I had never heard of Ragnar Kjartansson of before. In art circles he is apparently a big deal. He is an Icelandic artist who works primarily in “living tableaux” but on film, though he also paints, sings songs and does basically anything he feels like. He seems like an interesting artist and I would like to see one of his exhibitions. This film is about is about one such exhibition he put on in Moscow that just happened to coincide with the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Kjartansson’s work is subversive, maybe not as obviously subversive as some, but certainly socially subversive, in addition to being playful, sometimes goofy, sometimes a little more plaintive. He vaguely reminds me of Ai Weiwei, not so much in terms of how he works or, especially, what he says, but more just in terms of the general vibe of using somewhat unconventional art practices to make sociopolitical (and sometimes economic) points in ways that aren’t always instantly obvious to the targets. But I think the comparison is rather weak, the real commonality for me is they are both contemporary artists I’ve watched documentaries about.
Kjartansson is invited to Moscow to do a show. His decision is to put a show containing some of his video work and his paintings, as well as work by artists he admires. As part of the show, he decides to recreate the filming of the soap opera Santa Barbara, that ran for 9 seasons in the ’80s and early ’90s, and which became a big international hit, particularly in Russia, mostly after it had stop airing in the United States. (I should not I have never heard of this show and had never seen a second of it as far as I know.) Russia’s love for this show reminds me of a movie I saw in 2016 called Hotel Dallas, a very different film about another former communist country’s love for an American soap.
So it’s not just the performances of the episodes but the filming of them, the costuming, etc. that gallery visitors could watch while looking at the other art. This decision is his way of dealing with being asked to put on a show in Putin’s Russia and it feels subversive.
But, of course, from the moment Kjartansson arrives in Russia he is forced to start compromising. And what makes this such an interesting and compelling film is how it documents Kjartansson’s compromises – including one he almost makes but doesn’t which really would have been a massive compromise – and his rationalizations for those compromises. (Rationalizations which all of us make.) It then documents how he behaves with others, including reports and people of power, which show something entirely other than an uncompromising art enfant terrible or provocateur. And then, mid show, Russia invades Ukraine.
It’s an incredibly honest and fascinating portrait. Like any good documentary about art and artists, it forces difficult questions on the audience. In this case, about the artist’s responsibility in speaking truth to power, how much compromise with established authority is too much, how much should an artist go along to get along rather than commit wholly to their art, and so forth. But, crucially, it’s also an entertaining film.