Every five years, Ragnar Kjartansson unites with his mother to enact a weird ritual involving saliva.
At the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami, Kjartansson's video trilogy Me and My Mother, 2000-2010, depicts the artist standing next to his mother in her book-lined parlor. In them, his mother, an actress, spits repeatedly on her son's face while they face the camera and try to remain serious during the peculiar and psychologically freighted exercise. Shot during five year intervals, one sees mother and son aging before one's eyes and in the most recent iteration, a picture of Mother Theresa staring at the couple from a shelf behind them makes their off-the-wall proceedings seem all the more harebrained.
The Icelandic artist comes from a family of prominent thespians. His mother was considered his homeland's version of Marilyn Monroe, his father is a theater director, and his sister is Iceland's current diva. Growing up in a bohemian environment has played a role in Kjartansson's staged performances that straddle the line between playfulness and absurdist. They also reveal an innate sense of the operatic and combine haunting music, repetition, endurance and scenes of breathtaking natural grandeur.
The sublime and subversive are a hallmark of the artist's works on view at MOCA in "Ragnar Kjartansson: Song" that features six epic videos and marks his first ever solo show in a U.S. museum.
Kjartansson, who is also the founder of the glam-rock band Trabant, and a rock star in his homeland, also brings his musical skills into play in works such as Satan is Real, in which he appears shirtless and buried waist deep in a public park as he strums a guitar.
In the hour-long video the artist repeatedly croons the same lyric, "Satan is real and he's working for me" as children walk in and out of the camera's view licking ice cream cones, heightening the surrealist nature of the ineffable scene. Observing the troubadour enticing the tykes with his demonic riff could leaves you wondering if he's trying to lead the innocent astray, or if Kjartansson himself has struck a Faustian bargain to free himself from the bizarre purgatory in which he finds himself buried. It's a visceral work that leaves a lasting impression, with undertones that both melancholic and distinctly cheerful.
Other works that command attention are The End, in which the viewer is engulfed by a five-channel video projection isolated in a darkened room. Entering the space, you're transported to a wilderness landscape in the majestic Canadian Rockies where the artist and a musical collaborator appear playing their instruments in the snow. Wearing coonskin furs hats while smoking cigarettes and playing pink electric guitars, a piano and drums, the duo provoke thoughts of a Lewis and Clark conquering rough country panoramas. Humming with soulful harmonies, the work is also evocative of man's encroachment on an unspoiled world. The video was spooled as part of Kjartansson's project during the 2009 Venice Biennale, where he represented his homeland and which earned him critical raves.
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But perhaps his most hypnotic opus at MOCA is Song which features Kjartansson's three nieces singing inside Carnegie Museum's Hall of Sculpture atop a circular platform covered in shimmering baby blue fabric as they gaze into hand-held mirrors and comb their flaxen locks. As the beguiling enchantresses belt out the lyric "The weight of the world is love" over and over and over again, in a setting rife with classical Greek sculpture, what comes to mind are the ancient sirens that drove mariners mad with their ethereal pipes.
And, not unlike those otherworldly muses and their seductive siren songs, at MOCA Kjartansson charts uncanny reveries that leave one in a state of dreaminess long after exiting the museum's doors.
"Ragnar Kjartansson: Song" through September 2nd at the Museum of Contemporary Art. 770 NE 125th Street, North Miami. Admission costs $5.Call 305-893-6211 or visit mocanomi.org.