Figures in white lab coats roam a man-made landscape, pause, and kill time. They come to us as representatives of logic, science, and human progress. We have seen such images before, heroically depicted on the facades of Soviet bas-reliefs, for example, or in Diego Rivera’s Ford Motor Company murals. Only now we are in the 21st century, however, and man is no longer the rational master of his surroundings, but rather a scourge, seemingly intent on the earth’s destruction.
In Figures in Landscape, Ragnar Kjartansson celebrates the humanist spirit as a child of his time, with a hint of irony and taking full advantage of the technological advances that make this enormous video work possible. Comprised of seven distinct scenes, each 24-hours long, the complete piece takes an entire week to view. Each scene unfolds in a different archetypal landscape, like desktop screen savers but hand-painted as film sets. Man is confronted with nature but does little more than wander around or rest, waiting for a heroic deed that will never come.Viewers can use the work to mark time or to situate themselves at different points in the day, but the fate of the work over time will also be a reflection of its own time, as nothing is truly timeless.
Kjartansson once heard a story of Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks meeting on a film set where Fairbanks was shooting. Fairbanks shows Chaplin an enormous castle that has been built, complete with a drawbridge, and asks what kind of scene he would shoot there if he was the director. Chaplin replies that he would lower the drawbridge, the Tramp would appear, bring in the milk bottle, and let out the cat. For Kjartansson, the story resonates. In a single gesture, Chaplin has taken down a symbol of the sublime, one associated with heroic deeds and victory.
Influenced early on by artists such as Marina Abramovic and Chris Burden, Kjartansson has been testing his own stamina and endurance, and what can be achieved with repetition over time. In Figures in Landscape, the artist is no longer alone but has co-workers in the repetition. In fact, we could all define ourselves as co-workers of sorts, repeating the same actions in our everyday lives, delivering hour after hour of sheer presence in the workplace. The museum guard protecting Kjartansson’s work is no less tested than the artist, standing day after day, with little movement, ensuring the safety of the guests and artwork.
As indicated by his handmade sets, Kjartansson adoptsthe artistic stance that nature is a Romantic symbol of the sublime, a stage for storytelling. He does not look to nature for facts about volcanic eruptions and land formations, but rather searches for stories of valiant acts by chieftains or the tragic destiny of a poor farmer. It is in these landscapes that his figures of rationality and human progress roam and wait, as if to reassure us of their continued conviction that science is still the source of every great deed.