Icelandic Artist Examines the Banality of West Bank Life - Sans Palestinians

It used to be a tool for cultural subversion, but irony is now the weapon of the satiated. That’s the main problem with ‘Architecture and Morality,’ the new exhibition by Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson.

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'Untitled' (2016) by Ratgar Kjartansson, one of 10 paintings of settlement homes in the occupied territories.
'Untitled' (2016) by Ratgar Kjartansson, one of 10 paintings of settlement homes in the occupied territories. Credit: Courtesy of Center for Contemporary Art
Galia Yahav
Galia Yahav
Galia Yahav
Galia Yahav

Irony once possessed the power to shatter things. The weapon of the weak, it was a highly effective stratagem: A witty tactic that was impossible to ignore, which classified communities into sophisticated and mediocre; nave and au courant; sentimental and critical. Today, irony has become an infectious, perhaps fatal, disease. It no longer signifies anything other than self-conscious weakness. Its affected aspect has shed its subversive power and become its purpose. These days, it seems, irony is aimed mostly at itself. It’s aware that it has all been done before and announces this to the viewer, aware of its inability to change reality. And that’s what it exhibits. It’s clear to the ironist that an ambition or passion to generate change is irrelevant. Therein lies irony’s meaning.

Irony is the main problem in the latest exhibition by Ragnar Kjartansson, an Icelandic performance artist with a flourishing international career (he also has a show that’s just opened at The Barbican in London). Kjartansson’s exhibition at the Center for Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv consists of two video works and 10 paintings done during visits to West Bank settlements.

The exhibit has been given the pretentiously ironic title “Architecture and Morality,” taken from the title of a 1981 album by the British synth-pop band Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. The works, driven by conceptual and emotional manipulation, address the sublime ridiculousness of art, or perhaps its ridiculous sublimity.

A scene from the video work 'A Lot of Sorrow' (2013-2014).Credit: Elisabet Davidsdottir

The clearest theme of the exhibition is the show: the appearance, the public, the revelation to the eye. The notion of the show is displayed in the video work “A Lot of Sorrow” (2013-2014), done in collaboration with U.S. indie rock band The National and filmed in the PS1 space of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The band played its song “Sorrow,” which is three minutes and 25 seconds long, repeatedly and without a break for six hours, nine minutes and 35 seconds.

Unsettling the viewer

The other video work, “Song,” is also based on a performance – this one at the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, in 2011. Three women sing repeated passages from Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Song,” nonstop for six hours, as melancholic guitar sounds are heard in the background.

A scene from 'Song,' a video work. 2011.Credit: Joshua Franzos / Carnegie Museum

The repetitive element and stretching of time constitute a deliberate effort to unsettle the viewer, to convert them into the ideal spectator (who cannot actually exist in reality, since the gallery’s opening hours are shorter than the works’ duration). The point here is not so much the video’s content but exaggeration, an illustration of representation overcoming reality, like a watch chasing its own hands with a kind of annoying precision (the pampered insistence on noting the minutes and seconds).

That exaggeration is also a joke at the expense of the “serious” and “true” enduring artists, who believe in time’s accumulation as a meaningful value. We are supposed to imagine what we will feel and experience if we watch a song that seems to be stuck and repeats itself, to think how excruciatingly bored we will be, and how we will struggle inwardly between the desire to walk out and the urge to persevere and stay. But none of this actually happens: it’s all a simulated experience.

'Untitled' (2016) by Ratgar Kjartansson, one of 10 paintings of settlement homes in the occupied territories.Credit: Courtesy of Center for Contemporary Art

The focus on appearance as an end also pervades the 10 paintings of settlers’ homes. The houses are rendered separately, one per painting. All of them are drawn from the front and fill the canvas in the same way and from the same distance. The style is blatantlyamateurish and nave, as though from a hobby group, deliberately bland, with obedient brushstrokes and a filling of blank spaces, turgid coloration and pedantically mimetic attention to detail.

The result is a small, suburban neighborhood of villas, completely artificial, in which little Israeli flags attached to parked cars wave in the breeze and larger ones flop from the windows of houses. Without addresses or names of specific settlements, this artistic tactic poses with feigned innocence in the likeness of a 19th-century pilgrimage, in which the Holy Land is portrayed through misty eyes.

Perhaps the idea was to depict a generic quality of life rife with sated insensitivity – architecture as amorality. Or perhaps it’s the realization of violent fantasy through painting: the occupied territories without Palestinians, a heaven on earth.

The paintings “tell a story about the banality of everyday life amid complex political turmoil,” the curator, Chen Tamir, writes, suggesting a censored paraphrase of Hannah Arendt. The disparity between the anemic allusion to the “banality of evil” and the unsatisfying artwork is supposed to trigger the viewer’s frustration, stir in him the feeling and thought that art is unsuccessful in representing evil – that it only assesses its own failure. Ultimately, Tamir continues, the exhibition “is a bold statement on art’s futility in the face of social and political strife.”

She also states: “In any medium he uses, Kjartansson looks at pretending and staging as ways in which an artist can explore sincere emotion, employing romantic suffering and Weltschmerz.” She then quotes from the catalog of the artist’s exhibition at the New Museum in New York: “Kjartansson both celebrates and derides the romanticized figure of the artist as a cultural hero.”

'Untitled' (2016) by Ratgar Kjartansson, one of 10 paintings of settlement homes in the occupied territories. Credit: Courtesy of Center for Contemporary Art

The truth is that it’s not really important whether Kjartansson is a Romanticist who uses sarcasm, or the opposite, or whether conceptual art is his camouflage. A New Yorker article by Calvin Tomkins in April quotes him as predicting that neither Israelis nor Palestinians would like the exhibition (he somehow imagined that Palestinians would be able to access the Tel Aviv gallery). Tomkins quotes Kjartansson as saying, “It’s just boring suburban architecture, but right now these are the most conflicted houses on earth.”

Be that as it may, the worried/sated equanimity of his work proves that irony is the new cool – a style that foists itself on reality and eradicates it. Worse, irony is the contemporary incarnation of postmodernism, according to which everything is only representation anyway, a curtain of contrivance, rhetoric.

Center for Contemporary Art, 2a Tsadok Hacohen Street, corner of Kalisher Street, Tel Aviv, (03) 510-6111; Mon.-Thurs. 14:00-19:00, Fri.-Sat. 10:00-14:00; until August 6.

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