Ragnar Kjartansson: Designing and Displaying the Artist’s Video Installations

On exhibit through Jan. 8 at the Hirshhorn Museum is a retrospective of internationally renowned Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson's highly personal, sometimes ironic artwork.
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The Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum combines traditional art installations with performance and audiovisual works to deliver a singular gallery experience to patrons on Washington, D.C.’s National Mall. The Hirshhorn’s hollow-centered three-story elevated cylinder (shaped like a projector’s slide carousel) was designed by Gordon Bunshaft as a “large piece of functional sculpture” that challenges museum curators to stage exhibits in a way that remains truthful to the artist’s creative intent while accommodating the building’s unusual round structure.

On exhibit through Jan. 8 is a retrospective of internationally renowned Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson, whose highly personal, sometimes ironic artwork combines performance art and multiscreen video installations with more traditional pieces, such as drawings and paintings.

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Ragnar Kjartansson’s "The Visitors" on display.

Other retrospectives of Kjartansson’s work have been staged, but for Stéphane Aquin, the Hirshhorn’s chief curator, this presentation is still a one-off, shaped and designed for this particular venue. “I learned the Barbican in London was preparing an exhibit,” he says of the origin of this project. “We spoke with them and Ragnar about having an exhibition in our space. Many of the works are the same, but they had to be represented in different ways.”

Of video art, he says, “You have to interpret the work based on presentation, unlike painting or sculpture. A 16-foot screen, for example, is very ‘cinematic,’ while a 12-foot screen is more ‘pictorial.’ A video installation has so many components to discuss. You work on the conceptual and narrative elements and then the logistical. If you have a nine-screen installation, where do you put the screens? How big should they be? Where can the projectors be located and what lenses are required? There are consequences of all these decisions.”

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Ragnar Kjartansson, “Me and My Mother", 2000.

“The ideal way to view a piece of visual art like a painting is inside a white cube, so you see the work with no distraction,” says Drew Doucette, the museum’s time-based media coordinator who oversees all such considerations for the Hirshhorn. In the case of the Kjartansson retrospective, Doucette worked for nearly a year with the artist’s technical representatives to set up the various installations. Among the artist’s unusual pieces is “Me and My Mother,” which consists of four loops of tape he recorded over the years of his mother, Icelandic actress Guðrún Ásmundsdóttir, spitting in his face.

“We decided to put that on four smaller screens inside one gallery,” Doucette explains. “The first one he shot was done in 2000, when he was young. Then he did another in 2005, one in 2010, and the last one was shot in 2015. The first two really don’t look very good technically. If you try to stretch the image out any larger, it won’t hold up. But there’s another work from that period, a black-and-white short film, and it works very well on a 20-foot screen—as something cinematic, larger than life. For that project, ‘The Children,’ the artist is dressed rather flimsily to look like Death and he leads a group of young children through a cemetery. That works as a single screen filling up a gallery.”

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Ragnar Kjartansson, “God", 2007.

Sometimes there are questions about format conversions. Material rarely comes in as finished media. “Often we get the video in an uncompressed format,” Doucette says. “We’ll play it in an uncompressed format if the budget allows, if we can get Doremi Nugget or Blackmagic Design video players for uncompressed files, but we often have to re-encode from the uncompressed media down to something more manageable, like about 35 Mb/s,” and play out on the museum’s BrightSign servers.

Kjartansson’s New York-based technical consultants did encode the initial video files before the exhibition so the Hirshhorn team could confirm the formats, codecs and frame rates. “But with some of the older videos, I’m not sure if those artifacts are supposed to be in there”—noise, grain, scan lines and the rest could be part of the intent—“or if it’s gone through a poor transcode. Somebody has to look at that and find out what’s intended,” Doucette explains.

“It turns out the files he sent for ‘Me and My Mother’ had been up-resed to 1920 x 1080 50p, but when we put them on the BrightSign and started playing them back, it actually looked like we were having field order issues. The motion was getting really distorted. We had to re-encode and change the script we had written for the BrightSign so the video would run at 60 fps. That cleared up the motion issues, but it also washed out the image slightly.”

Doucette, who also produces video for the museum’s web site and YouTube channel, often uses Henninger Media Services in nearby Arlington, Va., for video conversions, the creation of exhibition copies and long-term preservation of media.

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Ragnar Kjartansson, “The Visitors", 2007.

The two video pieces to which they devoted the most resources in this retrospective were “The Visitors,” a nine-channel synched musical piece, and “World Light,” a four-channel non-synched piece.

“That one is really interesting to talk about,” Doucette says of “The Visitors.” “We weren’t able to put it in a gallery large enough to be displayed the way the artist had intended.” To deliver an appropriately large, cinematic image, the projectors needed to be 23 feet from the screen, which meant that viewers could only get 12 feet from the screen before they would start blocking the image.

“We got brand new Christie DHD951-Q series projectors with the ultra-short throw lens,” Doucette says. “We put a lot of our budget into the lenses for the projectors. They are expensive, but the throw distance for that lens is only about 3 feet, and we were able to get almost a 14-foot image out of that! I started getting calls the first week from people asking about those lenses and projectors because it changed the experience of the artwork. Because the lenses are such a short throw, the projectors are up high, out of the way, and you can get within 2 feet of the actual screen that you’re projecting onto without blocking the image. We couldn’t have done that with any other lens.”

While contemporary art enthusiasts may be familiar with pieces meant to be experienced over a period of time, the Hirshhorn’s location on the National Mall brings visitors unaccustomed to installations that divulge their meaning only reluctantly and on their own timetable.

“You can whiz by a painting,” Aquin allows, “but that is an illusion, actually. A lot of paintings require you to sit down for a half hour or 45 minutes to really understand them. And some video installations are really meant for instant impression and nothing beyond. It all depends on the piece.”


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