Repetition compulsion, according to Sigmund Freud, is the drive to re-live an event over and over again, in a seemingly endless cycle. Watching Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson’s work is like a form of repetition compulsion. His performances repeat or extend scenarios to the point where they become absurd, unnerving, comical and abstracted. Despite confusion or exhaustion, viewers cannot look away – compelled to watch one more refrain, stay for one more minute of an eight-hour saga. His current exhibition at the Barbican is the artist’s first retrospective in the UK. The works on show – spanning performance, music, film, painting and drawing – take viewers on an emotional journey through humour and seriousness, from the ridiculous to the sublime.
For Freud, repetition compulsion stems from personal trauma, a private memory lurking in the sufferer’s unconscious mind. In contrast, the details Kjartansson chooses to repeat have a strange universality. In ‘Scenes from Western Culture’ (2015) nine videos play simultaneously, in loops ranging from 19 minutes to 3 hours. These tableaux vivants imagine moments of ‘Western culture claustrophobia’ – stiflingly civilised, cloyingly idyllic scenes. In one, an Icelandic couple make love in a minimal interior. In another, a woman swims perpetual lengths of an outdoor pool. Repetition is deployed in ‘God’ (2007) too, a 30-minute video of the artist singing ‘sorrow conquers happiness’ – again and again and again. Dressed as a seasoned crooner, Kjartansson delivers the mantra with tragicomic sincerity, allowing his words to accumulate meaning with each reprise.
The son of an actress and theatre producer, Kjartansson plays with fiction and theatricality in his work, sometimes creating crudely-made sets and cobbled together costumes. In ‘Death and the Children’ (2002) he guides a group of schoolchildren through a graveyard as he talks to them candidly about mortality and the afterlife. Dressed-up in a black frock coat and brandishing a paper scythe, he adopts the role of death in a performance that is at once philosophical and pantomime-esque. In ‘The Great Unrest’ (2005) the artist appears in costume again, this time as a medieval foot soldier. Slumped in front of a painted set, Kjartansson sings the blues, his sorrowful lament accompanied by moans and guitar riffs playing from tape-recorders strewn across the floor.
Music is one of the many threads running through Kjartansson’s oeuvre. It is one of first things that you encounter as you enter the Barbican show. Ten troubadour-like musicians roam the downstairs space, performing a ten-part polyphonic score for eight hours each day. A soft-focus love scene serves as a backdrop to their performance – a three-minute video loop of a housewife and her fantasy plumber. In reality, the lovers are Kjartansson’s own parents in a clip from the first all-Icelandic feature film of 1977 (rumoured to have been shot at the time when the artist was conceived). The installation, entitled ‘Take Me Here by the Dishwasher: Memorial for a Marriage’ (2011-2014), layers fantasy and autobiography with Kjartansson’s characteristically humorous touch. Freud would have a field day.