Over and Over: Art That Never Stops

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VENICE — The Palazzo Michiel dal Brusa, a grand 14th-century pile here near the Rialto Bridge, is not exactly a place of desolation. It is filled with frescoes and lapped by the waters of the Grand Canal, and in the afternoon its cavernous first floor is suffused with a tender Renaissance light.

But when the Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson invited a reporter to visit him there the other day, he wrote, “See you at the abyss.” And what anyone who stops by his work space at the palazzo will find, now or over the next six months, is a farcically romantic idea of what the end of the world might look like, at least for an artist: Mr. Kjartansson, standing at an easel day after day, relentlessly painting the portrait of a man who poses before him in a black Speedo, cigarette and beer in hand.

As time passes, the canvases Mr. Kjartansson makes — he plans to complete one a day — will mount up around him, as will the empty bottles and butt-filled ashtrays, all of it a monument to artistic ruin. On Tuesday, the second day of a marathon that will drag on until Christmas, the elegiac effect was heightened by Mozart’s Requiem blaring from an old record player.

“Stand, please,” Mr. Kjartansson said to the model, a friend and fellow Icelandic artist named Pall Haukur Bjornsson.

“O.K.,” Mr. Bjornsson said listlessly, rising from a couch, dropping his blue terrycloth robe and leaning against a stone cistern as Mr. Kjartansson, with a painterly beard and slicked-back hair, mixed oil paint on a palette.

Since its creation in 1895, the Venice Biennale has always functioned as a kind of art Olympiad, with nations proudly showcasing their best artists in ostentatious pavilions.

So after Mr. Kjartansson (his name is pronounced RAG-ner kuh-YART-un-sun) was chosen to represent Iceland last year, he said, he first had to figure out what it would mean, exactly, to be the artistic exemplar of a now near-bankrupt country, one of the hardest hit by the financial crisis. And also what the Biennale itself would represent this year, in its first incarnation since all the air escaped from the great art bubble of the past decade.

His idea, at an event where art installations can sometimes be large enough to arrive on cargo ships, was to make a project rigorously stripped of the extraneous and the expensive: just himself, some cheap art materials and a subject. The only luxury would be time, which in this case might be viewed instead as penance.

“I just had this image of this guy, smoking, drinking, by the water, looking out at the Prosecco Venetian light,” Mr. Kjartansson said. “I thought of him as this man without fate — which is all what we’re living back home, in a way.”

Titled “The End,” the performance grows out of much recent work by Mr. Kjartansson, 33, a darkly funny provocateur whose profile has been rising in the art world. (He is represented by the prominent Chelsea gallery Luhring Augustine; Daniel Birnbaum, the curator of this year’s Biennale, chose him to participate in another large international exhibition he oversaw last year in Turin.)

His work often involves the idea of endurance, nodding to pioneering performance artists like Chris Burden and Marina Abramovic. But it is overlaid with a kind of self-conscious goofiness that plays on both Nordic notions of the tragic and on the predicament of the contemporary artist feeling his way around an increasingly fragmented, disorienting art world.

In a 2002 work called “Death and the Children” he dressed up in a dark suit and carried a scythe, leading young children — who had no idea what the costume meant — through a cemetery, trying earnestly to answer their questions about fate. In 2007 in a piece called “God,” he wore a tuxedo and played the role of an old-fashioned crooner on a pink-draped stage with an orchestra, singing, “Sorrow conquers happiness” over and over as the music swelled.

Last year in a performance that could be seen as a warm-up for Venice, he assumed all the clichéd trappings of a plein-air painter, sitting on a hillside in upstate New York with an easel, smoking cigars and reading “Lolita” while he worked.

Mr. Kjartansson, who trained as a painter at the Icelandic Academy of the Arts, said his intention in neither that work nor in Venice was to disparage painting. In the manner of many young artists now, he seems to be trying to express a kind of simultaneous reverence and mockery, though maybe only the mockery of ribbing himself for longing to be a more traditional artist.

“I think, secretly, it’s what every artist wants to do, just to sit and paint and smoke and think,” he said.

On Tuesday afternoon Mr. Bjornsson was doing most of the smoking, a steady stream of Benson & Hedges, as Mr. Kjartansson was filling in the contours of his second portrait. Behind them on stone benches lay dozens of stretched, blank canvases waiting to be filled. The tables and floors of the palazzo, which Iceland rents as its pavilion, were already strewn with empty Peroni and Moretti beer bottles.

“I’m going to be completely soulless by the time he’s done,” said Mr. Bjornsson, who said that he generally did not smoke or drink this much and was a little worried about the effects on his health. To pass the time when not posing, he said he planned to improve his guitar playing and read a lot. In a stack beside him sat volumes of Wilde, Eliot, Ovid and the Upanishads.

Mr. Kjartansson, a talkative and (for now at least) cheerful man, put a daub of cadmium yellow on the canvas, trying to capture the essence of the racing stripe down the side of Mr. Bjornsson’s Speedo. He stood back to assess his progress. “So you can see that I am not a very good painter,” he said. “But after six months surely I’ll get better, right?”

Markus Thor Andresson, one of the curators of the Icelandic pavilion along with Dorothee Kirch, said it was still unclear what would happen to all the paintings. “It’s kind of sad because he sincerely wants them to be good paintings,” Mr. Andresson said. “But even if they’re done well, Ragnar always has to face the fact that they won’t be seen as paintings. They’re only ever going to be seen as artifacts from this performance.”

Mr. Kjartansson said he kept trying to envision what the palazzo’s floor was going to look like by year’s end, made impassable by the paintings and their attendant detritus. Asked if he thought he might be tired of seeing Mr. Bjornsson by then, he laughed uproariously and said, “Probably so.”

“And,” he added, “just think how sick he’s going to be of me.”

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