91. The Value of Sorrow (Ragnar Kjartansson at The Barbican)

It’s the last days and last week of your Summer art history school teaching. The final visit is to the Barbican to see, and evaluate, some Contemporary Art in the shape of Ragnar Kjartansson’s current retrospective there.

At the entrance you are trying to sort out the group booking when you spy a couple of other art writers, (0ne is also an editor or a well-known journal) who are just leaving. They look at you for a moment as if there might be some sense of territorial value at stake, but you make it clear you are not here to conduct a review, and therefore perhaps tread on their professional toes, but only to support your students in their studies.

Nevertheless, by the time you’ve seen the show, discussed it with your students, mulled it over on the bus going home, and described it to your partner, it seems the obvious thing to use as the stem of your Blog post this week.

‘Sorrow’ is a word, and a concept, that Kjartansson uses more than once in this show, a sprawling retrospective which repeatedly immerse you in dirge-like music, soul searching slowness, and sombre tones.



In one work, titles ‘The SS Hangover‘ and which you recognise from reviews of the 2013  Venice biennale, a replica of an ancient boat, carrying a band of brass instrumentalists, repeatedly puts to sea and returns, from and to a sheltered Venetian jetty, while the band play a woeful tune.

In another piece the singer and his band are dressed in 40s-style ties ‘n’ tuxedos, their stage is swathed in red curtains and their lyrical refrain talks of sorrow trumping happiness. There’s a rock version too in which the artist and his musicians seem to invoke ghosts of ‘The Birthday Party’ or some similarly grungy, edgy and slightly demonic band.



You knew you’d come across an artist creating these bluesy, melancholic musical atmospheres in a gallery once or twice before, then you put your finger on it. About 50 Posts back you wrote about Richard T. Walker at Carroll/Fletcher Gallery, and you can follow this link if you would like to see what I am talking about. Richard T. Walker Link

A B&W video, with its title written in a florid, romantic font, shows the artist dressed up as ‘Death’, complete with Victorian frock coat, scythe and black eye make-up. He tries in vain to scare children who are passing through a graveyard with their teachers, but the kids laugh back candidly at his props and his performance, throwing their own scary faces  and asking him awkward questions. Perhaps Death, personified in the age of Video Games and Virtual Reality needs to try a little harder to convince us today.


But what is the place or value of all this sorrow and darkness for Contemporary Art? Is it an intrinsically ‘Icelandic’ contribution perhaps, something to do with the latitude, climate or daylight? It’s possible. But what seems more likely to you is that Kjartansson is promoting an undervalued realm in the current art world in general, wherein emotion, history, ‘soul’, melancholia and failure are repressed by all the positivity, wit, clarity, and ambition that pervades the arts in an age of media saturation, ever higher visibility, and global marketing.

And then, why does Kjartansson play and use so much music in his work anyway? Why not just be or become a musician? The answer to this seems to lie, again, in trying to draw something in to fine art from just outside it, something that may be currently pushed to art’s margins but which can always be readily found in music.

Music of almost any style and era has a tendency  and ability to be primarily appreciated as an emotive experience. Such experiences, it’s worth noting, tend to ‘humanise’ and unite us in ways that drier, wittier, Conceptual Art might not.

Questions of collectivity and community also arise here in a work titled ‘The Visitors’ (2012) (which is probably the ‘masterpiece’ of the show and likely, along with ‘SS Hangover‘ to be the most famous and enduring work here). Here, different musicians appear to occupy different rooms of a crumbling mansion (itself perhaps symbolic of our decreasing confidence in bourgeois power and value). Each individual is linked in to each other’s performance via microphones and headphones, and each is projected on a separate screen. There is something increasingly fulfilling and joyful about watching a piece of music made in this strangely fragmented-yet-united, and immediate-yet-mediated manner. Again, it seems confirm a shared humanity, both among the musicians and with the audience who can ‘get’ and feel viscerally what the musicians are doing while connecting the musical parts spatially, as separated components and separate individuals united by art and technology.


There is nevertheless something about this show that sometimes feels overstretched, a little like the retrospective produced by Martin Creed at Hayward a couple of years ago where, instead of taking up the space and the concept of ‘Retrospective’ and turning these into one magnificent new Creed work, he seemed to ram everything he has ever done and everything he has ever half-done into one big, messy and ultimately annoying show. Kjartansson hasn’t gone that far, but you could have done without e.g. several of the works involving painting and paper (which seem designed to prove the artist is a kind of ‘genius’ capable of excelling, in all styles, in the art of several epochs, and by using diverse media). A few of the less resolved-seeming video works could have been edited out too, with the aim of reducing the whole show by about 30% and thereby making it all a little more snappy, powerful, confident and convincing.

One or two simpler, ‘one-liner’ type video pieces here however do have a special power to etch themselves onto the memory. In one, the artist’s mother (an actress) spits at him as they stand together in front of the family’s bookcases. In another, a famous Icelandic male actor stands in a snowed out landscape with a terrifying looking rifle plus a bargain supermarket carrier bag, in which he repeatedly fumbles for cartridges before letting off rounds, the sound of which echo across the whole Gallery. Somehow this macabre image digs itself deep into your soul. Additional information supplied by the gallery suggest it is related to Iceland’s recent financial crises and to certain corrupt individuals and organisations party responsible for it. Nowhere else in the show is ‘politics’ alluded to in such an explicit way, though, as you have said, some kind of yearning for community and shared, unifying, emotive experience persists throughout.

On the way to the exit you once again pass the weird scene that greets visitors to the show. Young men, strewn here and there, in various states of undress, on soft furnishings, laze around playing an absurd song with a ridiculous lyric while empty beer bottles surround them. Some of your students were wary of this piece on the way in but grew to like the show more and more. Others found the show initially surprising then increasingly repetitive. You try to avoid writing reviews at all (preferring to write rapid Blog posts or  very slow, considered,  wide-ranging articles). And if you do write a Review then you try to avoid making judgements and instead transmit something you have learned or discoverd from the experience you have had.

Here you sidestep the assumption that this show and this work are steeped in irony, and instead it’s what you might call ‘the value of sorrow’ that you choose to take away from this show as its most rewarding gift, and which you couldn’t take away from any other show you’ve seen for a good long while. Where is the soul of art, in this increasingly corrupt, cold, frightening and morally unpalatable society? Perhaps it can only be found within that tumultuous internal  weather system of emotions that we really and undeniably feel, and that we endure and process, even as we keep up more or less positive appearances (Like!, Like!, Like!)  on Social Networks.









5 thoughts on “91. The Value of Sorrow (Ragnar Kjartansson at The Barbican)

  1. Great post – review – insight, thanks Paul. I saw the ‘boat’ piece in Venice and dismissed it as an ironic take on the whole Venetian nostalgia/tourist tradition. Now I see it in a different light, and like the work. I saw the BP portrait award exhibition yesterday and was struck by the soul of successful pieces there (wasn’t sure I agreed with the judges choice of first prize, only because I found it a bit cold and heavy on an underpinning slightly trendy arts and crafts reference). There’s definitely a thirst for warmth or soul, or guts, or whatever, in art – that isn’t reflected in the ‘cool ironic’ contemporary scene, and is thus refreshing.


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