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Interview: Elín Hansdóttir

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March 25, 2014

Ragnar Kjartansson and Friends at TBA21

Ragnar Kjartansson
The Palace of the Summerland
Team of The Palace of the Summerland
Photo: Lilja Birgisdóttir, 2014
Press Release

Ragnar Kjartansson and Friends  | The Palace of the Summerland

Performance: April 3–27  | Performance nights: Saturdays, April 5, 12, 19 and 26

Exhibition: April 30–June 8

 

Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary–Augarten, Vienna

Press conference: Thursday, April 3, 10:30 am

Opening: Thursday, April 3, 7 pm

 

 Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary (TBA21), Vienna, is embarking once again on a bold new commission, one that defies traditional categorization. It is a collaboration with the Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson and a group of 20 talented artists, musicians, and friends. Broadening the scope of its interdisciplinary and multimedia investigations, TBA21 will present a two-part project titled The Palace of the Summerland in its spectacular venue at the Augarten in Vienna.

A megalomaniac journey into the soul of a generation

Ragnar Kjartansson moves naturally between different mediums and forms, combining them in all his works. From April 3 to April 27, the artist and his troupe of musicians, actors, artistic directors, costume designers, camera operators, and technical crew will live and perform continuously in the Augarten exhibition space, transforming it into an active studio, an art factory, and a set for a filmic and theatrical adaptation of the epic novel World Light, by the Icelandic author and Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness. The Palace of the Summerland is a piece of performance art, flirting with literature, music, and sculpture—a manic journey into the souls of generations of Icelandic artists, presented under the guise of making a film. Kjartansson describes the project as a “megalomaniac quest,” in this case to capture beauty, art, emotion, and the essence of life. Aiming at the impossible, it is a task that has to be tried, completed, lived. This collaboration in the framework of a longtime partnership between Kjartansson and TBA21 is a bold step for the institution, the artist himself, and visitors to Augarten. It has developed simultaneously with The Explosive Sonics of Divinity / Der Klang der Offenbarung des Göttlichen, a new theater piece featuring stage paintings, performed by the German Film Orchestra Babelsberg and the Film Choir Berlin and premiered at the Volksbühne in Berlin on February 19.

An epic on a softporn budget 

Laxness wrote World Light between 1937 and 1940, around the outbreak of World War II. The Palace of the Summerland, named after the second part of the novel, revolves around the tragic and fateful life of its protagonist, the folk poet Ólafur Kárason, whose constant search for sheer beauty and artistic gratification leads to his final tragic apotheosis.

Kjartansson states: “This story has molded my approach to art more than anything else… It colored my whole worldview… World Light is an epic about the artist. An ironic tale of beauty and artistic integrity written in the crucible of modernism, it is equally an ode to beauty and a deconstruction of it. It speaks to an important 21st-century core: the politics of beauty. The exhibition will be the process of filming scenes from this novel, which depict the utopic creative moment, the search for perfection, and the final romanticized sacrifice for art. The exhibition space will become a Fellini-style studio, a mayhem factory for building, acting, and filming a story on beauty. We are not really making cinema; we are acting out an attempt to make cinema… It is like Paul Auster’s The Book of Illusions.

The team that the artist has assembled for this project is a robust group of some of Reykjavík’s most prominent artists, comedians, writers, and musicians. It is a gang of the friends who have inspired him in his works. Beginning in April, they will leave behind their regular lives and join Kjartansson on a Fitzcarraldo-like journey. They will become The Palace of the Summerland by building it, acting it, and living it. Kjartansson’s father, the theater director Kjartan Ragnarsson, will also be there to help direct the scenes, so there will even be father-son tension. By visiting TBA21–Augarten at different times, the public will experience diverse situations: the team caught in the middle of a rehearsal; Kjartansson with his father introducing the filming of a certain scene; musicians rehearsing a score composed by Kjartan Sveinsson, the composer and former member of Sigur Rós; the production of sets, costumes, and props: literally the entire production process in front of the cameras and behind the scenes. “It will be a factory where we are building, acting, and filming an impossibly big story on beauty. The drama is on-site. We are making an epic on a softporn budget, surrounded by the audience. It is a hopeless task. A true disaster,” says Kjartansson.

Visiting The Palace of the Summerland 

From April 3 to April 27 (Wednesday to Sunday during opening hours and Saturdays until midnight), the musicians, actors, artistic directors, costume designers, camera operators, and technical crew will live and perform continuously in the Augarten exhibition space, transforming it into an active studio, an art factory, and a set for a filmic and theatrical adaptation of the epic novel. The venue will serve as the setting for a durational performance and work-in-progress in which the situation, process, and drama of each ephemeral moment are even more important than a final outcome. The public will be invited to pay a visit and enter the situation, momentarily immersing itself in the scene and atmosphere and experiencing the adaptation and production of a tale of beauty and artistic integrity that has molded generations of Icelandic artists, including Ragnar Kjartansson himself. Visitors are encouraged to spend time with the performance, to return and to maintain an engagement with the monthlong action. Following this four-week performance, the film/theater sets will become part of a large-scale environmental installation that will be on view at TBA21–Augarten from April 30 to June 8.

World Light 

Laxness’s magnificently humanistic novel is, according to Kjartansson, the blueprint of Iceland’s artistic DNA and was frequently invoked by his father throughout his upbringing as one would cite “religious scriptures.” In the face of the indifference and contempt of those around him, the poet Ólafur Kárason, the protagonist of World Light, is driven by his sense of destiny, living a life of poverty, loneliness, death, perversity, and failed love encounters as he journeys across Iceland in pursuit of beauty, poetry, and the divine. Kjartansson and company’s adaptation crystallizes around the highly romantic but also ambiguous moments of epiphany described by Laxness. These are experiences of great beauty, inspiration, and serenity when the world comes to rest, reality crumbles, and divine and earthly revelations appear in utmost clarity. In The Palace of the Summerland, these episodes will be narrated, enacted, repeatedly rehearsed, and captured on film in one single and unique take, which will later become the filmic scenes that are an integral part of the unique work to remain on display following the performance. 13 sets, selected by Kjartansson and his collaborators, correspond to the four parts of Laxness’s novel (Book 1: The Revelation of the Deity; Book 2: The Palace of the Summerland; Book 3: The House of the Poet; Book 4: The Beauty of the Heavens).

Ragnar Kjartansson 
The Palace of the Summerland 
Set Design – The Palace of the Summerland 
The Village 
Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik.
 

Notably, World Light is differently engaged with social and political questions than Laxness’s other books. The writer, a fervent socialist, personally witnessed the Moscow Trials of 1936– 38, which had a profound impact on him. In the midst of this turbulence he shifted his focus to the role of the artist, of beauty, and its mirroring.

Deconstructing and reconstructing the iconic novel, The Palace of the Summerland is the realization of Kjartansson’s longtime fantasy. Three versions have been conceived for theater by his father, Kjartan Ragnarsson, the most recent in 2011 for the National Theater of Iceland. Furthermore, a sister project also based on Laxness’s novel, titled The Explosive Sonics of Divinity, is currently being performed at the Volksbühne in Berlin as part of the series WERKE (I–VI). With this project Kjartansson presents a new visual performance for the theater, which merges opera and art installation, consisting of four sets in the form of large-scale tableaux painted by the artist and featuring music by Kjartan Sveinsson but excluding actors or dialogue, to offer an experience of “theater solitude.”

The Palace of the Summerland 

Team/Crew/Actors

Ragnar Kjartansson

Davíð Þór Jónsson

Kjartan Sveinsson

Anna Hrund Másdóttir

Ingibjörg Sigurjónsdóttir

Tómas Örn Tómasson

María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir

Christopher McDonald

Kjartan Ragnarsson

Hildigunnur Birgisdóttir

Ragnar Helgi Ólafsson

Kristín Anna Valtýsdóttir

Margrét Bjarnadóttir

Thelma Marín Jónsdóttir

Sólveig Katrín Ragnarsdóttir

Sigríður Margrét Guðmundsdóttir

Helga Stefánsdóttir

Sveinn Kjartansson

Lilja Gunnarsdóttir

Halldór Halldórsson

Daníel Björnsson

Kjartansson and TBA21: A long-term collaboration

Over the last nine years Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary (TBA21) and its founder and chairwoman, Francesca von Habsburg, have supported the performance career of this rising star of the Icelandic art scene. In 2005 the foundation acquired Kjartansson’s 15 Licks, a fragment from his project for the Reykjavík Art Festival that year called The Great Unrest. Taking place in an old theater in the south of Iceland, this work is a key reference for the new performance project The Palace of the Summerland. During the 2005 performance, the artist was onstage performing the blues throughout the festival, six hours a day for three weeks. In 2007 the foundation supported one of his earliest performances at the Living Art Museum in Reykjavík, which led to his first big production, titled God. In that project, Kjartansson, supported by eleven musicians, repeatedly sings the words “sorrow conquers happiness,” delivering the melancholic message in Frank Sinatra style. Following his collaboration with the prestigious Luhring Augustine Gallery in New York and i8 Gallery in Reykjavík, Kjartansson made a series of uncompromising works that brought him considerable acclaim and recognition. TBA21 continued to support his work, acquiring the five-channel video installation The End in 2009, the single-channel video The Man in 2010, and finally his major 2013 work The Visitors, which featured him and fellow musicians playing a “feminine, nihilistic Gospel song” in the decayed bohemian surroundings of Rokeby Farm in upstate New York. TBA21 presented it at Augarten in collaboration with the Viennese Haydn Choir of the Wiener Sängerknaben in the spring of 2013.

It is a testimony to this long-standing collaboration and support that Ragnar Kjartansson has committed himself to the unique, time-consuming, and intimate project The Palace of the Summerland, which once again pushes the limits of his multifaceted practice, combining durational performance, real-life encounters, and the ingenious intermingling of performance, literature, theater, music, and film.

A reflection on an ambivalent past: TBA21 at the Augarten

Kjartansson’s The Palace of the Summerland is also a reflection on the Augarten site itself, built as a studio for the Austrian sculptor Gustinus Ambrosi in 1956. An ambiguous and controversial figure, Ambrosi in fact lived through the period covered in Laxness’s epic and—as was recently revealed by TBA21’s archival research—became one of the artists favored by the National Socialist leaders in the late 1930s. Ambrosi suppressed this aspect of his history and was later endowed with the largest artist’s studio, museum, and 4 residential complex ever built for the private use of an artist by the Austrian state. Ambrosi’s complicated biography is still waiting to be written, but certain aspects of his story are being reexamined—directly or indirectly—by artists invited to TBA21–Augarten, most notably in the project KUH by Superflex in 2012. The Palace of the Summerland seems to suggest that integrity is at the very core of artistic expression and never to be compromised—even if the aim is merely the attainment of sheer beauty.

Statement from Francesca von Habsburg

“TBA21 has built an extraordinary reputation over the last decade by commissioning ambitious, experimental, and engaging projects that have captured the attention of the art world. No other foundation has been so consistent in its commitment to the production of works that transcend traditional disciplinary categorizations. This all started nearly ten years ago with Dan Graham and Tony Oursler’s Don’t Trust Anyone over Thirty and Kutlug Ataman’s Küba, both from 2004. These projects were closely followed by Olafur Eliasson and David Adjaye’s Your black horizon pavilion at the Venice Biennale and Christoph Schlingensief’s Animatograph in 2005; Sanja Iveković’s legendary Poppy Field at Documenta in 2007; Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s Murder of Crows in 2008; and Matthew Ritchie’s Morning Line in Seville, Istanbul, and Vienna in 2008–12. We sent the art world into a spin with Gregor Schneider’s enraging performance at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in 2007 and Cerith Wyn Evans and Florian Hecker’s No night No day at the Teatro Goldoni in Venice in 2009. And the list goes on… Artists trust us to produce unique works that defy imagination. 

TBA21 began to follow the work of Ragnar Kjartansson very early in his career, in 2005, during his remarkable solo performance The great unrest, and in 2007 we funded one of his first video works, God. Our support of his journey to becoming one of Iceland’s most admired artists has been a labor of love. And in appreciation of this long-standing relationship, he has agreed to realize his most ambitious project to date in collaboration with TBA21. The Palace of the Summerland is a deeply personal work that goes back to his own childhood and that engages themes that have informed his work for more than a decade. 

This elaborate endurance performance is a reflection of Ragnar’s audacity and his consistent application of his true self in his work, and I am delighted that it will be presented at TBA21- Augarten in Vienna. Ragnar has brought together a group of important and influential artists and musicians with whom he has been working for years, and never before has he laid his creative process open to visitors as he is doing in this project. This will be a Fellini moment, in an open studio, on a live set, and an opportunity to experience performance at its very best. I am truly grateful to Ragnar for trusting us with this deeply personal work, and I applaud his courage and conviction. All I can do is stand by him and let this happen. You are all welcome to come and be part of this extraordinary opportunity to experience in person the work of this soon-to-be-legendary artist from Iceland. ” (Francesca von Habsburg) 5

About the artist

Born in Reykjavík in 1976, Kjartansson draws on the entire arc of art in his performative practice. The history of film, music, theater, visual culture, and literature finds its way into his video installations, durational performances, drawing, and painting. Pretending and staging become key tools in the artist’s attempts to convey sincere emotion and offer a genuine experience to the audience.

Kjartansson studied at the Iceland Academy of the Arts and lives and works in Reykjavík. His work has been exhibited internationally. Recent solo exhibitions have been held at Kling & Bang Gallery, Reykjavík (2013–2014); the HangarBicocca, Milan (2013–14); TBA21, Vienna (2013); the Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Zurich (2012–13); the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin (2012–13); Frankfurter Kunstverein (2011); and BAWAG Contemporary, Vienna (2011). Ragnar Kjartansson: Song, his first American solo museum show, was organized by the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, in 2011 and has since traveled to the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami (2012), and the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (2012–13). Kjartansson received Performa’s 2011 Malcolm McLaren Award for his performance of Bliss, a twelve-hour live loop of the final aria of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, and in 2009 he was the youngest artist to represent Iceland at the Venice Biennale’s International Art Exhibition. In 2013 his performative kinetic sound sculpture S.S. Hangover—a boat manned by a brass sextet continuously playing a piece by the composer Kjartan Sveinsson while sailing in a landing in the Arsenale—was possibly among the most lauded and critically acclaimed artistic contributions to the 55th Venice Biennale. The New Museum presents Kjartansson’s first New York museum exhibition Me, My Mother, My Father, and I on view May 7–June 22, 2014.

About Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary

Founded in Vienna in 2002 by Francesca von Habsburg, Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary (TBA21) represents the fourth generation of the Thyssen family’s commitment to the arts. The foundation is dedicated primarily to the commissioning and dissemination of ambitious, experimental, and unconventional projects that transcend traditional disciplinary boundaries. This approach has gained the collection a pioneering reputation throughout the world. The foundation’s projects promote artistic practices that are architectural, context- and site-specific, performative, and often informed by an interest in social aesthetics and environmental concerns. Many of the projects reflect the shift to transdisciplinary practices embracing architecture, sound, music, and science. The cross-pollination of disciplines challenges interpretation and the traditions of collecting, preserving, and presenting works of art. This approach reflects the vision of Francesca von Habsburg.

In addition, TBA21 shares its collection and commissions with numerous museums and public institutions. Most commissions initiated and produced by the foundation form an integral part of major contemporary art exhibitions such as the Venice Biennale, the Istanbul Biennial, and documenta, where new works are very much on the agenda. In past years, crossover performative projects were realized through a number of collaborations, notably with the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin, Artangel in London, and the Wiener Festwochen. Since May 2012 Vienna’s Augarten park has been transformed into a revitalized center for the arts under the aegis of Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary. TBA21–Augarten marks the inception of a four-year collaborative relationship with the Belvedere and presents artists’ individual stances and artistic dialogues through works drawn from the foundation’s collection. TBA21’s complementary live-arts program is presented on David Adjaye’s open-air stage, which hosts a lively series of spoken-word performances, concerts, and related activities, along with the new café/restaurant Die AU and a bookshop stocked with selected publications. The aim of TBA21–Augarten is to fill its project space with complex and critical programming, as well as to breathe new life into the Augarten as a social and cultural meeting place. Since June 2013 admission to the exhibition venue has been free.

 

Supported by

As one of the leading insurance groups in Central and Eastern Europe, the Vienna Insurance Group and its main share holder clearly perceive its social responsibilities and have been reliable sponsoring partners for Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary and other cultural projects for many years. Numerous museums and galleries have insured their collections with Vienna Insurance Group. The main objective for cooperating with cultural institutions is to promote the international exchange in the field of arts and culture. Since June 2013, thanks to the main share holder of Vienna Insurance Group, admission to TBA21–Augarten has been free.

 

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Ragnar Kjartansson 
The Palace of the Summerland 
Team of The Palace of the Summerland 
Photo: Lilja Birgisdóttir, 2014 
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