Tag: body

"I feel like my head is just a camera on a tripod"

Icelandic performance artist Ragnar Kjartansson embraces melancholy with a unique playfulness. His works are demonstrations of how thin the dividing line between happiness and sorrow can be. We talked to him about the male body in art, cemetery strolls and why life should be like Bohemian Rhapsody.
While I was doing research for this interview, I watched some clips of your performances on Youtube and noticed that although I am quite familiar with your work, I have never seen any of it in real life. Is that something you concern yourself with? The way people take in your art.
No, not really. I don’t have a webpage and I’m not on facebook, so I don’t upload anything. But I really like it when people do it for me, when they take videos of my performances and put it up there. They take my work from the art spaces and share it with the world. There’s something liberating in that.
Do you think that Youtube is the right place for your art? The experience of watching a clip of a performance online and watching the actual performance is obviously very different.
Watching my art on Youtube is like looking at a painting in a book. Of course it is not the same. You just get a glimpse of what the whole thing is about. My video pieces very much depend on the image and sound quality and you just don’t have that experience on Youtube. The installations are much more kick-ass.
Digital technologies not only enable people to record and share the art they are witnessing but also to watch it wherever they are. The incentive to travel to a specific piece of art has been reduced, I feel.
Which is a shame because I like this whole Holy-Grail-approach to art, that you have to make an actual effort to see it. But having everything at your disposal can be very convenient. Whenever an uncle or aunt visits and asks me about my latest installations, I can just show them some clips on Youtube. It also reminds me how sloppy I am, when it comes to the Internet. I just don’t really use it that much. I am like an old person. Although, they are pretty good with these things nowadays. So maybe I am like a lazy old person.
Do you feel that performance and multimedia arts are better suited to make that transition from real to digital than, say, sculpture or other, more traditional visual arts?
I am not sure. Visual arts are very much about experiencing and connecting with what you see. A piece only comes alive, when somebody sees it. Now, the viewer also spreads the art he or she sees by posting it online. In that way, the viewer becomes a doer. Performance arts are of course very well suited for this, because they are so dynamic. There is constant movement, which sort of mirrors the ways in which we consume art today. It’s not a static experience; it’s always in flux.
Which is very true for performance art. With a painting or a sculpture, the artist has the luxury of seeking shelter in the studio until he or she is happy with the piece and chooses to present it to the audience. A performance art piece is live and always bears the risk of imminent failure or imperfection. Do you feel that pressure?
Actually, I also like to approach my paintings like that. I tell myself that I don’t have a thousand chances to start from scratch. I really focus and try to do it in that specific moment. At the core, I think all art is about spontaneity. If you would try to reproduce a piece of art at a different moment, the result would probably differ a lot. It’s really the spark of genius that makes a great art piece; the rest is just time and labor. And that also produces some vulnerability. The safety of the studio does not guarantee success – quite the opposite.

RAGNAR KJARTANSSON God, 2007 single channel video Duration: 30 minutes Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik
Commissioned by Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, Vienna & The Living Art Museum, Reykjavik. Photo: Rafael Pinho


Marina Abramovic once told me during an interview, that she needs the risk of failure in order to be creative. Do you feel that too?
I don’t feel that risk of failure during performance pieces. It’s more a take-it-or-leave-it-situation. I come from a theatre background; so performing feels very natural to me. The only time I feel exposed and vulnerable is when I perform something other than performance art. I was in bands when I was younger and that always felt alien and strange.
How so?
Playing music always felt a bit weird, I just feel like an impostor. Music is something very serious in a way. When you don’t hit the notes right or you play too fast or slow, the whole thing crumbles. Performance art is more forgiving, I feel. It’s more the concept behind it that matters. You can do whatever you want, as long as you do it in a convincing way. It gets its legitimacy from your own belief in it. Visual art is always open for interpretation.
Music has more set rules?
Don’t get me wrong: I love music. I am obsessed with it. My role models are mostly musicians. I don’t want to generalize, because ultimately it’s a very personal opinion. Being a musician never came naturally to me, so I personally feel that being an artist gives me much more freedom than being a musician. That’s not to say that that is the case for everybody. I tried hard to be a musician but every time I stood on stage, I just saw the disbelief in the eyes of the audience. And I believed them.
It’s fascinating that you would then choose to continue with visual and performing arts instead of doing something that does not rely on an audience.
It’s not the audience that frightens me; it’s the feeling of not being able to perform with full confidence in what I am doing. The main lesson I took from it is that I should not excuse myself for what I do and just be kick-ass. I had a hard time doing that in music. My godmother, who is a musician, once told me that you should always remember that as an artist, nobody cares about you. Your insecurities are irrelevant to the audience. The audience only cares about the art piece or the song. It’s a good thing to keep in mind.
Don’t you think that the audience very often reads a lot into what you are doing. They question your motives and connect everything to your private life, I feel.
I would not do it, but I know it happens. It’s not necessarily something that happens during live performances, but certainly they question or analyze you as an artist overall. The funny thing is that this is so prone to misinterpretation. I would always be more concerned about the artists that seem completely happy, than the ones that seem to suffer. Growing up, Michael Jackson, Prince and Whitney Houston were the good guys whereas somebody like Nick Cave was regarded a troubled mind and soul. Look at how their lives have developed and you can see why we should not judge a book by its cover. There is a façade of happiness in pop music that conceals the suffering. On the other hand, the dark characters are not necessarily dark, they might just be interested in the full spectrum of human existence – and there is a lot of suffering and agony in that.
That reminds me of your video piece God in which you sing “Sorrow conquers Happiness” to the melody of a very happy and jolly tune. It’s a striking example of how close sorrow and happiness often are.
Sorrow is inevitable and we should face it. We will become sick and eventually die. We just have to be ready for it. A memento mori can make you a happier because sorrow will not take you by surprise when it happens. Being aware of sorrow is the best tactic to deal with it. I live quite close to a cemetery and I love taking walks there. I don’t find it saddening or depressing but rather comforting.
Death is a universal experience and no matter how many people die in the most tragic ways, the world still keeps on turning. I guess there is comfort in realizing how little your own existence matters in the grand scheme of things.
Exactly! We should not take our own existence so seriously. The artist Marcel Duchamp got it right. His tombstone says: Besides, it’s always the others that die. That’s a good last statement.

RAGNAR KJARTANSSON: The End – Venezia, 2009. Six-month performance during which 144 paintings were made. The Iceland Pavilion, Palazzo Michiel dal Brusà, 53rd Venice Biennale, 2009. Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York and i8 Gallery, Reykjavík. Photo: Rafael Pinho


Would you feel offended if I would tell you that I find your work extremely entertaining?
No, why should I?
I feel entertaining is the last thing an artist wants to be.
I hope people find my work entertaining. Entertainment has become synonymous with fake or meaningless forms of expression, but I don’t think that’s fair. Very often, things are entertaining at first and only reveal themselves as something more substantial after some more reflection.
But isn’t there a common belief, that the theatrics of entertainment and authenticity are not compatible. Art is very dichotomous in that respect.
Yes, that belief is widespread. My grandfather was very close to the Swiss artist Dieter Roth who concerned himself a lot with notions of authenticity. To someone like me, who comes from a theatre-family that was very inspiring. I wanted to find a middle-ground between authenticity and theatrics.
To quote Dieter Roth: When faced with a choice, do both.
That’s my motto, yes. I do believe that entertainment is authentic. That’s why we connect with it. Why would you cry during a movie or song if it was not authentic? It’s only when entertainment is bad that we notice it is fake. Entertainment that stays true to itself is never fake.
You have said in previous interviews that we are living in the female century and argued that feminism had a strong impact on your work. Do you feel that there is a difference between male and female art? Especially when it comes to performance art in which the body plays an important role.
In my pieces I really like to play with ideas of the male body because it is so blank in a way. There is much more freedom. The female body is a projection surface for controversy. When art is about the female body, it is immediately heavy and politicized. When I do feature female bodies in my pieces, it is a very conscious choice and I am aware that I might cause controversy or step over the line. Feminist art took control over the female body in art history. So as a male artist, you have to be very careful, respectful and aware of that.

Ragnar Kjartansson Woman in E, 2016 performance Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik Originally presented and organized by Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, Detroit, Michigan. Photo: Andrew Miller


The female body is linked to much more body shame because society still wants women to act and look a certain way. The urge to go against that must be a powerful impetus to create art that breaks those chains.
Yes, there is all this violent patriarchic oppression you have to fight. Having a male body is just so unproblematic in comparison. I often feel like my head is just a camera on a tripod. I am so unconscious of my body because there are not as many oppressing aesthetics around it. Men also have body issues but the difference is that society does not judge them as much.
Another thing that had a big impact on your art is repetition. I connect repetition with boredom and ineffectiveness, which are very negative notions. Is that the same for you?
We do have a negative understanding of repetition. We complain about life being repetitive and want it to be a totally new thing every new day. I recently read Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa and she writes about this woman she met, who told her that she would want to repeat her life in the exact same way, not changing a thing. Blixen writes about how dull and sad that is. She said a small melody can be repeated, but a symphony can not be repeated It ends and you don’t want to hear it again. That’s how Blixen wanted her life to be. That’s a bold statement. When I think about life in terms of music: wouldn’t it be fab to look back and see it as Bohemian Rhapsody?

"The female body is a minefield"

Alexandra Kleeman

In her book “You too can have a body like mine”, writer Alexandra Kleeman describes the absurdity and shame that is linked to our bodies and their perception. We talked to her about the ideal world of pornography, body perfection, and why she distrusts anyone who dislikes Adam Sandler movies.
How much time do you consciously think about your body or appearance?
It varies quite a lot. When I write, the page is completely distracting. I sometimes even forget to eat when I am writing because if I remembered that I had to feed my body, I would also have to remember all the other things that go along with it. It is a very unhealthy attitude but it is healthy to me because it helps me to stay productive and therefore emotionally balanced.
The human body and looks are central themes in your book “You too can have a body like mine”. The characters seem to be very conscious about their bodies and how they look and feel – up to the point of complete obsession. It got me thinking about my own body and how I perceive it and I would say that most of the time when I think about it, I do so unconsciously because it has become a habit.
A lot of my habits for taking care of my body, habits for making my body appear to myself as my body, are deeply engrained. Processes become automatic, we do them without deciding to do them, and then we naturalize the end result. When I see myself 100% unmade-up, I feel like I resemble myself less than if I had just the eyeliner on. Our body rituals don’t take up that much mental space but they do take up a lot of time. When I think about the time I spend doing my routine – scrubbing, exfoliating, etc. – I feel cheated. It is time I could have spent working on something else.
In the book you write, that it is no wonder we care so much about our looks because it is the one thing that sets us apart from each other. It is a very true and yet also a very superficial judgement at the same time.
In terms of our culture, there is all this rhetoric about how people are not all that different from each other. You can shape your inner self to become a different person, one that fits the social surroundings. Our insides are undifferentiated; you can mould them like a piece of clay. In some ways the materiality of our outer selves offers resistance to this idea of infinite changeability. This surface can be altered, but only through labor and only with some pain or discomfort. It refutes the myth of transformation as a painless and liberating process.
The protagonist of the book, a girl called A, is afraid that her roommate, B, is trying to copy her looks and behaviour in order to come as close to her as possible. But it seems like it is not B’s strange behaviour that worries A but the fact that she can be copied and is therefore not unique.
Even though A is the person who is on stronger footing in the friendship, she starts to feel her personality as a delicate configuration of traits that can all be copied or even done better by someone else. She is afraid to realize that her personality is not what she wants it to be and she is nervous that others are able to see it too.

“We are under constant production”

The book’s focus on our body shows how much shame there is involved when we are conscious about our body and its behaviour. A lot of what is very natural, are things we want to cover up or at least ignore.
Yes, we have a measure of control over our bodies so we take on the responsibility of presenting it in an attractive way. We carefully produce images of ourselves that are supposed to reflect our personalities, our inner selves. If you turn on the TV, you can see how the pressure to perfect, fill, and define faces has constricted facial expression, and therefore the expression of emotion. It is almost as if these famous faces are trying to transcend their personhood, turn themselves into a flawless personified brand. When we reckon with our own body, we reckon with a physicality that is in a constant rehearsal process. We are never a finished product. We are under constant production. But there is a lot of shame involved because artificial personalities have become the benchmark, professionalized, weaponized bodies with personalities to match. You cannot compete with perfection.
It seems to me that the body shame in the book is exclusively female. The male character, C, seems very at ease with himself – except for his porn addiction. Was that your intention?
There are probably more similarities between the female and male world of beauty than we might see at first. I think that the female way of dealing with body insecurities is more open and direct, whereas men absorb and internalize these concerns. Men also worry about their weight or their body hair but are trained to reflect on it less, and are definitely trained to keep that type of anxiety contained. Maybe a man’s body also has fewer problem areas than a woman’s – at least in public perception. Our eyes are drawn toward areas that we’ve been taught can betray us, and the female body is a minefield.
C’s fixation on porn is striking because it highlights a pressure that many men feel: to be a true stallion that can satisfy all the women. His fixation is also superficial but on a different level.
When they select men for porn movies, it is less often about types and more often about performance. Women have to fit a certain type or role, they determine the genre of the film. Both are being objectified but in different ways. I wanted to include porn in the book because it does so much nowadays to shape how we perceive the act of sex. With porn, you are transported to this virtual place where you can be anyone in any given scene. It is like a scaffolding for your own fantasies. You even have the luxury of getting bored. In reality, you are more restricted and under pressure. The pleasure from having actual sex with a physical body and the pleasure derived from the limitless, virtual world of porn are profoundly different and yet very linked. It’s maybe similar to comparing books and e-readers.
C takes fantasy – in the form of porn – and tries to put it onto reality by making it part of his relationship with A. He thereby glorifies it because in contrast to the real world, the virtual porn world is a place where no desire is rejected. It is the ideal world of fulfilled desires.
I understand that it is controversial to glorify porn because it is loaded with problems and hidden power structures. Accepting or even liking porn is surely a minority standpoint and as a writer that is interesting to me. I don’t want to focus on how deadening or flattening porn can be, I want to explore why we like it, because it is hyperreal. I think of it as a technologically enhanced imagination space, that helps you expand your fantasies. But as I write in the book, it can also have a very distancing effect. There is a very subjective mixture of fantasies and you might not occupy the same fantasy as the person you are physically engaged with. The situations in the book are designed to show A sharing the same experience with other people but highlighting her discomfort with it. She is maladapted to C’s porn obsession.

“Food now exists for aesthetic pleasure”

One of the sentences that stayed with me after finishing the book is when A says that the female body never truly belongs to the woman. Do you feel that way?
I really feel that to be true, but at the same time I want to assure you that I am happy with myself. It is a problem that has been of interest to me for a long time and especially while working on this book. Being female in public, is an invitation for other people to comment on your looks and behaviour. Your body is unavoidably open to engagement from others who expect you to also engage with them.
Especially with the main character called A, it is easy to draw the conclusion that a lot from the book is autobiographical. The writer Chris Kraus once claimed that as a woman, it is almost impossible to be a-personal and that everything you do is understood to reflect your own experience. Do you feel that too?
I can relate to that, yes. But to write autobiographically, to mirror myself in this way, I’d need to know more about myself than I currently do. Because many events in the book seem out of this world, it should be clear, that this is a fictional account. A is constructed from many feelings and fears that I have, but she is not me. In some ways she exhibits the raw version of fears that I’ve trained myself to metabolize, fears that society defuses. It’s true that most foods were once living flesh—animal or plant matter. At the same time, it’s not useful to society or useful for an individual to keep this fact alive in your day-to-day reality. With A, I wanted to explore life in the modern world without the desensitizing calluses and coping mechanisms I’ve developed.
Food is another central theme of the book. The characters either seem to develop an obsession with it or feel complete disgust. It mirrors how we as a society glorify food but don’t want to know where it comes from or what effect it might have on our bodies. I would argue that people love food but hate the act of eating.
If you check Instagram, you can see how food has become completely detached from its primary use. It now exists for aesthetic pleasure. In a way, we are always asked to define ourselves through our eating habits. Food is the best metaphor for the relationship between an individual and his environment; it is the thing that links our insides to the outside world. In this sense, it’s a problem when that relation becomes visual rather than primarily nutritional.
A refuses to eat anything that is not purely artificial because she fears that by doing so, she would integrate herself into the food chain and be swallowed by something bigger than her eventually. Her reasons are not moral but purely self-protective, it seems.
You could argue that. Have you heard about the research they are doing on extreme caloric restriction? They were feeding one group of monkeys a normal calories-diet and another group a very restricted amount of calories. Over the course of five years, they found that consuming far calories made the monkey appear youthful. They speculated that the more one eats, the more the body is remade using the new materials—which means more chances of making mistakes in the replacement. In short, the finding was that everything you eat in a way speeds up your demise. This makes sense on a technical level, but is the point of life really to resemble yourself for as long as possible?

“A strange world can also offer comfort”

The novel describes the typical anxieties and problems of millennials yet there is very little indicating this: the Internet is virtually absent, instead the characters are all obsessed with TV for example. Was that intentional?
People say that TV is a dying medium and it certainly no longer exists in the way it used to when I was growing up in the 1990s. But it is still a very communal thing, as opposed to the more solipsistic, fractured content of the Internet. When you watch a movie on TV, you know that many other people are also watching this at that very moment. There is a big difference between watching TV all by yourself and watching it with other people – especially when you watch something that is generally regarded as bad or purely entertaining.
Because in a group you could not confess that you actually like what you see if you watch something like Sharknado?
If you watch Sharknado with other people, you adopt the reactions of the group. It is hard to have a private, distinct emotional experience when it is in conflict with the emotions surrounding you. But it is possible to have real emotions in a fake or staged emotional situation. One of the first things that got me watching TV again after college was the TV-series The Bachelorette. I watched this personal drama unfold and sometimes I couldn’t tell real from fake. Obviously the scenery and everything was completely fake but some of the emotions were very real.
I feel like your book does a similar thing by portraying people with real human emotions and fears in a completely surreal environment – not comparing it to The Bachelorette though.
I’m fine with it being compared to that show (laughs). You are right, there are real emotions in the book that take place in an unreal world. The characters in the book struggle with their environment but they are not sure whether the outside world has really gone mad or if they are just unable to cope with it. Also, coming back to The Bachelorette, we have already created a world that is so strange that I as a writer felt compelled to go one step stranger and create this bizarre nature. The only way to de-familiarize an already strangely familiar world is to push it even further. A strange world can also offer comfort.
How so?
I know that romcoms are completely unrealistic and bizarre but I find great comfort in them. I distrust anyone that doesn’t like Adam Sandler movies. I don’t watch romcoms with other people because I don’t want to know what they think about it, I don’t want to hear their critique. I just want to watch the rightness unfold: the good guy getting the girl, the bad guy losing out. I feel that romcoms are modern day myths. They tell a story we aspire to, a pattern we find over and over in the stories we tell about ourselves.
In a way, modern myths are tricky because they are no longer set in a land of fairies or dragons, so it becomes harder for us to understand them in purely mythical terms. We think that a perfect relationship is possible and get frustrated if it does not happen to us.
Yes, we believe that perfect communication in a relationship is possible. There are guides and TV shows telling you how to achieve it but nobody knows what it would be like because it does not exist. I honestly think we need new myths and they should be as detached from reality as possible. Anything else makes it too easy to substitute the myth for a reality.