‘Scandinavian Pain’ Ragnar Kjartansson at the Hirshhorn

It is November 2016 in the United States of America. By the time you read this, America will have its next president. It’s a uniquely strange, stomach-churning moment for me as a writer.
To escape the tension of this staggering and extraordinary election has been impossible. For so many weeks, I have scanned my news apps each morning from the foot of my bed to see if another blistering headline has once again rocked the free world.
In a normal year, the holiday hysteria would be reaching its annual fever pitch, but no one is talking about Christmas yet. The world is on hold.
So in this moment, it was especially odd and hilarious to ascend the escalator of the Hirshhorn and see pink neon type light up the wall with the words “Scandinavian Pain.”
That would be pretty funny by itself, but it’s hard to make up anything more misplaced in Washington right now. The White House is under siege, and across the street someone is asking us all to consider artistic interpretations of the modern North Germanic ethno-cultural condition.
While the Hirshhorn’s retrospective of Icelandic performance artist Ragnar Kjartansson, on view through Jan. 8, was planned long before anyone could know of the traumatic delirium that the election would bring on, there is just no way to perceive this or any exhibition outside of these circumstances.
Art does not exist in a vacuum, especially not now, especially not at a federally funded museum on the National Mall during a historically divisive presidential election.
And this is in some way what makes “Scandinavian Pain” so good.
Raised in a family of Icelandic actors, Ragnar Kjartansson creates work that combines live theater, large-scale projection, popular music, photography, painting and drawing. The pieces in this exhibition — mostly recorded performances from the past fifteen years that incorporate music and literature — are wry, genuinely funny pastiches cut with earnest nostalgia for moods and aesthetics of bygone eras.
Because he honors and flays his subjects in equal measure, contradictory feelings coexist comfortably in his work — sorrow and joy, pride and shame, graveness and frivolity, camaraderie and isolation. It made me think about the GOP’s constant appeal to Reagan-era sentimentality, the root meaning of which, like a political Frankenstein, has been mangled and repurposed beyond recognition.
A gallery draped with pink prom curtains projects a video of Kjartansson standing before the same curtains and looking like an overweight Bobby Darin, in a full tuxedo and hair slicked with pomade. Backed by an 11-piece orchestra on a dais, they play an endless ballad with a single refrain: “Sorrow conquers happiness.”
Kjartansson’s crooner is a dim reflection of the Sinatra archetype, looking not so much like the Golden Age of Hollywood as a Soviet Post-War emulation of 1950s American late-night television — a little tackier, drearier, stiff, slightly claustrophobic.
This was not performed in front of a live studio audience. Behind these satin curtains is not a sprawling soundstage with a tech crew, but the white cinderblock wall of a community recreation center. The edifice of old Hollywood glam thinly veils a stifling atmosphere of sadness. This is the Hollywood of overdosing starlets, of waning celebrity careers groaning under the weight of public indifference. Judy Garland would have loved this.
“World Light — The Life and Death of an Artist,” a 20-hour, four-channel video installation, documents the artist’s cinematic staging of the epic novel, “World Light,” by the Nobel Prize-wining Icelandic writer Halldor Laxness (1902–1988), the story of a poet whose romantic longing and search for beauty leads to self-destruction.
Kjartansson reenacted the tale with friends, family and a live string ensemble during a one-month performance, with the performers continually on view to the public.
Needless to say, I did not see the whole thing. But here’s what I did happen to catch: Two men lying dead in the snow, one in a white tuxedo. The camera pans out to show the production crew — the boom mics, then the key grips, then the prop master — tossing handfuls of artificial snow from a bucket in front of an industrial fan that blows it onto the actors. Unit directors on computers talk to the crew through headsets. The actors get up, brush off the snow, blow it out of their noses, clear their throats and begin to prepare for the next scene.
Blending together emotional and philosophical environments with the armature of their physical construction, it nearly resembles the all-over news coverage of an American political campaign. The media reports on a candidate’s speeches, press releases, official interviews — things that are composed by campaign managers and press secretaries, designed for public consumption. But they also follow candidates on the campaign trail, reporting on events in between their public appearances, speaking with sources, exposing background information and digging up scandals. It is the simultaneous broadcast of both a polished production and its messy internal wiring.
The question is presented in Kjartansson’s work, as in this election: Where is the line between what someone presents to the world and their private environment? “Scandinavian Pain” made me, an arts writer in Washington, consider the abstract nature of political language, which somehow made the blistering rhetoric over the past year seem less damaging, less permanent. It also gave me a haven in the personal language of art, music and poetry.
Welcome to America, Ragnar Kjartansson. We are also in pain. Perhaps we can lean on one another.
Hillary won, didn’t she?

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