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Ragnar Kjartansson’s Art Made Me Cry

Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota
By James Wright

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.

What do grown-ups do all day?

I often thought about this question as a child. Adults’ homebound tasks like sorting out the mail or talking on the phone to strangers seemed so unimportant and boring. Then there was their mysterious life outside the house: magical, thrilling, and filled with adventurous trips. It rarely occurred to me that most adults work to sustain their lives.

The way grown-ups spend their waking hours might not be the first thought to pop into your mind while viewing Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson’s work. I saw his exhibit at London’s Barbican Gallery in September. At first, I didn’t think about his work through this lens either.

I entered the gallery and found myself in the middle of Take Me Here by the Dishwasher, the centerpiece of the exhibition. For this installation, ten musicians played guitar and sang in their comfy house-clothes for eight hours straight. Empty beer bottles surrounded each musician as they drank, lounged, and played the same segment of the same song for the duration of the exhibition: almost two months of London summer.

I don’t think I ever thought some grown ups wear pijamas, drink beer, and sing in galleries all day.

Kjartansson’s project for the 2009 Venice Biannalle was The End – Venice. For six months, he shut himself up in the ground floor of an old apartment on the Grand Canal. Every day he produced a different painting of his friend Pall Haukur Bjornsson who posed for him in a Speedo. The two friends smoked, drank beers and lounged around half-naked for six months. That and the production of 144 canvasses.

Most of Kjartansson’s work revolved around the concept of repetition. In another example, Me and My Mother presented videos of the artist’s mother repeatedly spitting at his son’s face. The most recent spitting spree was over 20-minutes long. It was eerie to watch a mother spit on her adult son. Between bouts of laughter, she seemed genuine in her anger, scolding Ragnar as if he were the most despicable of children to ever leave a womb.



Children like repetition. That’s how they learn and understand the world around them. As adults, we easily get bored from repetitive tasks, they seem to us a waste of time. But artist continue to appreciate the value of repetition. After all, what is a painting if not a brush stroke repeated hundreds of thousand times?

Kjartansson’s interest in childish play is perhaps most obvious in Death and Children, where he dresses as Grim Reaper and pops in front of a group of Icelandic school kids in a cemetery.

“I am Death,” he says with theatrical exuberance.

The kids—amused and not the least bit scared—follow him around and ask him questions like “are death and god enemies?” They challenge his authenticity and call his papier-mâché scythe “fake”. I bet those children certainly must have thought this grown up has an exciting life.

Despite the humor laden in all of Kjartansson’s work, a sense of unease began to take hold of me as I walked towards the end of the exhibition. Lurking behind the childish absurdity of each piece was a heaviness, a sorrow. I returned to watch Kjartansoon’s mother spit to an ever-aging Ragnar. Was she punishing him for not growing up?

I had one more installation to view. I entered through the heavy curtains of A Lot of Sorrow. In the dark viewing room a huge screen showed The National as they performed a melancholic song called “Sorrow.”

This was no ordinary performance. Ragnar Kjartansson had asked the band to perform the song without breaks for six consecutive hours.  The National agreed and  played their sorrowful song for 105 times to a committed, cheering crowd at the NYC MoMa in 2013.

I sat down on the carpeted floor, my back to the wall and started listening. After half an hour, I could no longer tell whether the sorrow that filled the room belonged to The National, to Ragnar, or to me. Tears started flowing out of my eyes, blurring the image of the band dressed in black and white. Wet cheaks and puffy eyes, I kept listening. I watched sorrow unfold before me.

It was the sorrow of the thought that I had wasted my life. Ragnar Kjartansson’s commitment to his art, his commitment to the nourishment of his inner child reminded me of all the ways I had abandoned my own.

When I left the Barbican Gallery, I sat down at a café outside and wrote, because that’s all I could do. I still didn’t know what adults do all day. But I knew many feel that they have wasted it. Some—like the poet James Wright “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota”—fear they might have wasted not just their day, but their entire life.

Adults do all kinds of things with their day. And those who master the art of living commit to viewing the world through the eyes of the child that never grows up.