Artist Ragnar Kjartansson stands surrounded by women in gold strapless gowns. One by one, the women climb onto a slowly rotating pedestal to practice their performance: strumming an E minor chord on a golden guitar for two and a half hours. The group is rehearsing in a cavernous gallery at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. The piece, Woman in E, is a new-ish work by Kjartansson, one of the art world's biggest stars.
"It's so ridiculously simple," he tells the women, all local musicians. He advises them to think of their time on the dais as a reprieve from our ADD world of mobile phones and social media. Then he chuckles and concedes, "It's gonna be mind-blowingly boring sometimes."
Kjartansson is Icelandic, but he's spent the past year trotting from Berlin to London to Tel Aviv to Detroit. He's had more than 20 exhibitions in the past year alone, and been celebrated with worshipful profiles in The New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine.
"He's a huge deal," says Hirshhorn Chief Curator Stéphane Aquin, who organized Kjartansson's Washington show. "He's been sort of rocking the art world in the last 10 or 15 years with amazing performances."
Aquin says Kjartansson is best known for endurance-based works like Me and My Mother, a film series that shows his mother spitting on him every five years, and The Visitors, for which he filmed nine musicians (including himself) in a crumbling Georgian mansion in upstate New York. Each musician occupies his or her own screen in a dark room at the Hirshhorn. One is lying on bed; another is in a bathtub. Their lovely faces are illuminated by soft morning light. Over and over, they play the same enigmatic phrase: "Once again, I fall into my feminine ways." (The expression is from Kjartansson's ex-wife; the piece was filmed in the wake of their divorce.)
"Weighing my words, it is considered one of the greatest works of our young century," Aquin says. "It is moving. It takes it out of you. It is just, also, touching." People often cry when they sit through a few cycles of Kjartansson's pieces, something this reporter personally observed at the Hirshhorn show.
The mesmerizing quality of repetition — and the catharsis it can bring — was impressed on the artist by his actress mother and playwright/director father. Kjartansson grew up backstage while they worked. "Watching them in the theater just repeating the same scenes over and over again — that sort of created what I do in my art," he says.
But Kjartansson says he didn't draw from an Icelandic visual art tradition. Rather, he says the country is better known for stories. "The air is thick with culture and history, but there's nothing to prove it. It's just all these histories and sagas, but no monuments or old ruins or anything. It's just: You're standing on a hill and so much stuff happened on this hill and so much poetry has been written about this hill — but it's just a hill."
Kjartansson jokes that being Icelandic might be an advantage in a competitive global art world, where nationality can be deployed as a gimmick. "There's that innocence about being Icelandic," he cracks. "People just think you're cute."
His performances are filmed and released in limited editions which sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. He says much of his work, with its emphasis on repetition, is ultimately about failing to reach perfection. "All the longing to make something great — but it's never great; it's always mediocre. And I just love that. I just love it when human beings are trying to achieve something and it sort of doesn't happen. I think it's the ultimate human moment."
A moment Ragnar Kjartansson enjoys showcasing — lovingly — over and over and over again.