In the City of Light, It’s All About the Sublime, Or Maybe Wonder


In the City of Light, It’s All About the Sublime, Or Maybe Wonder

Introducing Laxness' World Light (still from World Light — The Life and Death of an Artist). Luhring Augustine (New York) & i8 Gallery (Reykjavik). Photo: Courtesy of the artist

How do you get to transcendence? For Ragnar Kjartansson, it’s via silliness, high-jinx, examination of the obvious, repetition. His biggest show yet, Seul celui qui connaît le désir, at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, includes “scenery” paintings, souvenirs from performances in the form of watercolors or paintings, three video installations and a live performance piece. All contain his characteristic mix of goofiness and the sublime—proportions may vary.

World Light — The Life and Death of an Artist (2015), a movie made as a month-long performance project at Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary in Vienna, is one of the larger works in the show. Scenes from Halldór Laxness’s World Light, enacted by English-speaking Icelanders, are shown simultaneously on four screens surrounding a seating area. Conventional realism is out; joy in fake-ness (the beginning and end of each cut is shown, multiple cuts are included, the scenery is clearly painted) and gleeful exaggeration (or possibly just delight at the extravagance of the novel) are in. Ragnar is a white-jacketed MC, introducing the piece and wandering through the scenes as a guide. It's maximum silliness, and, with its Icelandic subject matter and jokes, also feels very insider-y.

Dinner at the 21 club (excerpt from Scenes from Western Culture). Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine (New York) & i8 Gallery (Reykjavik). Photo: Aurélien Mole.

Eight angled screens, each showing a moment from life in the developed world today, make up Scenes from Western Culture (2015). We see children playing, a dog sleeping in front of a grandfather clock, a couple having sex, a cabin on fire, a solitary man smoking, a woman swimming laps as her yapping dog runs alongside, a couple enjoying a fancy restaurant dinner, a boating expedition. There is enough silliness (for instance, that over-excited dog) to ward off glorification of the Western everyday, ad-like. Still, a response of gratitude towards one's western life, in all its flawed coziness, is entirely possible.

Bonjour (2015) consists of two actors performing a single, looping scene on a dollhouse-like set. The set, conceived to be a compendium of French clichés, includes, to the left, a pale green house with a feminine upstairs bedroom visible, and, to the right, a second house containing a more masculine living room with seating and a piano. A fountain, seemingly made of papier mâché, and releasing several small streams of water, takes up the center; clearly, it's a stand-in for the village square.

Side view of the Bonjour set. Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine (New York) & i8 Gallery (Reykjavik). Photo: Aurélien Mole.

At most times during opening hours, two actors, a man and a woman, inhabit the set. You might catch them busying themselves with small tasks, she in the upstairs bedroom, he in the living room. Suddenly, at almost the same moment, they step out to the central square. She is getting water for her flowers, he taking a smoke break. They look at one another. “Bonjour,” he says. “Bonjour,” she replies. She finishes filling the vase, turns back to her house, glances longingly back at him. He finishes his cigarette, pretends not to look at her, goes back to his house. They busy themselves with small tasks.

The repetition of the scene makes it poignant. It seems to stand for something universal and important, or maybe something silly and sentimental. The presence of live actors gives it an immediacy not found in the other work in the exhibition. Alchemy, at last.

Ólafur Elíasson, another artist with Icelandic roots and an early December show in Paris, takes a different path. He starts with seriousness. Forget prettiness, or even beauty: his exhibition, arranged in conjunction with the Paris climate talks, has, as its stated goal, nothing less than global transformation. On his website, Ólafur says that Ice Watch 2015 will bring ice from a Greenlandic glacier to Paris, allowing people to watch it melt. This will make global warming's effects concrete, and help to spur mitigating action.

Touching a piece of Greenlandic glacier. Photo: S. Anne Steinberg.

Approaching the plaza from a few blocks away, twelve chunks of glacier, arranged in a circle, glow against the dark brown, hill-top Panthéon. The central block stands upright, like the prow of a ship. There’s a crowd: the chunks are people-sized, bits of pure nature dropped in an urban environment, and fascination couldn't be greater. Each dense-white block has a different, jagged shape, and in some, you can see the layers that record the history of their formation. It’s hard not to touch them.

Recent news reports indicate some success in the climate talks. It seems unlikely, though, that this outcome is in any meaningful way due to Ice Watch 2015. After all, it's not difficult to imagine the effect of warming on ice. Yet the exhibition was enormously pleasing. Walking away, that seemed like enough.

“Seul celui qui connaît le désir” continues through January 10.

S. Anne Steinberg – [email protected] S. Anne Steinberg has been looking at art around Reykjavík for a few years now. Her cryptic notes on this activity can be found on @myndlist_list on Twitter.​

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