A photographic work by the Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson, created for the GES-2 House of Culture in Moscow and withdrawn after the artist cancelled the show in protest at the war in Ukraine, has gone on sale at Frieze.
In 2021 Kjartansson was invited by the Russian oligarch Leonid Mikhelson—a close ally of Vladimir Putin—to put together a retrospective of his work to mark the opening of the GES-2. Putin was given a private tour of the exhibition, To Moscow! To Moscow! To Moscow!, before it opened to the public. On 24 February 2022, the day Russia invaded Ukraine, Kjartansson demanded the show was closed. This is the first time the work has been seen publicly since its debut in Moscow.
The photograph, Three Sisters (remake of Jay Ranelli’s Lost Photo c. 1990), references the late US theatre director Jay Ranelli, who claimed to have taken a photograph of the first McDonald’s outlet in Russia. Ranelli claimed he was served by three women with name tags that read Irina, Masha and Olga, the same names as the lead characters in Anton Chekhov’s play Three Sisters.
“It’s a very tough piece, but we thought it was the right time to bring it out,” said Börkur Arnarson, the director of the Reykjavík-based i8 Gallery, in an interview. “When Russia invaded Ukraine and Ragnar pulled out of the show, the image developed this extra element,” Arnarson says. “The image doesn’t relate to the war, but it now mediates on the political and social complexities that have come from the invasion. We felt it was important to show the work again.”
Kjartansson had visited Russia as a child in the years after communism. “For Ragnar, the photograph is supposed to be about a sense of hope for the people of the Soviet Union as they welcomed in this icon of capitalism,” Arnarson says.
The photograph comes in an edition of three, one of which has already sold, for $60,000.