Ragnar Kjartansson in Tórshavn

(Translated by Ian McKay)

Nordic House (Norðurlandahúsið) in the Faroe Islands is showcasing the works Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt and A lot of Sorrow by Ragnar Kjartansson in an exhibition that runs from 15 June to 18 August, and in addition there are fifteen watercolours from the series Omnipresent Salty Death and the video work Satan is Real. The actual exhibition title ‘Ragnar Kjartansson – A Few Works’ seems almost apologetic in its lack of pretension, particularly as it covers an international artist's first exhibition in the Faroe Islands. The same applies to the catalogue, the content of which is more significant than its diminutive physical size (16 x 11 cm) suggests. This exhibition is quite a scoop, however, and the catalogue text is informative and inspiring – all thanks to Nordic House and curator, Inger Smærup Sørensen.

Installation View  of ‘Ragnar Kjartansson - Nøkur verk’ showing  Omnispresent Salty Death , (Photo: Kinna Poulsen)

Installation View of ‘Ragnar Kjartansson - Nøkur verk’ showing Omnispresent Salty Death, (Photo: Kinna Poulsen)

It is not every day that we experience international art here in the Faroe Islands – not even Icelandic art, though Iceland is significant as one of our closest neighbours. Speaking of the relationship between ourselves and Icelanders, there is a joke in Iceland, based upon the myth that Faroese men are descendants of those Vikings who, on the way across the North Atlantic from Norway to Iceland, became so seasick that they could not go any further. Iceland is a country that we in the Faroe Islands feel closely related to culturally, linguistically, and historically, though. Iceland is our big sister, the brave and crazy one that we look to in awe.

Although the development of the visual arts in Iceland has been more progressive than in the Faroe Islands, we do have a lot in common – visual art originated relatively late in both countries and was initially characterised by both European modernism and a particular form of Romantic Nationalism. Furthermore, Icelandic visual artists were typically educated at the Danish art academy in Copenhagen, where several generations of Faroese visual artists also received their education.

Installation View  of ‘Ragnar Kjartansson - Nøkur verk’, showing detail of  Nur wer die Sehnsucht.  (Photo: Kinna Poulsen)

Installation View of ‘Ragnar Kjartansson - Nøkur verk’, showing detail of Nur wer die Sehnsucht. (Photo: Kinna Poulsen)

It may seem peculiar to focus so much on the differences between Iceland and the Faroe Islands in mention of an art exhibition, but for a Faroese viewer, these differences and similarities form a fundamental part of the experience and recognition of Kjartansson’s universe. In the Faroe Islands, for example, we are expert fishermen, just as we are world champions in partying and impromptu singing in hotel rooms, too. The idea of using these elements in artworks, as Ragnar Kjartansson does with works such as S.S. Hangover or The Visitors, however, is probably about as possible as getting a Faroese pavilion at the Venice Biennale or an art academy of our own in the Faroe Islands! This is the situation. It cannot be regretted, it’s acknowledged, but we hope to change it.

Kjartansson is a visual artist trained at the Art Academy in Reykjavík, but his practice is both performative and musical, cinematic and scenographic, and these elements are united and coherent from the point that you enter the exhibition; you can hear the deep bass sound from the audio track of the video work A Lot of Sorrow – grief and longing, death and impermanence, are common topics in Kjartansson’s art. His fifteen watercolours of the sea resemble natural romantic impressions, replete with a sense of indeterminate longing and beauty, but the title, Omnispresent Salty Death, indicates another more contemporary conceptual consciousness, presented with a touching and generous enthusiasm.

Ragnar Kjartansson ,  Omnispresent Salty Death:  Installation View of ‘Ragnar Kjartansson - Nøkur verk’, (Photo: Kinna Poulsen)

Ragnar Kjartansson, Omnispresent Salty Death: Installation View of ‘Ragnar Kjartansson - Nøkur verk’, (Photo: Kinna Poulsen)

Ragnar Kjartansson ,  Omnispresent Salty Death:  Detail from ‘Ragnar Kjartansson - Nøkur verk’, (Photo: Kinna Poulsen)

Ragnar Kjartansson, Omnispresent Salty Death: Detail from ‘Ragnar Kjartansson - Nøkur verk’, (Photo: Kinna Poulsen)

A Lot of Sorrow is a performance that Ragnar Kjartansson conceived with the American music group, The National, and is a performance of an extensive concert of more than six hours duration – the band repeatedly performing the same number, over and over. It is a monumental and magnificent song of love and melancholy: "Cover me in rag and bones, sympathy / ‘cause I don´t want to get over you / I don´t wanna get over you”. The song is repeated as if in a loop, but it is not; small shifts occur in the repetition, derived from the fact that it is one long-lasting filmed performance with increasing and accelerating exhaustion being the result. As Inger Smærup Sørensen concludes in the text of the catalogue, the repetition becomes exhausting in a very concrete way, and in this exhaustion lies the hope of achieving another state of transcendence; of sorrow and the sublime.

Ragnar Kjartansson ,  A Lot of Sorrow:  video work from ‘Ragnar Kjartansson - Nøkur verk’, (Photo: Kinna Poulsen)

Ragnar Kjartansson, A Lot of Sorrow: video work from ‘Ragnar Kjartansson - Nøkur verk’, (Photo: Kinna Poulsen)

Sublime is certainly the best descriptor for the work titled Nur wer die Sehnsucht, which Kjartansson originally made for the Palais de Tokyo in Paris in 2015, and which I have seen several times in images and video, but which I have now experienced for the first time in the Nordic House presentation. It is a great, touching, and complex experience, filled with multiple associations. The whole room has been transformed into a large installation, reminiscent of a somewhat primitively painted scenographic installation with snow-covered mountain landscapes and high peaks, common to Romantic painting, but here they take the form of freestanding, cut sheets of plywood. Moving through the space, you see what first appears to be the back of the work – unpainted wooden boards – but this is as integral to the painted surface to the front.

Ragnar Kjartansson ,  Nur wer die Sehnsucht,  Installation View of ‘Ragnar Kjartansson - Nøkur verk’, (Photo: Kinna Poulsen)

Ragnar Kjartansson, Nur wer die Sehnsucht, Installation View of ‘Ragnar Kjartansson - Nøkur verk’, (Photo: Kinna Poulsen)

Ragnar Kjartansson ,  Nur wer die Sehnsucht,  Installation View of ‘Ragnar Kjartansson - Nøkur verk’, (Photo: Kinna Poulsen)

Ragnar Kjartansson, Nur wer die Sehnsucht, Installation View of ‘Ragnar Kjartansson - Nøkur verk’, (Photo: Kinna Poulsen)

Ragnar Kjartansson ,  Nur wer die Sehnsucht,  Installation View of ‘Ragnar Kjartansson - Nøkur verk’, (Photo: Kinna Poulsen)

Ragnar Kjartansson, Nur wer die Sehnsucht, Installation View of ‘Ragnar Kjartansson - Nøkur verk’, (Photo: Kinna Poulsen)

A quote from Romantic literature also appears directly in the work's title, leaving one sympathetic to the overall message here – the first line of a poem by Goethe is used – but there is also the liberating humorous tone that is consistently a feature of Kjartansson's work, too. Nonetheless, one suddenly finds oneself standing there, in the midst of the work, like Tintin in Tibet, or as the wanderer above the sea of fog, completely unprepared for the overall effect of the installation. In spite of the neutral lighting, which deliberately lacks drama and dissolves all irony and intellectual distance, the illusion is astonishingly strong, evoking a form of childish immediacy. It is fun, and I am glad to go with that and play along.


Ragnar Kjartansson - Nøkur verk

The Nordic House
Tórshavn, Faroe Islands
15 June – 18 August 2019
(Opening: 15 June at 16.00hrs)

The exhibition showcases the works Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt and A lot of Sorrow with the exhibition. In addition, 15 drawings from the series Omnispresent Salty Death and the videowork Satan is Real is exhibited.