Ragnar Kjartansson is a widely exhibited Icelandic performance artist. In a 2002 work called Death and the Children, he dressed up in a dark suit and carried a scythe, leading young children through a cemetery, answering their questions. In a 2006 live performance titled Sorrow Conquers Happiness, he wore a tuxedo and played the role of a 1940s nightclub crooner with an orchestra, singing, “Sorrow conquers happiness” over and over as the music swelled. In 2011, Kjartansson won the inaugural Malcolm Award at Performa 11, the visual art performance biennial, for his 12-hour work Bliss, which was performed without a break at the Abrons Arts Center on the Lower East Side of Manhattan with repeated performances of the finale of Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro,” the moment when the count gets down on one knee and asks his wife for forgiveness, which she grants in an aria. Icelandic tenor Kristjan Johannson played the count.
For his exhibition titled Architecture and Morality, at the Center for Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv this season, Kjartansson, according to a press release, was going to “create a new, ambitious body of paintings within the specific context of Israel. He will spend two weeks painting the urban landscapes in the West Bank ‘En plein air’ (a fancy French term the press release misspelled and which means ‘outdoors’) akin to his performative painting practice over the past few years.”
So Ragnar Kjartansson took his canvas and stand and paints and brushes and went en plein air to various Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria, and what he brought back was, well, not so bad. He painted what he saw (a paraphrase on the New Yorker’s surrealist Gahan Wilson’s book of horror cartoons), and apparently he saw none of the blood curdling evil normally associated with the term “settlements” on the corner of south Tel Aviv’s Tsadok Hacohen and Kalisher Streets, which is where the CCA is located.
Or, as Galia Yahav put it in Ha’aretz this weekend, “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 blatantly amateurish and naïve, 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.”
But, most upsetting, from Yahav’s point of view, “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.”
In other words, this cutting-edge performance artist, who was going to do to the settlements what Edvard Munch did the screaming, came away from those colonialist, apartheid-dispensing satanic neighborhoods with a fairly bland set of impressions, which is what one could expect from suburban bedroom communities anywhere.
“Perhaps the idea was to depict a generic quality of life rife with sated insensitivity – architecture as amorality,” Yahav tried to dig up some evil from under those middle class shaggy rugs. “Or perhaps it’s the realization of violent fantasy through painting: the occupied territories without Palestinians, a heaven on earth.”
Curator Chen Tamir wrote that Kjartansson’s settlements paintings “tell a story about the banality of everyday life amid complex political turmoil.” Maybe. But it ain’t in those paintings. Indeed, Tamir conceded that the entire Kjartansson exhibition “is a bold statement on art’s futility in the face of social and political strife.”
Or maybe, just maybe, the Icelandic artist discovered and then made a point leftwing art critics can’t afford to admit: that things in those Jewish settlements and in all of Judea and Samaria, just aren’t nearly as bad as they are in many other, more troubled places, such as London, Paris, Brussels, Nice and Istanbul.