Exhibition Review
Ragnar Kjartansson: Me, My Mother, My Father, and I

Still from Me and My Mother 2010 (2010) by Ragnar Kjartansson; courtesy the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York, and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik

Ragnar Kjartansson: Me, My Mother, My Father, and I

The New Museum
New York, New York
May 7–June 29, 2014

In Ragnar Kjartansson’s performance and video installation, Take Me Here by the Dishwasher: Memorial for a Marriage (2011/2014), men with guitars sit scattered across the gallery space, congregated beneath a single-channel projection. On screen, a housewife solicits the attention of her plumber, they exchange passionate glances, and she strips the shirt off his back. A softcore pornographic scene follows for the next three minutes, and runs on a loop for the duration of the exhibition. Lyrics composed by Kjartan Sveinsson, formerly of Sigur Rós, lend dialogue to the episode and directive to the guitarists. The performance marks the second iteration of this work by Ragnar Kjartansson, and assumes center stage at the New Museum’s latest exhibition, Ragnar Kjartansson: Me, My Mother, My Father, and I.

Take Me Here by the Dishwasher foregrounds curator Massimiliano Gioni’s investigation of works by Kjartansson in which the artist’s parents play a prominent role. Taken from Morðsaga (1977, directed by Reynir Oddsson), Iceland’s first feature film, the repeated video sequence depicts the artist’s father and mother, both leading actors, consumed by lust. Other works in the exhibition include a new series of drawings done with his father, The Raging Pornographic Sea (2014), and a video collaboration with his mother, Me and My Mother (2000–present), each conceived with the aid of Kjartansson’s parents.

But what value becomes of a systematic inquiry ofKjartansson’s collaboration with his family? And what function does this parental relationship serve in the context of his artistic output? Kjartansson’s work thematizes the mythologies accorded to the artist by a museum-going public during the modernist era. In the pieces currently displayed at the New Museum, and even more so across his body of work, Kjartansson self-stylizes, conducting a parodical rendition of the troubadour, the avant-garde artist, the lounge lizard. And yet, almost in spite of this logic of excerptation and staging, the critical valence of appropriation yields to sincerity in the search for deeper meaning. The show at the New Museum therefore offers insight into Kjartansson’s exploration of the artist’s social position in the period following postmodernism, which has been characterized by the reemergence of romanticism and the desire for shared, if not universal, truths.1

On the subject of avant-garde artists, Rosalind Krauss writes, “The avant-garde artist has worn many guises over the first hundred years of his existence: revolutionary, dandy, anarchist, aesthete, technologist, mystic. He has also preached a variety of creeds. One thing only seems to hold fairly constant in the vanguardist discourse and that is the theme of originality.”2 In Take Me Here by the Dishwasher, Kjartansson confronts the modernist concept of originality in such a way as to frustrate the principle, while reinforcing the idea that the artist designates his own origin. As Krauss notes, originality meant more than a rejection of the past; it constituted a “beginning from ground zero, a birth.”3 As the audience watches the artist’s parents repeatedly act out their sexual desire, Kjartansson’s presence insinuates itself into the action on screen. And consequently, despite not having been conceived at the time, Kjartansson inscribes himself onto Morðsaga’s narrative, dictating the very conditions and reception of his origin.

Indeed, the proliferation of origin myths among avant-garde circles served various purposes. According to Donald Kuspit, the mythologization of the artist attributed a “special perceptual power to him,” which made him a source of authenticity in an inauthentic society, and idealized him for his transmutation of value, for his unique access to primordial truths.4 In the postmodern period, however, artists and theorists questioned the validity of such claims, not least the continued existence of an avant-garde. Society became disabused of its myths, detached and fragmented. Little room was left for artists who spoke of emotions and universal values.

But Kjartansson’s work at the New Museum demonstrates a revived interest in truth and romanticism, myth and the societal function of the avant-garde artist. The Raging Pornographic Sea features a series of crude pencil sketches, whose erratic lines and diffuse presentation evoke subconscious desire and generative virility. Me and My Mother brings to mind serious play and the intimate bond between mother and child. And the unique temporal structure of Take Me Here by the Dishwasher disarticulates the artist from historical progression to dictate the conditions of his own origin, to putatively privilege him to immaterial and universal domains. The New Museum exhibition stands not only as an important showcase for Kjartansson’s work, but also as a schematic for understanding an ongoing paradigm shift in contemporary art. Through an emphatic look at the artist’s work incorporating his family, the exhibition exposes an important dimension of Kjartansson’s practice—that of intimacy—while also suggesting a viewer who is no longer content with postmodern detachment.

Paul Thomas Rubery is a doctoral student in art history at Stony Brook University. His research focuses on European contemporary art and politics.

 NOTES 1. In recent years, groups within critical studies have written extensively on the period succeeding postmodernism and its perceived attributes. While such terms as post-postmodernism, metamodernism, hypermodernism, and altermodernism have been used to describe the contemporary ethos, the competing systems bear many resemblances. Timotheus Vermeulen, the theoretician of metamodernism, provides a similar reading of Kjartansson’s work. 2. Rosalind Krauss, “The Originality of the Avant-Garde,” in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985), 157. 3. Ibid. 4. Donald Kuspit, The Cult of the Avant-Garde Artist (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 2.

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