Artist Ragnar Kjartansson – Santa Barbara and a Russian Revolution

A word of warning to anyone visiting Reykjavik: do not walk around the Icelandic capital in the company of artist Ragnar Kjartansson. Most people stop by the local luminary Kjartansson, who is unfailingly kind to all passers-by.

Just over 360,000 people live on the tight-knit Nordic Island and such encounters give the impression of a big fish in a small pond, which could lead to delusions of grandeur. But Kjartansson is an intelligent and grounded practitioner whose maverick and humane pieces have crept into the public consciousness. “The Visitors,” a 2012 installation and video piece featuring a group of musicians strumming and ruminating on life in Rokeby (a historic Hudson Valley estate in New York State), has been acclaimed. by critics around the world.

Another memorable piece is “Me and My Mother” – a 2015 video work not for the faint of heart – which shows Kjartansson standing with his mother, actor Gudrun Asmundsdottir, as she repeatedly spits at him in one movie as well. rude than captivating. . “There’s this really interesting reverse psychology. It is [the saliva] on your face in tiny flakes, and the smell is. . . you know? ”he says. The work is updated every five years (the last opus was shot last year).

Extract from the video “Me and my mother” by Ragnar Kjartansson

Installation ‘The Visitors’ (2012) © Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst

His revelations flow freely during a meeting in his compact and cozy studio near the port. Our conversation, scheduled for an hour, instead turns into a three-hour conversation – he’s wearing a crisp tweed suit – that goes in countless directions. Kjartansson’s happiness about Abba’s recent reunion, for example, is palpable, turning into tales of escape times spent grazing in the hills outside Reykjavik.

Kjartansson’s latest project may well be his most daring yet. The 46-year-old recreates the American soap opera of the 1980s Santa barbara for a new project to be unveiled at GES-2, Moscow’s vast new cultural complex founded by billionaire Leonid Mikhelson.

The 20,000 m² historic site, which houses the VAC philanthropic foundation in Mikhelson, opens its doors in early December. A former power station built in 1907, it was converted by the Italian architect Renzo Piano, and could become as important in the world art circuit as the Tate Modern in London or the Center Pompidou in Paris.

The GES-2 in Moscow, a former power station redesigned by the Italian architect Renzo Piano into a place of art © Michel Denancé

A professional film crew led by director Asa Helga Hjorleifsdottir will direct and shoot nearly 100 episodes of Santa barbara at GES-2, performed in Russian by some of the country’s most accomplished actors. Santa barbara was very important to a generation of Russians. It was the first American soap opera to be broadcast in the country – it first aired on the official state network RTR on January 2, 1992 – after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Sickle and Hammer lowered on the Kremlin.

“The myth is that the Soviet Russians played chess, watched engineering TV shows and read poetry to each other, then suddenly Santa barbara happened and everything changed, ”says Kjartansson. “The play is a recreation of this national and global shakedown.”

Each episode’s sets, costumes, and props replicate those used in the original series, with a distinct DIY aesthetic underpinning the 2021 release, he says. By creating one episode per day in front of a live audience, each scene will be filmed in one take and footage edited daily. The impression will be that of a working setting, a mass of activity with hair, makeup and cameramen at full speed, giving life to a “kind of large-scale historical painting that turns into a sculpture. live performative, ”says a VAC statement.

Ragnar Kjartansson covers 100 episodes of the American soap opera “Santa Barbara” at GES-2, Moscow © Luhring Augustine, New York, and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik

Teresa Iarocci Mavica, director of the foundation, said that GES-2 will investigate “the history of Russia over the past 30 years”, with Santa barbara at the heart of this program. ” In the early 90, Santa barbara introduced new models, values ​​and ideas that have had an undeniable impact on Russian society, and we are interested in understanding which of them remain today, ”she adds.

In the American publication Foreign Policy, writer Mikhail Iossel provides expert analysis on the impact of soap, explaining why Santa barbara, the most outdated of dramas, offered a perfect escape “through the chaotic and criminal 1990s, the early post-Soviet years of timelessness and hardship.”

Life in the metropolises, small towns, industrial settlements and snow-capped villages of Russia’s 11 time zones would come to a halt as the cheerful sounds of Santa barbaraThe intro resonated on millions of televisions, says Iossel. Streets, bars, restaurants and clothing stores were named after the TV show, reflecting the ambitious vision of nirvana concocted by the California series.

Kjartansson visited Russia in 1997 and describes falling “deeply in love” with the country. He even considered applying to an art academy in St. Petersburg with the aim of becoming a “historical painter” (red tape and reality stood in the way, however). His company GES-2 has other touchstones. The opening group exhibition, which features a range of prominent international artists, is titled “To Moscow! In Moscow ! In Moscow ! », Echoing Anton Tchekhov’s lament Three sisters. From the late American director Jay Ranelli, Kjartansson had heard the poignant story of a visit to McDonald’s in Moscow, where Ranelli had spotted three waiters wearing the badges of Irina, Masha and Olga, the characters in Chekhov’s play..

“Three Sisters (remake of Jay Ranelli’s lost photo from ca. 1990)” by Ragnar Kjartansson (2021) © Luhring Augustine, New York, and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik

Kjartansson was inspired to recreate the scenario for his GES-2 initiative. Against a large replica of the Russian branch of McDonald’s, which dominates his workshop, he photographed three women who represent the brothers and sisters of Chekhov’s time. The image – all the big 1980s hair and happy customer service in the heart of communism – is oddly moving and evocative.

At GES-2, Kjartansson will also show a two-channel incendiary video recreating the times when Russia’s most controversial painting, “Ivan the Terrible and his Son Ivan on November 16, 1581”, by Ilya Repin, was attacked twice. , in 1913 and in 2018, “for ambiguous religious and nationalist reasons,” he said.

We discuss how working in Russia aligns with its progressive values. He is “appalled” by the country’s poor record on LGBTQ + rights, but says “it’s also important to remember that not all of Moscow’s 12.5 million people are Putin. And, of course, there is something artistically exciting about putting on a show in Russia. “

If an element of Proustian nostalgia can ignite among older Russians who watch Santa Barbara, Kjartansson’s take on the show’s contemporary resonance is essential, arguing that in some ways this American soap opera belongs to Russian culture more than American culture.

“And for someone who lives on an island right between Moscow and Washington DC, feeling the Cold War brewing again in the air, there is something oddly curative about seeing Russian actors pretending to be American,” he said, applying logic that mirrors Kjartansson to the kernel.

December 4 March 13

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