Ragnar Kjartansson


I have to preface that I went into this show thinking it was gonna be white boy dry. I was only actually coming cause Gab said it was an absolute BANGER. She was here again, for the second time this week, eager and excited to show me where it was excellent; tour guide narrativising the sites, making me engage with them in the right way. I love going round exhibitions with my boy, but we are both belligerent to a fault, and we egg each other on sometimes, too light. She forced me to spend time, to linger. I was Zarina’s anchor. I was nagging faintly at her sleeve and making her want to stay with the art. I know the work wanted us to sit with it a while. Going round this show with Gab made me realise that sometimes in my belligerence I might miss the art that opens up like flowers. Gab was lying down on the floor feeling things, so I lay down too, to know why.

There are stars exploding around you

And there's nothing you can do

Feels too big and round to describe, but: in a dark room, dark carpet floor, there’s a multi-projection piece. Each level shot shows a room in the same big farmhouse, at the same big time, where Ragnar and his best people are playing the constituent parts of an hour long song. Like that podcast, Song Exploder, that shows you the layers of a song, but now it’s art and it’s real and it's Ragnar’s. I was walking slowly between the screens feeling their different atmospheres and in moving between them, sound became tangible. I lay down at one point and laughed. Zarina was secretly filming me. I felt like I was rising - the feelings behind my chest woke up, like when you turn the lights off and glow-in-the-dark stars begin to glow. We stayed with the art, and we never do, and I was lying on the floor blissed out. I am in a relationship again, after years, remembering that people can be real. When we’re apart, I can still feel him around me, my warm person scarf. I think we’re in between I like you and I love you, and I am floating, and staying is basking. I was lying on the floor smiling because I was remembering art can be good, can become movement. The show had a tenderness, a slow-cooked soft touch like waking up holding hands, my silver bangle caught in yours.

And it's too big and round to describe because that farmhouse they recorded the song in is a microcosm, the exhibition itself. Outside the projection room there is a group of men playing on guitars, and upstairs there’s a video of The National playing the same song for six hours. Across from them, Ragnar is suited and singing in a pink silk room to upside-down-emoji crescendo. I appreciate the metaphor model of exhibition as farmhouse, but there's a smaller and richer instance of this that slowed my staying to a stop. When I'd been earlier in the week, I was there for the close of the exhibition. I saw all the men in the main space play their guitars until they were loud and forceful, until they stopped and left and went home for their dinner. I was here again, this time with Zarina, for another 6PM exhibition close - and I realised lying in the projection room that The National were about to finish singing upstairs after six hours taking apart the same Sorrow. I realised this tiny art world was ending, and that is was sublime and reassuring because - in the last minutes of this hour long song, Ragnar gets out of his bath and walks downstairs. He leaves his projection. Like the paintings in Harry Potter, he walks into someone else's art; and he carries on and his people join along, each moving away from their screen until the group of singers are together in one room, in one projection, and the rest of the screens in the room are empty sets. The end of the art world was reassuring because I was not alone: the exhibition visitors in the room with us had been spread around the space, each drawn to their own constituent part of the song - but as the performers inside the video clustered, so did we. We all came together as an exhibition family, and my heart melted and slipped down inside my body. We were literally smiling at each other, a new group. It was sensitive manipulation, direction, physical suggestion and I loved it.

And all in this sincere way.

One time, while we were on our way to dinner somewhere in Wembley, I turned to my boy and said, ‘I think I want to write a novel, but a novel that knows what novels are, and is aware of the medium and kinda plays with it, but stays on the surface, is still a novel.’ He turned to me, and said, ‘Are all artists like this? Does everyone think about their work like this? Does everyone make art while thinking consciously about what the art they’re making is going to be like?’ I think Ragnar’s work felt like that. I found myself walking round, playing the role of my boyfriend; saying ‘Why r u like this?’ to Ragnar, the same way Shashi does to me. Because Ragnar played roles. His work felt like it was made per-formatively, for a purpose, as though he was academically interested in playing these roles. He assumes the role of ‘plein air painter’ and does lots of landscapes etc. Once you turn these roles on their head and play them for the sake of being and living that life, you notice certain subtleties, small things rising to the top, boiling off of character. These are things you’d never been able to consider before. We spoke outside about how it is easy to see Ragnar as this flippant playful artist that picks up things and tries them on, puts them back on the shelf and finds something else in the same colour. There is a consistency in his aesthetic that is sophisticated and yeah, reassuring. But because of the levity of it all, and because of his direct metaphors, and his self-characterisation, he's in danger of being cast as meta. I don’t want that to happen.

Almost one of those memes, the ones where it’s like ‘how many levels of consciousness r u operating on?’ ’46’ ‘haha. u r just a baby.’ Trying to engage with this felt like walking on a lumpy surface, like there were things under the skin of the work, and I knew what they felt like, but I couldn’t see them; could feel them, but not make them out completely. I think that’s where the show went from meta to something sincere, instead (because saying it was meta insinuates that it was ironic, that it had a darker intention). We described it as material sincerity, where the work’s form couldn’t be any other way. It has to be exactly that length and shape.

And so, I think that’s another side to the durational aspect of this - not only do you, the viewer, have to spend time with the work, but Ragnar had to spend time with it too. He plays it out like in Community, the skits with Troy and Abed in the morning. They know no one is watching, that there are no cameras, but they perform the role of morning show hosts anyway (not just for make-believe kiddie games, but to get to the bottom of them, to see what rises up out of them. Yeah, the meta Abed episodes are great, but these morning slots are endearing, and that’s what I want from art and life right now). You spend time with Ragnar, you see him connect the stars. It’s not just within one work, but between all the works, and the behaving and making. It’s like this excellent thing our old tutor said about Zarina’s work: ‘I wish you were a musician or a dancer, because then I could say ‘good, I liked that, but do it again. Keep practising,’ and you’d do it over and over. You’d see what works, hone in on those, and tidy away the things you snag on. It would slowly, slowly change, and as it changes, you would force the work into discourse with itself.’ That’s what this show felt like Ragnar was doing, singing, dancing. Especially the piece with The National in it, singing the same song for six hours live in front of an audience. You watch, and you aren’t listening to the song anymore, you’re watching the doing of it, the base action. You’re looking at the things beneath the skin of the performance. You see the verb. You take out all the things that don't matter and look at the cordial of the thing by doing it over and over. Like when you say the word orange over and over and over, and suddenly your mouth feels strange saying it, like is it even a word anymore? You’ve taken something away from it and it becomes alien and strangely shaped.

Art is weird, alien, strangely shaped. Life and friends and happy and sad, all weird and distinct, bright, obsessive. I want it. My new boy, new body and head.  My new artist. Ragnar is committed to his material sincerity, I am falling in love, and I feel safe and comfy lying here on the floor smiling. I’m falling in love with art.

emoji summary of a please face, a shooting star, and a loop
a view looking down from the balcony at the live perfomance in the space where different bare foot men walk around the space drinking bears and singing guitars, lounding on couches and a mattress