Metro Weekly

The Hirshhorn highlights the work of Ragnar Kjartansson

Kjartansson's performance-based artworks are singular in their approach to repetition

Ragnar Kjartansson

“Woman in E” by Ragnar Kjartansson

“The performer is very still and very serious, strumming her E-minor chords very, very gently,” Stephane Aquin says. “It strikes me that this is beauty expressing sorrow.”

The Hirshhorn Museum’s chief curator is describing the live performance piece “Woman in E,” by Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson. Intended as a playful, kitschy commentary on feminine objectification in modern culture, the installation features a gold sequin-clad guitarist performing on a rotating pedestal framed by a wall of gold tinsel. Throughout the day, every day until January, nine area female musicians take turns as the performer. “This is an image of ideal beauty — of course, a little bit exaggerated — expressing the saddest of sorrows through an E-minor chord,” Aquin says.

“Woman in E” is the most recent in a survey of Kjartansson’s performance art works, many never-before-seen in America, presented in collaboration with London’s Barbican museum. Whether performed live, on video or through photography or drawing, the 40-year-old’s work “embraces many aspects of what art is about,” Aquin says. “It speaks of art itself, and through art-making also embraces all aspects of the human condition. And it does so with a seriousness and humor at the same time, which is very, very compelling.”

That includes “Me and My Mother,” an ongoing, absurdist video collaboration with Kjartansson’s actress mother repeatedly spitting in the artist’s face. All of the works, in one way or another, involve repetition, some to the point of monotony. “Repetition brings on a certain contemplation of the nature of the acts we do everyday,” Aquin says. “It brings them into a philosophical zone of questioning.

“It’s truly a 21st century show,” he continues, noting that all the works were created in the past 16 years. “It’s a very impressive body of work,” and one that helps the Hirshhorn “strike a balance between the newer, very daring, innovative practices and more established forms of art of the 20th century.

“It’s about being relevant every time we hit a chord,” Aquin adds — whether it’s in A-major or E-minor. “We have many chords to play, that’s how we see it.”

The exhibition Ragnar Kjartansson runs through Jan. 8 at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue and Seventh Street SW. Call 202-633-1000 or visit

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Doug Rule covers the arts, theater, music, food, nightlife and culture as contributing editor for Metro Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @ruleonwriting.

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