THE END by RAGNAR KJARTANSSON, Icelandic Pavillion, Venice Biennale
A review by Rebecca Bell.
In many ways more exciting for me were the sites beyond the Biennale territories of the Giardini and the Arsenale where art is lined up ripe for the picking. One of the off-site venues was the Iceland Pavilion. In a palazzo near the Rialto two rooms show the work of Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson, the exhibition is entitled The End. The main stone paved grand room, filled with the sound of the Grand Canal lapping at an open door, is filled with stacks of paintings depicting one model in a pair of Speedo swimming pants. Surrounded by bottles of beer and sometimes smoking, the model is painted in different poses in a scratchy colourful manner, often surrounded by beautiful hot background colours of blue and red. It takes us a while to realise the model is painted in the room we are in – here are the bottles, here is the stone wall, and the large font rising from the ground. Kjartansson transformed the Pavilion into a makeshift studio for the Biennale, relentlessly painting the portrait of this young man. The guide tells us “the performance is partially based on questions of the artist’s self, suggesting his perpetual re-conceptualization in relation to his surroundings and previously existing works of art.” In a next door room is a work by the same artist that makes happiness bubble up inside me and I want to stay all day – a video installation consisting of several scenes shot in the Canadian Rocky Mountains display Kjartansson and another musician playing country/folk music on a range of instruments. On one screen they play guitars together, on another one plays drums and one plays bass, on another, one man plays a grand piano which has been placed on a snowy plateau – the magnificent mountains tower in the distance. Together the 5 screens create a performance, all playing together, the same men in different settings, blowing on their hands and sweeping snow from the drums and keyboard. The environment is cold and vast, the figures small and yet jubilant, playing to themselves and us from a landscape dramatically different to the crumbling grandeur of Venice. I later read a quotation from the artist “I love life; I love the despair of it”. The juxtaposition of sublime, universal, but also the deeply introspective and personal human themes of these works seem to tie in with his expression of celebration combined with the sharp edge of our emotion and its proximity to underlying despair.