Hot Docs Review: Soviet Barbara, the Story of Ragnar Kjartansson in Moscow (Gaukur Ulfarsson, 2023)

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Ragnar Kjartansson is an Icelandic artist who works across multiple media, with his work often incorporating aspects of performance art. As one art critic puts it when describing his work, “Ragnar does not shy from frankly emotional works.” Another thing Ragnar apparently does not shy away from is putting on an ambitious show at a Russian art gallery at a time when maybe going to Russia is not the best plan.

Inspired by the surprising popularity of American soap opera Santa Barbara following the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, Kjartansson decided that alongside an exhibit of some of his older works, he would stage a fairly ambitious conceptual piece – a recreation of Santa Barbara live in the museum, in Russian. One episode per day for 99 days. Soviet Barbara tells the story of the ultimately aborted project and all of the challenges faced and compromises made along the way.

Among those challenges are the changes that have to be made to one piece, at first omitting a sexually explicit video that was part of the larger piece and representing it with a blank screen before being told that he couldn’t do that and then replacing it with a wry video of the exhibit’s promoters sitting by a fire and reading magazines. Another challenge is seen in Kjartansson’s attempts to walk the fine line of putting on a work with some subversive political messages while also doing interviews wherein he states that the work is not explicitly political.

This tension is also represented in the film as the exhibition is visited by two diametrically opposed guests – Russian president Vladimir Putin (who does not appear onscreen, and in fact Ragnar Kjartansson wasn’t even invited to the pre-opening party which Putin attended) and Pussy Riot’s Masha Alekhina. I’ll give you one guess as to which of those two Kjartansson is more politically alligned with. Also along for the ride are Santa Barbara co-creators Bridget and Jerome Dobson, with one amusing moment coming when Jerome is introduced to Masha and then asks whether he could be arrested for talking to her.

While the invasion of Ukraine ultimately forces Kjartansson to cancel his show (“I had to stop it. I couldn’t continue while this horror is happening.”), we at least still have this film to show us a bit of what could have been. It’s a compelling, entertaining story which also acts as a powerful examination of the power of art and its role in society.

Posted on by Paul in Hot Docs

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