‘It’s all gone a bit, Santa Barbara’. If you are ever in Russia, this is a phrase you might hear when something has gone a bit wrong, or become a bit messy. The saying originates from the name of the first-ever American soap to run in Russia after the end of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. It became a hit and is credited with having a massive impact on post-Soviet Russian culture.
Icelandic performance artist Ragnar Kjartansson has taken on this cultural phenomenon to inaugurate GES-2, the V-A-C Foundation’s new House of Culture in Moscow, a former power station reimagined by architect Renzo Piano. The commission began life as a takeover, but as Kjartansson began to plan, the idea bifurcated into both an exhibition of the artists’ work, Santa Barbara – A Living Sculpture, and a parallel show featuring some of his favourite artists titled To Moscow! To Moscow! To Moscow!, curated by Kjartansson’s partner, the artist Ingibjörg Sigurjònsdottír.
Known for his six-hour film of the band, The National performing their track Sorrow and his clever, insightful performances and film, Santa Barbara, which incorporates live elements, marks a new direction for the artist.
The exhibition and launch of GES-2 come at what might be the highest levels of tension between the United States and Russia since the Cold War. The exploration of this American cultural import, performed in Russian and exploring the concept of cultural colonisation, could not come at a more poignant time. In examining this relationship between the two cultures, Kjartansson has created a living sculpture which will play out over the next three months.
‘I remember being raised in Iceland, between Moscow and Washington, that you really felt the Russians and the Americans were fighting for our little souls with cultural material,’ recalls Kjartansson as we sit down in Moscow.
In a long durational performance that recreates Santa Barbara, a production team will shoot an episode a day for three months, live in the museum. The fully reconstructed open film set includes four sets, actors, costumes, make-up and props and at the end of each day's filming an episode will be edited and displayed in the museum. Kjartansson aims to produce around 100 episodes in total, creating something of a living history painting.
Kjartansson’s approach to the project, directed by Ása Helga Hjörleifsdóttir, is one more akin to live theatre than film or television. Part improvised, part scripted as per the original episodes, there is a hands-off element to the work which will unfold live, in front of the Moscow audiences who visit.
‘As visual artists; I think we are always trying, with new work, to invent some kind of new form. This [work] is a sort of experiment in trying to do that like a kind of theatre, film and performance art,’ he said of his process.
Santa Barbara exemplifies Kjartansson’s ability to communicate his artistic vision of the world while remaining utterly universal no matter the complex nuances at play in his subject matter. In calling the work a ‘living history painting’ and ‘emotional sculpture’, he captures a particular aspect of modern visual culture parsed through film.
‘In a way, a society is created here with all the actors and the filmmakers, etc. They are all responding to things happening around them.’
Santa Barbara takes place alongside the show ‘To Moscow! To Moscow! To Moscow!’. This features works by Kjartansson like The Visitors, 2012 which sees musicians play one song simultaneously in different rooms of an Icelandic mansion, and Me and My Mother, 2000–2020 where the artist's mother spits in his face captured over twenty years. These are staged alongside works by other artists that have proved inspirational for Kjartansson and Sigurjònsdottír. Chosen without any curatorial agenda, purely because the artists wanted them in the show, we see an illuminating choice of works by artists including Roni Horn, Theaster Gates, Carolee Schneemann and Emily Wardill.
Presiding over the exhibition and the set of Santa Barbara in the vast new knave of the Renzo Piano-designed museum is Three Sisters (remake of Jay Ranelli’s lost photo c.1990), 2021 titled after a 1900 play by Chekov. Kjartansson’s photograph depicts three smiling McDonald’s servers taken in the branch of the burger chain in Red Square – a moment of cultural assimilation between the Russian and American exchange with a distinctly un-American feel to it.
Santa Barbara, as a history painting, is unique in its inspiration and its practice, but is it also a no-brainer? History as we see it now is fluid. Like time, it never stops to stand still in a fast-changing world. Perhaps Kjartansson’s three-month snapshot is the most realistic representation we can hope for.
Bolotnaya Naberezhnaya, 15
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Amah-Rose Abrams is a British writer, editor and broadcaster covering arts and culture based in London. In her decade plus career she has covered and broken arts stories all over the world and has interviewed artists including Marina Abramovic, Nan Goldin, Ai Weiwei, Lubaina Himid and Herzog & de Meuron. She has also worked in content strategy and production.
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