Ragnar Kjartansson

November 2, 2019 to March 1, 2020

Ragnar Kjartansson

Scenes from Western Culture

Scenes from Western Culture, Rich German Children (Ingibjörg Sigurjónsdóttir), 2015 
Single channel video
Duration: 52 minutes 46 seconds Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik

This fall, the Portland Museum of Art is excited to present Ragnar Kjartansson’s Scenes from Western Culture. The Icelandic artist’s 2015 work, a nine-screen installation of videos, depicts a faintly absurd and occasionally ominous vision of Western life.

In Scenes from Western Culture, Kjartansson shows various vignettes of ideal images of Western daily life—a couple dining together, a speedboat on a Swiss lake, a couple making love in a sleek, minimal interior, an afternoon swim, the burning of a forest cabin, upper-class children playing in a Munich garden. These videos explore the artist’s fascination with social norms, theatrical artifice, and idle pleasure, inspired in part by French Rococo painter Jean-Antoine Watteau’s pastoral scenes of 18th century aristocrats. These “cinematic paintings” resonate in us with familiarity and apparent banality, yet their tranquil nature and static scenes with a visual language verging on slick advertisement break down the barrier between reality and fiction. Each video is the fragment of a scene where the central meaning is hidden from the viewer and several narrative interpretations are possible. These works, like Watteau’s ambiguous paintings, both depict the desires of Western society and serve as tenderly mocking cultural commentaries.

Kjartansson’s work engages tropes that occur throughout the canon of art history, connecting this contemporary work with the PMA collection. This exhibition is part of the PMA’s dedication to nurturing an innovative contemporary art program. Scenes from Western Culture will be accompanied by interpretive material developed by the PMA’s Homer High School Fellows, offering further opportunities for young people and new audiences to connect with meaningful contemporary art.

Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson (born 1976) works in video installations, performances, drawings, and paintings that play on the history of film, music, visual culture, and literature. His pieces are connected through humor and pathos, with each deeply influenced by the comedy and tragedy of classical theater. Kjartansson’s use of duration and repetition to harness collective emotion is a hallmark of his practice.

Top image: Scenes from Western Culture, Dinner (Jason Moran and Alicia Hall Moran), 2015  
Single channel video
Duration: 1 hour 20 minutes 46 seconds Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik

The presentation of Ragnar Kjartansson’s Scenes from Western Culture is made possible with support from the McEvoy Foundation for the Arts.

Corporate Sponsor:


Learn More