Of his exhibition at Barbican, Ragnar Kjartansson remarked that he hadn’t realised the extent to which his work is about, or uses, repetition until he saw the show. “Maybe it comes from being an altar boy,” he says. “You repeat stuff again and again until it becomes divine.” The opening work Take Me Here by the Dishwasher: Memorial for a Marriage is a case in point, a performance in which ten musicians, scattered through the gallery on bedroom-like islands, sing and play guitar for eight hours straight.
The lyrics of the song, composed by Kjartan Sveinsson of Sigur Ros, are based on dialogue between a lonely housewife and fantasy plumber, from Iceland’s first feature film Murder Story, which stars Kjartansson’s parents. The suggestion is that he was conceived at the time the film was shot, and the piece forms a memorial to their now broken relationship, blurring fact and fiction – mirroring Kjartansson’s experience of life imitating art since his birth.
A three-minute clip of the soft focus love scene plays behind the performers as they repeat the mantra “Take me here by the dishwasher” in an endless, absurd loop. Musician Phil Serfaty is one of those performers, taking on “the cliché of the bedroom singer-songwriter, a kind of pathetic, woe is me, boozing figure.”
“As someone who has done the pop music thing, while I recognise that it is a packaged, clichéd way to express yourself, it is still very familiar to me. I’ve sat around in my underpants and played guitar, sung a sappy song and drank beer before, multiple times, and I wondered if doing this I might learn something,” he says. “Take Me by the Dishwasher is like a hyper version of it, and I found that by singing this really kitsch dialogue over and over, there were things that started to ring true and effect me emotionally. There are moments when it really does start to feel like you’re singing a memorial for a marriage, it’s a love that doesn’t exist anymore, it’s dissipated and you’re honouring that”.
People respond to the chorus in multifarious ways, “some burst out laughing, others scoff, cry and some move from one individual to another, listening intently to each part. When someone walks in you can never tell how it’s going to affect them,” says Phil. “If they sit down with you it’s a boost of energy. It’s so physically demanding, and psychologically you go through all kinds of emotions – sometimes it’s a real struggle, other times it becomes this bubble of sound that is completely transcendental. If you start thinking about it as a cycle it becomes really hard, whereas if you just exist in the moment it can be really beautiful”.
As a viewer it can be strange when you first enter the space, it feels at once public and private. The room is set up with mounds of dated, pink satin, dark wood furniture and empty beer bottles; and as you move around the installation different elements of the soundscape become audible. Phil continues: “The audience controls the way they hear the piece, and you see some engaging with that maybe for the first time. We, in turn, have the power to move bodies and guide people through the room with sound. It feels very alive.”
Raised in the theatre, Kjartansson’s work makes blurry distinctions between fact and fiction – conveying the tragicomedy inherent to life, and sending up the stereotype of the singular artist as genius. His work has a lightness to it, it’s joyful and funny with the weight and absurdity coming through in the repetition common in his performances, films, paintings and drawings. Kjartansson has described art as a “slippery, devilish thing,” and in his hands that devilish character turns toward the certainties of his audience; brushing them away with the swipe of a paper scythe or in the strum of a guitar.
Ragnar Kjartansson’s show is on now at the Barbican, London until 4 September 2016.
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