Ragnar Kjartansson and Friends. The Palace of the Summerland

Meet a group of some of Reykjavík’s most prominent artists, comedians, writers, and musicians, friends of Ragnar Kjartansson who have inspired him in his works and performed continuously in the Augarten exhibition space from April 3 to April 27. They transformed TBA21 into an active studio, an art factory, and a set for a filmic and theatrical adaptation of the epic novel World Light (Heimsljós) by the Icelandic author and Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness. 



Tómas Örn Tómasson
Director of photography

It’s totally different than working in film production. When you are working with an artist, especially an open-minded one like Ragnar, everything is possible and everything is allowed. Obviously, I am just an extension of his brain. Here we don’t have a film structure where the director is on top and then all the way down. It is the first time we are allowed to cut and do takes, whereas normally, like we did with the visitors, we did one tryout and then one take, which is an art piece, and there was no room for mistakes.


How the financial crisis in Iceland influence the art scene?
I am not sure if it did. Not much changed. In some way it freed the art world a little bit, opened their minds, you know, helped the artists to see things in a different perspective. In general it didn’t do much.

Do you collect art?
I mainly collect paintings. It has happened many times that if I work for somebody they pay me with their artworks. So I work for art.

Christopher W. McDonald

Director of sound, actor, and foley artist.
He plays the part of the student on the boat.

I am away from my farm and my studio in America, which is kind of sad. I knew almost everyone in this project before I got here, and I worked with most of them on other projects. So it’s really an amazing opportunity to work hard everyday with all my friends and try to do something impossible and make it beautiful. The team members are a kind of second generation, like a pop and art manifestation from Iceland, it’s really cool.


How do you evaluate the representation of Icelandic art on the international level? 
I am the only American in the entire project. I was 15 when I started listening to all the music that was coming out of Iceland, so it was a big part of my life growing up, and I am happy about it.

Do you collect art?
I collect drawings, photography, but it’s all my friends’ stuff. The last piece I got was a piece by Adina Bricklin, who does watercolor paintings of the inversions of photographs. She inverts photographs and then paints the negative, and then she photographs the watercolor painting – it’s really gorgeous stuff. It’s funny how beautiful and abstract negative paintings are and, in turn, how completely, unexpectedly realistic the photograph of the watercolor inversion is.

Ingibjörg Sigurjónsdóttir

Head of painting and building workshops, actress, painter, and builder.
She plays the part of Jórunn.

It has completely taken over my life for the last month – actually for a few months because we were preparing at home, too. And it’s been fantastic to work in Vienna. It is a great team. It has been such an intense working time; the weirdest thing is that you kind of take a break from yourself because you just work so much and are focused on the project.


How is it to be practicing artist/actor in Iceland? What are the advantages and disadvantages?
The way I see it it’s mostly advantages. It’s a small place, so it is easy to do anything and realize ideas. It’s a really tight community of artists and art spirits, so people tend to help each other a lot. You always have this very powerful background, like a support group that helps you, and you help others with whatever project they have. It’s great to be an artist in Iceland.

Margrét Bjarnadóttir

Producer-on-location, supervisor, actress, painter, and builder.
She plays the part of Bera and Þórunn’s sister.

I’ve known Ragnar for many years and we’re friends, but we’ve never worked together before. So when he asked if I want to participate in the project I immediately said yes, without knowing what the project is going to be. It has been a great experience.


How do artists in Iceland make a living?
They do all kinds of things, like everywhere. I don’t know if it is more difficult in Iceland than anywhere else. I teach in-between as well, as do many of my friends. But I don’t have a family to support so it works somehow, I don’t need a lot.

Halldór Laxness Halldórsson

Scriptwriter, head of the building workshop, and actor.
Halldór plays the parts of Nasi and Peter Threehorses.

I’ve never done anything like this before. I like the project very much, and I’m glad that I was able to write the script. I like diverse work spheres, and here I have the opportunity to act, write, and do other things at the same time.


What should one pay attention to in order to get a glimpse of contemporary Icelandic culture?
If people want to discover what’s happening in Icelandic culture, point them in the direction of comedy because comedy is the mirror of the society. Watch my comedy group and me. Other than that – just follow Ragnar, he is doing a lot of stuff.

Do you collect art?
Yes, I do. Recently I ordered a piece of art – I still haven’t received it – from the Icelandic contemporary artist Thorarinn Ingi Jonsson. He was in the news a couple of years ago. He was studying art in Toronto when he made a bomb: He made a real bomb and put it in the main art gallery with a sign saying “This is not a bomb”. And they had to clear the gallery and cancel the AIDS benefit that was there. He was arrested and prosecuted, and in the end he was deported out of Canada. I ordered a gun from him. He makes these really nice fake weapons. It’s supposed to be a take on the use of force in the society. When I saw his works I thought I want to own it and have it at my house. I really miss the contemporary art on the walls of my home in Iceland.

Thelma Marín Jónsdóttir

Head of props, actress, painter, builder.
Thelma Marín plays the parts of Vegmey and the invalid.

Every project with Ragnar has changed me and has opened my mind and expanded my passions in life. In this project I am handling the props, which is a role that I’ve never taken on before. It has given me more self-assurance and confidence to take on a lot of different roles. To take responsibility for creative decisions that not only involve performing artistically (which is my profession), but for now I feel great to create more on my own.


What one should know about the contemporary Icelandic film scene?
There is one film that got a lot of attention lately – “Of Horses and Men” – that’s the first film from theater director and actor Benedikt Erlingsson, and I think it is actually a very entertaining and beautiful movie about the Icelandic mentality and the essence of country life back home. I really enjoyed it. There are some names that have already become big. I also enjoy everything that Dagur Kári does. And there is another director called Rúnar Rúnarsson, who did “Volcano” and is about to do another film this summer. And then there is a guy who has been working with him and you should definitely pay attention to: Gudmundur Arnar, he just did his first short film and won the prize in Cannes.

What is the most permanent contemporary art space in Ireland?
Reykjavik Art Museum, i8 Gallery (represents Ragnar in Iceland) is always up-to-date with contemporary art, and Living Art Museum. There is a small gallery run by two young artists called Kunstschlager (one of then is German, she is the wife of Rúnnar Rúnnarson), which is really interesting!

Kjartan Sveinsson

Composer and actor. He plays the parts of Júst and Örn Úlfar.

The book has been very important to me since a very long time. So I am really glad to be a part of a production in that sense.


How do you evaluate the representation of Icelandic music on the international level?
It is hard to say. Musically there have been some famous artists coming out from Iceland in the last 20 to 25 years. But Iceland is just another country, there was a time when the music from Iceland was kind of new and different, but now it has kind of merged into what everyone else is doing.

Kristín Anna Valtýsdóttir

Actress, painter, musician, and builder. Kristín plays the part of Þórunn.

It is a real relief and a lifesaver for me to work with such a great group of people. Here I can be just a force among many other forces coming together to create something – all you need to do is to give the best of yourself. I like that in this project I don’t need to deal with things I usually have to deal with: why to create something and how to finish this and that.


What one should know about the contemporary art scene in Iceland?
I have been living in Iceland for the last 3 years, and there is something special about this place. Art made there is sort of spiritual or like the survival of the spiritual practice. It is not done with an intention, like most people think when you ask this question. They create in order to keep their spirit alive throughout the winter seasons and in order to have a way to connect with other people and introduce something from the inside to the public. Iceland has this kind of goal to get together with the creation. So I think it is pure and beautiful in that sense.

Kjartan Ragnarsson

Actor and theater director

In this project everything is done in a very unusual way for me. And, on the other hand, it was very special for me to have all this time with my son. It is the first time he is doing such a big project – working the whole month with so many people. It reminded me of the old days when Ragnar used to work with me in the theater; he played three years in one of my productions.


What should one know about contemporary theater in Iceland?
It is very common to stage plays on the new Icelandic drama, which is a good tendency. There are many creative people. I am more or less out of theater now; together with my wife I am in the museum business now and make one production every second year in the theater. I think it is very exciting to follow what is happening at the moment. There are a lot of young dramaturgists and directors, who are doing a lot of interesting things, like Benedikt Erlingsson. What is characteristic maybe for the theater and arts in Iceland, like in Europe, different forms of arts are running together so to speak. Musicians are making theater, visual artists coming to theater, theater people are making films.

Hildigunnur Birgisdóttir
Actress, painter and builder

What should one know about the contemporary art scene in Iceland?
One thing that is quite exciting about the art scene in Iceland, I would say, is that it seems to be quite free in the sense of medium, tradition, and history. We don’t have a long history, and there is not like thousands of years of painting or anything like that. As an artist one never really has a feeling of being forced to do anything, which also makes it difficult sometimes. Sometimes it is easier to break some rules, and in Iceland the rules are not really there. At the moment a lot of collaborations are happening. People are working with unusual media, something that has nothing to do with art, like a store, swimming pool, library, or whatever. People are also celebrating the object again, this is a relief.

Davíð Þór Jónsson
Actor. He plays the part of old Ólafur

It feels like a spaceship, but with a huge garden, which is good because we are close to creatures that are 100 years old. That’s maybe important when you do an intense performance like this because it is supposed to be a movie/theater play/visual art piece/living sculpture all at the same time. So it is very exhausting. Usually I am very energetic and have endless batteries, but somehow I become very tired in this project. I am almost changing into the garden. I think this is the only place we could have done it in. I mean, to bring a story like this, which deals with the beauty of heavens, specifically. It is about Iceland and simple people and their simple lives. It is so far away from everything here. And it is kind of a beautiful controversy to have it here.


How is it to be practicing creative spirit artist/actor in Iceland? What are the advantages and disadvantages?
It is a small island that was a colony for hundreds of years. It is still isolated in one way, but we have a world map, Internet, and airplanes. The biggest advantage: It’s easier for you to find solitude and peace from the hardcore business of big cities. But the disadvantage is how far away it is in a way – but that’s also a quality. It’s a small society, so if you are going to survive, as I decided with the music as my main focus in life, you have to go through many stages, you have to work in theater, you have to do film, performance art, concerts, collaborate with different people, and through this collaboration you slowly figure out your real passion. You start saying no and saying yes, coming up with these kinds of projects.

Lilja Gunnarsdóttir

Producer, actress, painter, and builder.
She plays the part of Jarþrúður.

I’ve been in this project from the very beginning, and it’s been a very long process.


How do artists in Iceland make a living?
It varies from one person to another. It can be very difficult, a lot of my friends have to work many extra jobs, teach, and hardly ever get paid for their work. But, of course, there are also people who can make a living making art. It has changed a bit in the past three years in Iceland. I think people appreciate art more by paying for it and investing in it.
When everything collapsed in Iceland some people came to their senses and thought that art could be good to invest in. There are a few places that opened in the last years, Kunslager, Mengi (both a concept space and a gallery), and, of course, Kling & Bang (run by artists participating in the project). There have been more opportunities for artists to show their works, and the scene has become more accessible to see new artists. I think that artists became very active in the last few years.

Helga Stefánsdóttir

I gave up a job and then this project came up and I thought, what a gift. I think this is a marvelous project and I love being here as one of the friends. I come from theater, so this project is not that different for me. It’s maybe closer to me than to anyone else because I am here doing my job and not doing something else like everyone (who are doing things that they’ve never done before).


What should one know about the contemporary art scene in Iceland?
I think it is on a very good path. And there is somehow no stress. It is in a fine position. In one sentence I would describe it as follows: It has a national flavor with a very international touch. We are following the rest of the world in terms of what is happening, but then there is no frustration in Icelandic art.

Ragnar Kjartansson
Director, scriptwriter, actor, painter, and builder.
He is the narrator and plays Sigurður Breiðfjörð

This story has molded my approach to art more than anything else… It colored my whole worldview… World Light is an epic about the artist. An ironic tale of beauty and artistic integrity written in the crucible of modernism, it is equally an ode to beauty and a deconstruction of it. It speaks to an important 21st-century core: the politics of beauty. The exhibition will be the process of filming scenes from this novel, which depict the utopic creative moment, the search for perfection, and the final romanticized sacrifice for art. The exhibition space will become a Fellini-style studio, a mayhem factory for building, acting, and filming a story on beauty. We are not really making cinema; we are acting out an attempt to make cinema… It is like Paul Auster’s The Book of Illusions


Following this four-week performance the film/theater sets became part of a large-scale environmental installation that is on view at TBA21–Augarten from April 30 to June 8.

Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary
TBA21–Augarten, Scherzergasse 1A, 1020 Vienna, Austria

Opening hours:
Wednesday and Thursday 12—5 pm
Friday to Sunday 12—7 pm
Open on all holidays.
Closed on Mondays and Tuesdays

Free admission

Photo Credit: Kristina Kulakova/The New Contemporary Blog, Lilja Gunnarsdottir, Katarina Balgavy / TBA21. 

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