"TAKE ME HERE BY THE DISHWASHER": THE ORIGIN OF THE ARTIST

Ragnar Kjartansson's “Take Me Here by the Dishwasher: Memorial for a Marriage” (2014)

 

A Long Durational Work Chronicle

By Dale Megan Healey
Cover photograph by Benoit Pailley

“All artists have several stories — one might call them creation myths — that haunt and obsess them,” Edwidge Danticat writes in Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work. Family narratives — the stories of where we come from — naturally become banal, lose their impact through repetition and routine. We know how our parents met. Baby pictures hang on the wall and we pass them every day. Rather than haunting us, we take these stories for granted. We are here. Our parents had sex. Perhaps they were in love. We have somehow come to be.

Photograph by Benoit Pailley courtesy of The New Museum

But Danticat is referring to the creation of an artist. If the reality of your origins was once a performance of lust, captured on film, followed by a private act of love, to examine that film is to examine how you came to be. Icelandic performance artist Ragnar Kjartansson comes from actors. Family lore says that he was conceived the night after his parents filmed a scene together in a popular film. In his piece Take Me Here by the Dishwasher: Memorial for a Marriage at The New Museum, Kjartansson has devoted a room, and the days of ten local musicians, to this moment. 


The song reaches a climax on the final sentence of the scene: “Take me here by the dishwasher!” With that, the fantasy ends. We see Kjartansson’s mother back in her housewife reality, wearing a bathrobe and curlers. She kicks a vacuum cleaner. This is the origin of the artist. 


The scene, which is no more than four minutes long, plays on a loop all day. His mother appears as a housewife who fantasizes about a plumber, played by his father. In a blonde beehive hairdo and a ruffly pink dress, she leads him into a kitchen. “This is it,” she says, and his father tells her, “Don’t you worry now, I’ll fix it.” But instead of the audio of the original conversation, live musicians sing the conversation as a polyphonic love ballad. “Show me what you can do,” is her line, and they sing her lust. They sing it seven hours a day, ten on Thursdays. The song reaches a climax on the final sentence of the scene: “Take me here by the dishwasher!” With that, the fantasy ends. We see Kjartansson’s mother back in her housewife reality, wearing a bathrobe and curlers. She kicks a vacuum cleaner. This is the origin of the artist. 

The music’s beautiful and somber tone does not match the goofy dream scene, yet it speaks for it. The entire performance is a mix of sincerity and irony, which both get blurred amidst endurance. They’re woven so tightly together that I’m not sure where one ends and the other begins. Calling this a love scene is a stretch, but the ten young and noticeably handsome musicians sing the lines so sincerely. And this too feels like a joke, or I arrive at a place where I want it to be one, in my own defensive irony. Over the hours, they change from looking like rock stars to sleepy jam band members under living room lamps, and back to rock stars. They get bored, have bursts of passion and energy, get bored again, and get passionate again. Each musician has his own part, and as I walk around the room I imagine being serenaded. A couple of them smile at me and I blush. The art smiled at me! And the art is so handsome and sensitive! One takes a break to ask what I was writing in my notebook. Is art allowed to do that? I am embarrassed to admit how much I am enjoying myself. 


Each musician has his own part, and as I walk around the room I imagine being serenaded. A couple of them smile at me and I blush. The art smiled at me! And the art is so handsome and sensitive! 


But this is the appeal of the duration of this piece. So often my initial reaction to durational art is, Okay, I get it. Why does this have to be eight hours long? I read the information plaque and feel pretty satisfied with my understanding of the story in the first fifteen minutes. It can get annoying to sit with the same idea, the same story over and over. You cease to pay attention, or feel frustrated by the pressure to continue to pay attention. What at first hit me as a poignant piece about the creation of an artist becomes my silly college hipster fantasy, but then it becomes poignant again. My attention changes. The scene replays, a guitar player lies down on a mattress in the corner and sings, “Take off my cloooothes,” while Kjartansson’s father unzips his mother’s gown.

Me and My Mother (2000), Ragnar Kjartansson. Photograph by Benoit Pailley courtesy of The New Museum

I laugh at myself for being a stereotype, for being attracted to men like this, but I have also loved men like this sincerely, not to say I can’t laugh at that too. This is the story of a person’s creation, but it is also a performance of a housewife lusting after a plumber. There’s video towards the entrance of the exhibit in which Kjartansson enlisted his mother to repeatedly spit at him while they stand in front of a bookshelf. She giggles, then holds an exaggerated, serious expression. It’s moving to watch her in the act of supporting her son, whose performances are clearly quite different from hers, yet here she is playing a part in his work. What better way to represent the story of actors who created a performance artist: mixing genuine emotions with melodrama and endurance, to lose its impact and find it again.



Dale Megan Healey is a Brooklyn writer and teacher. Her work has appeared in DIAGRAM, The Common, The Atlas Review, Prick of the Spindle, and elsewhere. She is working on a series of essays on grief and experiential art. Her website can be found here.