Ragnar Kjartansson at Barbican review: top Icelandic artist explores the point where performance meets reality

 
Steve Dinneen
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Ragnar Kjartansson plays guitar in the bath as part of a collaborative film project
Ragnar Kjartansson at Barbican
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Every five years Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson records a video of his mother repeatedly spitting in his face. So far there are four videos, which play side-by-side in this Barbican retrospective of his work. They encapsulate a question that’s fascinated him throughout his career – where do performance and reality meet? His mother is a famous actress in Iceland, and is clearly playing a role, but the real-life intimacy brings the films uncomfortably close to reality.

There are few artistic mediums Kjartansson hasn’t turned his hand to – “In Iceland we like to do lots of things, not particularly well, but with vigour!” he jokes – but performance is always crucial. In one series, collected here in full, he spent six months in an open studio painting a Speedos-clad friend over and over again, the performance essentially becoming reality through sheer repetition.

In the first room of this new show, 10 musicians sit on ratty sofas drinking beer, playing guitar and singing lines from a schlocky Icelandic movie (to which Kjartansson claims to have been conceived). The musicians – some topless, others a little drunk – are comfortable in the space, which has become their reality, again blurring the distinction between truth and fiction. Even his more straight-forward paintings – the weakest part of his oeuvre – have a meta edge. His Blossoming Trees series comes with photographs of the artist at work and the ironically macho caption “Did seven canvases... Smoked cigars, drank beer and read Lolita.”

It’s a self-aware, light-hearted, occasionally laugh-out-loud funny show, and a rare chance to enjoy an artist whose work has never before been collected in the UK.

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