Casino Culture

When we first encountered the work of Ragnar Kjartansson in 2010 at the Museum of Contemporary Art (770 NE 125th St., North Miami ), he struck us as an unusual talent and left us humming the same lyric continuously for days. His work, titled God, was a 30-minute video in which he played a pitch-perfect Vegas lounge lizard repeatedly belting out, “Sorrow conquers happiness,” as if testing the audience’s endurance. The Icelandic artist, who hails from a celebrated stage family, is also the founder of the glam-rock band Trabant and a musical idol in his homeland. His father is a well-known playwright and theater director, and his mother is a cinema and stage actress. So it’s probably no surprise that a sense of over-the-top drama is a hallmark of Kjartansson’s haunting work, which combines equal measures of performance and pretense in a subversive cocktail he says is evocative of his country’s tradition of oral culture. “There is no visual art history in Iceland — almost no objects,” Kjartansson observes. “But there are all these stories — nothing but sagas and poetry for a thousand years. My performative works exist mostly as stories.” His first solo exhibit in a U.S. museum — “Ragnar Kjartansson: Song,” on view at MOCA — features six epic videos, including Du Holde Kunst, highlighting the Icelandic warbler and a chorus line of showgirls with feather fans, commissioned by MOCA for its 15th anniversary. “My work often is about this ethic of pretense,” Kjartansson explains. “That’s my field of interest — the friction between pretending and doing, pretense and reality at the same time. It’s a constant struggle between truth and lies, and between tongue-in-cheek and deadly serious.”
May 20-Sept. 2, 2012
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