Ragnar Kjartansson re-creates US soap opera for vast GES-2 culture complex opening in Moscow

GES-2 complex is located in a former power plant, built in 1907, located near the Kremlin

Ragnar Kjartansson performed God at the Mayakovsky Theatre in Moscow last night © The Art Newspaper/Gareth Harris

Ragnar Kjartansson performed God at the Mayakovsky Theatre in Moscow last night © The Art Newspaper/Gareth Harris

Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson will re-create the 1980s US soap opera Santa Barbara for a new piece due to be unveiled at GES-2, the vast new culture complex launching in the centre of Moscow next September. Episodes will be re-enacted daily on a a vast "film set" within GES-2 over five months.

The official state network RTR started showing Santa Barbara, which focuses on the Capwell family in California, in 1992. “It was the first American soap to be shown in Russia. Russians were reading poetry to each other and then suddenly Santa Barbara arrived and everything changed. It’s an emotional mass, a sculpture. We’re constantly acting out scenes with people saying things like ‘You have betrayed me!’,” Kjartansson says. He will begin with episode 217, which was the first to air in Russia, and will make at least an episode a day.

"Santa Barbara will be a performance... a performance in which we will build sets, do costumes, make-up, props etc and re-enact and film as many episodes of Santa Barbara as we manage for the duration of the exhibition. All will take place in front of the audience in GES-2. The idea of filming it creates the focus and the tension of a film set, but it’s the whole endeavour of creating it that excites me the most," he adds.

A curatorial statement from the V-A-C Foundation, the organisation behind GES-2, says: “This is a love [from the Russian public] that demonstrates how the powerful mechanisms of drama—the same that the artist manipulates in his work—can affect reality, how fiction and art can affect the world.” V-A-C has given Kjartansson the entire run of the space and the “power to intervene on every level so he can create temporarily the institution of his dreams”.

Kjartansson performed God last night at the Mayakovsky Theatre in Moscow, a six-hour durational piece during which the artist continually chants “Sorrow conquers Happiness” in Russian. He performed the work previously in St Petersburg during the Manifesta 10 biennial in 2014.

“We were going to call the piece God in Russian but that would have been controversial in a non-funny way. The piece is not about religion. I don’t know what this piece is about. With all my pieces, I would never do them if I understood them completely.”

In 2016, he told the New Yorker: “Those words [Sorrow conquers happiness] sound so magnificent in Russian. And it’s how you feel in Russia now, where there is so much hopelessness.”He tells us that “at Manifesta, it was a shocking time during the anti-LGBT period [in 2013, the Russian government enacted a federal law prohibiting “gay propaganda”]. It has scarily become the norm not just here but all over. Perhaps the hopelessness has been exported [to the UK, for instance]. There is never complete hopelessness though.”

In Moscow, audience members in the packed-out theatre sang along, “I expected there to just be a few people, and that it would just be a classical art performance,” Kjartansson says. Members of his orchestra, including the harpist and violin players, also took part, acting as backing singers when Kjartansson seemed to flag. His nine-screen video installation The Visitors (2012) was recently judged the best work of art of the 21st century by the Guardian newspaper.

The GES-2 complex is located in a former power plant, built in 1907, located near the Kremlin. The historic 20,000 sq. m venue has been converted by the Italian architect Renzo Piano. An artist residency block, education section, amphitheatre, library and bookshop will form part of the new culture hub. V-A-C, the contemporary and Modern art foundation, was set up by natural gas billionaire Leonid Mikhelson.

POSTSCRIPT (30 October): Ragnar Kjartansson says: "I was thinking so much about this poem by Tomas Tranströmmer (Madrigal) after you asked me if there was more or less hope in Russia now than in 2014 when I did the same piece (God) at Manifesta in St. Petersburg. Actually I have a hope more gentle times are ahead.

From Madrigal: "We are not without hope. The most serious crimes will remain unsolved in spite of the efforts of many policemen. In the same way there is somewhere in our lives a great unsolved love.”

UPDATE (31 October): This article has been amended to reflect how the Santa Barbara piece will be made (a performance in front of an audience at GES-2).