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November 17, 2021

Interview with Ragnar Kjartansson

Ragnar Kjartansson (born in 1976), Sumarnótt, 2019, seven-channel video with sound, running time: 77 min. Giverny Capital Collection

Following a noteworthy run at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson is presenting Sumarnótt in Montreal for the first time. Mary-Dailey Desmarais, Chief Curator at the MMFA, sat down for a conversation with this major figure of performance and video art.

Mary Dailey Desmarais. Photo Stéphanie Badini

Mary-Dailey Desmarais

Chief Curator

Offering a lyric meditation on the themes of love and loss, life and death, this recent and important work by Kjartansson strikes a special chord in these pandemic times. Filmed in Iceland under the midnight sun shortly after the summer solstice, the video shows two couples, each comprising one member of a set of twins, traversing the screens against a backdrop of green grass and grey-blue skies punctuated by the Laki volcano, in the country’s south. As they move across the landscape they sing a soothing yet melancholic tune, repeating the refrain “death is elsewhere.”

In this interview, Ragnar Kjartansson shares how the project took root and the sources of inspiration that led to the creation of this very moving installation. You can also watch a video of the full interview below.

Ragnar Kjartansson. Photo Elisabet Davids

Tell me about the genesis of your work Sumarnótt. What inspired you to make it, what are the ideas behind it?

It’s basically friendship. It came out of my collaborations with Kristín Anna and Gyða, and Bryce and Aaron.

The two sets of twins that we see in the installation, moving across and singing.

Yes, I just had this idea to do this concert with them and create a visual illusion, where a man and woman walk across the stage, singing and playing guitar. And the second they leave the stage, they appear again from the other side. It looked like a really crazy stage trick: how could they instantly go full circle?

Right, because they’re twins!

Exactly. And for that weird little concert, we wrote a lot of songs and had a really beautiful creative brainstorming session in my living room in Reykjavik. It was there this song was born. It’s a collage of poetry from the books on my bookshelf. So, it’s based on a poem by Robert Lax as well as a little bit on Sappho poems that Anne Carson translated. And the book by Alexander Dumbadze, called Death Is Elsewhere. This song just really became something that we thought was very special, and suddenly the idea came to us to make this video in the midst of a summer night in Iceland. And just have the twins walking in this symmetrical circle and singing this song.

Tell me about the location where the video was shot. It’s a lava field, where you can see the Laki volcano in the background. Can you tell me about the choice of that specific site in relation to the work?

I always wanted to film it on a field in the south of Iceland, where you have this long horizon, but also the mountains and this crazy landscape in the background. The lava plays an interesting part in the story of this field: It was once a really lush countryside, until it was swallowed up by the big Laki eruption in 1783. That eruption had a huge climatic effect around the world and caused one third of Iceland’s population to die of famine. The toxic fumes turned the grass sour, so when the sheep ate it, they died. The effects of the volcano caused famine in other parts of Europe and as far away as India.

I find the choice to set a song about death being elsewhere, in a site of death, is an interesting one.

Yes, this vision was very clear in my head.

I’ve heard you talk about the sculptural nature of twins. That it’s almost like portraiture in a way. I was hoping you could say a little bit more about that: how the space in the installation is carved by the movements of the two couples, and why you made the choice of the twins.

With twins, there’s always this kind of… symmetry. I find that beautiful. And then, of course, when you get to know twins, you find out they are completely distinct from each other, just like brothers or sisters. Twins are fairly common, but they’re really fascinating, all the same. I find it beautiful.

Twins can play tricks on your mind. I think that’s part of the fascination, right? They are, of course, separate individuals, but they’re a double, yet not quite the same, so it sort of provokes this interesting puzzlement of visual perception.

Yes. I think of visual and also of sonic perception. Gyða’s and Kristín Anna’s voices are very similar. And Aaron and Bryce play the guitar in patterns that are totally unique to them. They started creating together when they were just small boys. And that’s stayed with them. So I find it exciting that you have both the visual tension and the sonic tension in the work.

Ragnar Kjartansson (born in 1976), Sumarnótt, 2019. Giverny Capital Collection

I’ve heard you talk about this work and its relationship to the nature of performance art. Can you say more about that?

I just always liked the good old idea of performance art as ritual. Like the early works of Marina Abramović and Ulay, and also Carolee Schneemann. Just this idea of working in a circle, singing a song in a circle. At the summer solstice. There is something ritualistic in that. I once had the very lucky opportunity to drink whisky with Ulay, and he was talking about when he was a young man in search of his art and meaning. He said, “I want to create a humanistic ritual in art.” And I really liked that sentence. The humanistic ritual. It doesn’t have anything to do with any deity or anything, it’s just like…

...human.

Yes. Just humans walking in circles. Singing a love song.

You mentioned Carolee Schneemann, an American pioneer of performance. This piece is dedicated to her. Why did you dedicate the work to her?

I was working on it and this idea came to me to create this circular installation and work with this totally circular moment in it, and this omnipresence of the video around you, and I thought a lot about Carolee Schneemann’s work in relation to that. Because she was a pioneer in so many ways. She always looked at video art or film as a medium to deal with painting. Then she started creating these systems of mirrors so the video would completely embrace you in a gallery.

Do you think there’s a painterly dimension to this work?

Absolutely. I really look at it as a painting. I look at it like those war cycloramas.1 And then it made me think about Carolee’s work, and I wrote to her. Because we became really good friends, and she has very much been a mentor to me. So I told her that I was working on this piece. She was really cool about it and excited, and said “I look forward to seeing the work!” And then, a month later, she died.

View of the exhibition Ragnar Kjartansson, Sumarnótt: Death Is Elsewhere at the MMFA. Photo MMFA, Denis Farley

It was a sad moment for anybody who appreciates art and the history of art.

Her artworks really changed the way we think about art, and the way we think about women in art, and the body in art. When she started, she was expelled from Bard College for painting a nude portrait of herself. That was the world she lived in. And she managed to break out of it and change the world for all of us. She really gave her life and happiness to be someone who cleared the path. For those who came after her. It was really personally saddening to lose a friend, but there was also this strange feeling of triumph… She was such a brilliant artist and brilliant person. This piece is dedicated to Carolee, because it is about love and death. And she was all about love and death.

One of the things that’s been so interesting to me in experiencing this work this year is to think about how profoundly it resonates in this pandemic time, when we can feel the spectre of death looming in our collective recent history. Of course, you made the work before the pandemic, but how do you see its relationship to our current historical moment?

It’s a really sad thing that the work resonates with our times. But it does. And I think a lot of artworks do. You look at them from a different perspective after the pandemic. I’m grateful that you’re showing it and that it actually gives something to people. That’s what you always secretly desire as an artist. That the work has any meaning to an audience. There is really a longing that this work is of some use. Like art is useless, but also of great use.


1 A cyclorama is a panoramic picture painted on a cylindrical wall surface designed to afford a viewer in the middle of the room a 365 degree view of the painting seen in natural perspective (Getty Research Institute, online Art and Architecture Thesaurus®).

Entrevue avec Ragnar Kjartansson | Interview with Ragnar Kjartansson

Ragnar Kjartansson, Sumarnótt: Death Is Elsewhere
Until January 2, 2022
Jean-Noël Desmarais Pavilion – Level S2

Credits and curatorial team
An exhibition organized by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and curated by Mary-Dailey Desmarais, Chief Curator, MMFA. The Museum would like to acknowledge the invaluable contributions of its official sponsor, Denalt Paints. The Museum would also like to thank the Young Philanthropists’ Circle of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, proud supporters of the Museum’s contemporary art program. The Museum is grateful to the Ministère de la Culture et des Communications, to the Canada Council for the Arts and to the Conseil des arts de Montréal for their ongoing support.

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