysis of a foregone means of expression, the melancholic practice of an old technique, i.e., oil painting of figurative inspiration. Kjartansson wants to imagine the end of painting as he reduces it into a dramatic performance, a silent duel with his model.
I imagine the Venice Pavilion being a lighthouse at the end of the world, watching the verge of nothingness.
But on the other hand, when characterizing the pictorial work as a performance, The End not only generates a discussion about the actuality of painting as a form of artistic production according to the classic canon, but it also examines the features of performance itself and its ways of producing a significant artistic exercise.
Generally, performance implies the execution of an action with some theatrical ingredients with the final intention of producing astonishment or certain revelation among the audience. As a technique derived from the happenings, it is usually associated to the opportunity of improvising. Also, as an action the performance tries to avoid the production of a concrete material object subject to a way of interpretive reading. In fact, as a unique event, performance is seen as a reassertion of the creative freedom that looms from an unrepeatable moment.
So, what happens when a performance lasts six months? Or six years? This is, in fact the doubt introduced by the notion of the extended moment. As a result of an indefinite temporary extension, the performance seems to exceed its own limits: at this point it becomes very difficult to distinguish between performance and life, between character and person. But Kjartansson seems to feel particularly comfortable with this confusion. A performance that breaches the expected time lines inevitably provoke the intersection between performance and life. In other words, life and art become interchangeable. In this case, The End speaks of the ultimate performance, the decisive enactment that overruns the distinction between art and life. For Kjartansson nothing is as theatrical as life itself. So here you have an artist who acts as painter, someone who smokes and drinks in front of his model, frozen in time, a living piece of museum that works following the music of Wes Montgomery and the waters of the Grand Canal. The last painter he may be. Or simply an inescapable performer.