by Elizabeth Keto, Harvard College
Originally published in the 2017 edition.
Nothing in art is so true that its opposite cannot be made even truer.
“Irony, be gone,” declared Adam Weinberg, director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, as he opened the 2017 Whitney Biennial.1 As Weinberg’s statement suggests, the question of whether artists must mean what they say plays a central role in contemporary discourses surrounding the social role and ethical obligations of art. Yet a reconsideration of some contemporary works suggests that the answer may not be as simple as Weinberg’s summary dismissal of irony. Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson’s 2008 Blossoming Trees Performance brings to light some of the risks, contradictions, and rewards of irony as a mode of artistic practice. In Blossoming Trees, Kjartansson’s elaborate performance of the creative process becomes an ironic comment on past and present constructions of artistic identity. Irony in Kjartansson’s work thus has the potential to function as a powerful tool of historical awareness and self- and institutional critique. Kjartansson’s exploration of ironic speech and authorship also complicates fundamental narratives about the relationship between artist and viewer in a postmodern world.
Born in 1976 in Reykjavik, Kjartansson works across and between visual art, music, film, and theater. References to European cultural history and the use of repetition characterize much of his performative practice. In his Blossoming Trees Performance, Kjartansson spent two days at a historic estate in the Hudson River Valley, acting the part of a landscape painter. Photographs of the performance show Kjartansson painting en plein air, and an accompanying caption, handwritten by the artist, reads: “Took the train to rokeby farm, upstate new york on the 20th of june. Stayed there for two days painting the trees. The sun was fierce on the first day, on the second there was rain, thunder and quite exquisite light. Did seven canvases and enjoyed myself in the 19th-century mansion. Smoked cigars, drank beer and read lolita. Returned back to new york city on the 22nd.”2 Presented alongside the photographs in the 2008 installation of the work are the seven forest landscapes Kjartansson produced while in Rokeby.
Kjartansson’s activities—painting with a handkerchief draped over his head to protect him from the sun, smoking cigars, reading Lolita—appear self-indulgently, even exaggeratedly focused on aesthetics. The product of his labor—technically unremarkable, formally conservative paintings that appear to lack conceptual rigor—largely fails to justify his efforts. The small rectangular paintings are empty of human figures and dominated by murky shades of gray, brown, green, and blue. The summarily sketched-in trees, formless backgrounds, dull colors, and absence of visual incident in the paintings offer few formal clues to any meaning inherent in them. Given the artist’s emphatic self-construction as a painter and the insignificance of the paintings themselves, the performance reads as an ironic critique of the trope of the artist that it enacts.
Understood in this sense, Kjartansson’s performance becomes self-critical and even democratic in that it relies on the participation of a knowledgeable viewer whose own understanding completes the work. Kjartansson allows the viewer to become a co-producer of the work’s meaning, a common function in many contemporary artists’ works. Yet a deeper examination of the assumptions that make it possible for Kjartansson’s performance to function as irony reveal that this participatory quality may contain distinctly undemocratic undercurrents. The viewer understands the performance as ironic because they assume, in part due to the validating function of the gallery or museum in which the work is shown, that Kjartansson is a serious artist, one who would not simply present the viewer with unremarkable landscape paintings. In effect, the viewer assumes Kjartansson’s legitimacy as an artist as a given even before judging his work. This ironic mode of communication also tends to hierarchize the work’s viewers. As H.W. Fowler writes, “Irony is a form of utterance that postulates a double audience, consisting of one party that hearing shall hear and shall not understand, and another party that, when more is meant than meets the ear, is aware both of that more and of the outsiders’ incomprehension.”3 The knowledgeable viewer profits from assuming that Kjartansson is working ironically, as understanding Kjartansson’s work as ironic places said viewer in the latter category. Kjartansson’s work thus both subverts and reaffirms traditional structures of privilege in artistic practice and reception. And if Kjartansson’s performance seems on the surface to mock the figure of the artist, it also evades any criticism of that artist’s material production, which Kjartansson has already implied is of secondary importance. These hierarchizing effects and preemptive limiting of dialogue may render irony problematic as a mode of artistic expression or social critique.
However, the historically specific artistic identity that Kjartansson performs suggests the possibility of understanding irony as a productive, even necessary form of speech. The solitary reckoning with nature that Kjartansson performed, and the dreamy landscapes that he produced, in Blossoming Trees reflect his engagement with nineteenth-century Romanticism. For the Romantics, the essence of art was its irony, its attempt to represent that which defied representation, its futile yet heroic gesturing to the unseen.4 Caspar David Friedrich, whose work contemporary critics have frequently identified as a referent for Kjartansson’s, lived at the center of a circle of painters, poets, and philosophers in nineteenth-century Dresden who were deeply influenced by German Romantic ideas.5 In his own writing, Friedrich discussed the painter’s role as essentially ironic.6 He wrote that “the artist must act as the intermediary between man and nature… for mankind cannot comprehend its meaning.”7 The painter must present a mediated image, an image that is something other than the natural world which he seeks to represent, and it is only this otherness that makes the image comprehensible to the viewer. For Friedrich, all representational painting worked through irony. The slippages between nature itself and nature given visual form, between the object to be represented and the image seen, between intention and expression, in fact allow the work of art to communicate.
Kjartansson’s paintings echo Friedrich’s twilit forests, such as the small painting Evening. Both the place and time of this painting gesture to its finitude, its status as a fragment of a larger whole. The trees visible in the painting repeat themselves in the viewer’s imagination so as to form an entire forest, while the fading sunlight suggests a fleeting impression rather than an eternal view, a particular moment in the flux of the hours. Evening is part of a cycle of four paintings of wooded landscapes set at different times of day, and each of Kjartansson’s own small paintings, like Friedrich’s, represents a slightly different forest scene at a different time of day, suggesting in turn a certain fragmentary quality. Their group installation emphasizes that each painting functions as a part of a whole rather than as a complete, autonomous work. The avowal seemingly contained in Kjartansson’s work—that nothing can be said fully—makes him (paradoxically) both skeptically self-aware and in a quintessentially Romantic pursuit of the real.
Kjartansson’s relationship to the Romantic artistic identity thus involves not only ironic mockery, but also earnest engagement. As Kjartansson explains in an interview in 2009, “I always feel like I am performing. It is this thing about pretending to be an artist. The process is very important. Like the Blossoming Trees Performance, which was about a trip to upstate New York with an easel and sunglasses, but not the paintings as a final result. But there is a paradox. I sincerely love painting and drawing, this is nothing ironical.”8 The boundary between irony and sincerity in Kjartansson’s artistic identity remains perpetually ambiguous. Kjartansson claims that he does not sincerely feel himself to be an artist, but he can still sincerely make art, by relocating the significance of the artist’s action from the finished works to the process. This relocation has the potential to be liberating, in that allowing the artist’s work to assume a greater significance than the identity of the artist might allow for the construction of a more inclusive, less historically determined understanding of who can make art.
Blossoming Trees Performance thus works by paradox in terms of its social and cultural implications. As discussed above, the work operates by cultural elitism in its reinforcement of the privileges of the artist, the institution displaying it, and the knowledgeable viewer, but it also undermines this elitism by mocking the Romantic figure of the heroic artist and inviting the imaginative participation of the viewer to fully render the work. In its very refusal to take a clear stance on the identity of the artist, Kjartansson’s work denies the kind of authority traditionally connected with authorship.
Yet Kjartansson’s paradoxical, ironic work also brings to light some of the tensions inherent in this very denial. The work calls into question not only traditional, but also postmodern concepts of the artist-viewer or author-reader relationship. In his 1967 essay “The Death of the Author,” Roland Barthes writes that “a text consists of multiple writings, issuing from several cultures and entering into dialogue with each other, into parody, into contestation; but there is one place where this multiplicity is collected, united, and this place is not the author…but the reader.”9 Where Barthes casts this shift to a postmodern understanding of authorship as liberatory, as “the birth of the reader,” Kjartansson’s performance complicates that narrative.10 Kjartansson’s use of ironic or parodic historical citation enacts Barthes’ vision of the multiplied author, but the inherent double audience of irony also brings up issues of exclusion and unequal social power on the side of the reader. The ability to understand a work of art as a palimpsest of citations requires prior knowledge and experience, meaning that the postmodern conception of the artist-viewer relationship may prove liberatory only for those who already enjoy some degree of cultural capital.
Multifaceted and elusive, Blossoming Trees Performance raises the question of whether the use of irony as a mode of expression precipitates the proliferation of possible meanings or simply causes meaning to break down. Yet even as Kjartansson acknowledges the potential for irony to undermine expression and communication, Blossoming Trees also suggests its power to extend the communicative life of a work of art. Kjartansson has spoken about what he terms the artist’s “immortal complex,” a desire to defeat mortality through the work of art. Kjartansson had added that “[t]his is the phenomenon you have when you document art performances—thinking of the present as historical past.”11 Blossoming Trees employs photographic documentation to secure its physical endurance, yet the strategy that most secures the enduring meaning of Kjartansson’s work is irony. An artwork might be sincere in its own present, but in the future it will speak out of context. Read as meaning other than what it intends, the work will disclose unknown multiplicities of possible significance. Blossoming Trees itself enacts this process: Kjartansson’s actions may have been sincere in the nineteenth century, but they are inescapably ironic today. Art historian Joseph Leo Koerner has written, “Landscape can replace history painting because the impulse to paint landscape is itself the mark of our place in time.”12 Kjartansson places both artist and viewer in a complex, fragmented cultural landscape, in which any act of communication is fraught with both difficulty and possibility. Nostalgic as they seem, Kjartansson’s landscape paintings are able to picture the contemporary as a complex, densely woven web of different temporalities, containing both fragments of history and many potential futures.
1. Josephine Livingstone, “The Cutting-Edge Sincerity of the Whitney Biennial,” New Republic, March 16, 2017.
2. Florencia Malbrán, “Blossoming Trees Performance,” in Ragnar Kjartansson, The End, ed. Christian Schoen (Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz, 2009), 52.
3. H.W. Fowler, Fowler’s Modern English Usage, ed. R.W. Burchfield, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
4. Claire Colebrook, Irony (New York and London: Routledge, 2004), 48.
5. Anne Midgette, “Ragnar Kjartansson’s exuberant work at Hirshhorn is a party celebrating mediocrity,” The Washington Post, October 17, 2016.
6. Linda Siegel, “Synaesthesia and the Paintings of Caspar David Friedrich,” Art Journal 33:3 (1974): 196.
7. Siegel, “Synaesthesia,” 200.
8. Ragnar Kjartansson, interview with Christian Schoen, in Kjartansson, The End, 73.
9. Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” Image, Music, Text, trans. Stephen Heath. (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978), 146.
10. Barthes, 148.
11. Kjartansson, 71.
12. Joseph Leo Koerner, Caspar David Friedrich and the Subject of Landscape, 2nd ed. (London: Reaktion Books, 2009), 262.
Colebrook, Claire. Irony. New York and London: Routledge, 2004.
Fowler, H.W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Ed. R.W. Burchfield, 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Kjartansson, Ragnar. The End. Ed. Christian Schoen. Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz, 2009.
Koerner, Joseph Leo. Caspar David Friedrich and the Subject of Landscape. 2nd ed. London: Reaktion Books, 2009.
Livingstone, Josephine. “The Cutting-Edge Sincerity of the Whitney Biennial.” New Republic. March 16, 2017.
Midgette, Anne. “Ragnar Kjartansson’s exuberant work at Hirshhorn is a party celebrating mediocrity.” The Washington Post. October 17, 2016.
Siegel, Linda. “Synaesthesia and the Paintings of Caspar David Friedrich.” Art Journal 33:3 (Spring 1974): 196-204.
Steinberg, Leo. Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).