The Icelandic Artist Ragnar Kjartansson’s Latest Project? Exposing How Misogynistic American Pop Music Is

The artist takes on the patriarchy in his new performance in San Francisco.

Performers in Ragnar Kjartansson's Romantic Songs of the Patriarchy at C Project. Photo by Quinn Gravier, courtesy of C Project.

“In Iceland, feminism is a very big thing,” says Ragnar Kjartansson, who spoke to artnet News the night before flying from Reykjavik to San Francisco to stage his new durational performance, Romantic Songs of the Patriarchy—a work uniquely informed by Icelandic culture.

“In America, you ‘check your privilege,'” he says. “In Iceland, it’s often said that you must put on your gender glasses to realize how things are patriarchal. It’s a really good expression.” As part of that, he says, “it’s a common thing to listen to American pop songs and laugh about how misogynist they are.” (The classic example, Kjartansson says, is “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke. “People really realized ‘Oh my God, that’s a super skeezy song!’ It’s an upbeat song about a really rape-like situation.”)

That joke is pretty much the basis for his latest work, which opens tonight at the Women’s Building and inaugurates the launch of C Project, San Francisco’s new performance art institution from local collector Carla Emil. “So often an art piece is a joke that goes too far and becomes a piece,” Kjartansson says. “That’s what I consider the craft of the conceptual artist.”

Ragnar Kjartansson in front of the MAESTRAPEACE Mural at the San Francisco Women's Building. Photo by Quinn Gravier.

Ragnar Kjartansson in front of the MAESTRAPEACE Mural at the San Francisco Women’s Building. Photo by Quinn Gravier.

The joke, in this case, has evolved quite a bit. Kjartansson has assembled a playlist of 26 songs, some of which are overtly sexist, others more subtle reflections of the patriarchy, but all “outrageous in very different ways.” There’s Billy Joel’s “She’s Always a Woman,” Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man,” Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer”—famous for repeating the poetic lyric “I want to fuck you like an animal”—and the country song with the refrain “you say it best when you say nothing at all.”

“It’s like, ‘shut up woman!'” Kjartansson laughs. “It’s so terrible, but it’s written with such good intentions. What I find important is that these are not mean songs by mean men. It’s the fine threads in our culture that are demeaning to women.”

In a three-day performance, 31 female acoustic guitar players will perform all of the songs at the same time. (“We did a test with both men and women, but then it was kind of too violent or something,” the artist says.)

To make it all cohere, the songs have been rearranged by Kjartan Sveinsson and Kendra McKinley so that they’re all in the same key and become one unified musical piece. “They create a tapestry of sonic structures. It’s not a cacophony, and he’s made them all extra beautiful,” says Kjartansson, who is particularly looking forward to the transformation of “Bitches Love Me” by Lil Wayne.

“It’s played in this very crystal, gorgeous manner,” Kjartansson says. “It really turns the meaning of the song upside down and you start looking at the song like a painting.”

Music has loomed large in Kjartansson’s work since he was in art school, when “my secret mission was to become a pop star,” he says. Since then he’s become known for his durational music performances, of which Romantic Songs of the Patriarchy is the latest.

The new work was a natural progression for the artist, who has always considered himself a feminist. “I’ve been thinking about all the hidden violence of the patriarchy, and songs are such a good example of the fabric of our culture,” he said. “I look at it as a portrait of the battlefield of equality that we’re standing on.”

At the same time, Kjartansson adds, he’s not condemning the music. “I don’t judge these songs. They’re all great songs,” he says. “I’m a fierce fighter for artists not being moralists. In a way that’s such a Victorian stance”


“Ragnar Kjartansson: Romantic Songs of the Patriarchy” is on view at the Women’s Building, 3543 18th Street #8, the Mission, San Francisco, November 9–11, 2018.

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