Ragnar Kjartansson, artist: 'What's most natural to me is pretending, pretending to be doing a painting'


Ragnar Kjartansson's temporary studio is in a building that belongs to the Belvedere museum in Augarten, a sprawling park in Vienna. It has been rented by Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary (TBA21), the foundation masterminded by the philanthropist and collector Francesca von Habsburg. The rental is for "Kjartansson and friends" for a month, during which the public is welcomed to bear witness to the production of an art work, The Palace of the Summerland.

Kjartansson was born in Reykjavík in 1976, the son of two actors who gave him huge freedom: "I could see that being an artist was fun." He studied painting at the ultra-conservative Iceland Academy of the Arts but quickly realised "the cool kids were in media studies... I liked that – I like when you can't do something – I spent a lot of time finding ways to hang out with the cool kids".

For Vienna he has brought with him his troupe of Icelandic collaborators, many of them musicians, including his longest-term collaborator (other than his mother), his father.

At the 2009 Venice Biennale, Kjartansson was the youngest artist to represent Iceland, and The End was one of the stand-out events. Against a background of videos featuring Icelandic scenes and music, Kjartansson spent six months, repeatedly painting the same collaborator. Visitors were encouraged to observe; this is an artistic practice that welcomes, no – downright demands – collaboration.

After my early-morning conversation with Kjartansson, rehearsals take place for the shooting of scenes based on the book World Light by Halldór Laxness, "the family bible", according to Kjartansson for what might become a video – or might just be seen as a work in progress. They came prepared with suitcases full of nationalistic props and old costumes from an earlier production by Kjartansson's father, but then scoured junk shops and flea markets too. Local art students were employed to help with set painting, and the task of making a feature-length video on a limited – if somewhat generous for an art project – budget was begun.

Watching the film being created in front of my eyes, with copious input by Kjartansson's father that at one point requires a father-son demonstration of a lip-smacking kiss, I recall him saying: "What's most natural to me is pretending, pretending to be doing a painting. The immateriality of the object is important." But above all: "I believe in the collaboration of family; the energy is more important than the object; the object becomes more important because of the energy."

Kjartansson's next commitment is at the New Museum in New York City, where he will show works that include both his mother and his father, something that is difficult for them as they divorced shortly after they produced an erotic work together. "I was conceived the night after," he says gleefully.

Ragnar Kjartansson and friends: 'The Palace of the Summerland', Vienna Augarten, to 8 June; 'Me, My Mother, My Father, and I', New Museum, New York, 7 May to 29 June