On View / Ragnar Kjartansson’s The Visitors

Joyful melancholy

Scenes from The Visitors, a nine-channel video installation by Ragnar Kjartansson

Scenes from The Visitors, a nine-channel video installation by Ragnar Kjartansson



Describe it, and it sounds like a form of slow torture: a video installation documenting in real time a marathon performance in which an artist and his hipster friends continuously sing and play the same repetitive musical verse for sixty-four minutes. Seems like a recipe for extreme tedium—not uncommon in the genres of performance and video installation. But far from being boring, Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson’s The Visitors is remarkably engaging in a uniquely immersive way. Its ability to hold audiences is in part due to how it has been installed by curator Rachel Adams and sound technician Chris McDonald into the University at Buffalo Art Gallery, where it’s now on view. 

The Visitors is a nine-channel audio/video work in which viewers move around the gallery to observe simultaneous recordings of individual musical performers. Each section is projected large-scale in high resolution onto individual walls in two interconnected rooms of the gallery. You have to turn corners and walk around partitions to see all the performers. The work was recorded at Rokeby, a declining two-hundred-year-old, forty-three room mansion in the Hudson River landmark district that longingly recalls a bygone era of sumptuous grandeur. Kjartansson and seven musician friends are cloistered individually throughout the house, in bedrooms, parlors, a bathroom, the library, and kitchen. A group of people—some performing, some hanging out—sit outside on the veranda. Though physically isolated, the performers hear each other through the use of mikes and headphones. One camera records each.

The interior segments, shot straight-on without camera movement, abound with opulent details of ornately appointed rooms and peeling French wallpaper. The static compositions allow audiences to study the scenes like paintings. As they ready themselves for the performance, the musicians wait somberly, some bare-footed amidst the faded opulence, relaxed but pensive. The artist himself soaks in a claw-foot bathtub next to a chipped plaster wall, a trancelike upward gaze on his face and an acoustic guitar in hand. In one room, an electric guitarist sits on the edge of a bed; a woman’s nude back and head poke from the covers behind him like a neoclassical figure in a painting by Ingres.

Throughout the hour, the musicians sing languidly in various harmonic combinations, while playing assorted instruments on and off: two grand pianos (furnished with the house), guitars, drums, banjo, accordion, and an antique hurdy-gurdy. One woman turns in a particularly poignant cello performance. There’s a hippy-commune vibe to the whole arrangement, rooted in the rundown bucolic setting and sustained by the performers’ manners and appearance. From their clothing—or lack thereof—to the men’s facial hair, none of the participants would seem particularly out of place on Yasgur’s Farm in 1969.

Gallery viewers become active participants in the piece, figuratively walking through the house room to room, selectively experiencing each component of the performance. The audio for each projection emanates from speakers mounted above it, collectively surrounding viewers at every point. As you approach an individual “room,” that performer becomes more distinctly pronounced. The sound is stunningly crisp, capturing every creak and foot-shuffle along with the instruments and voices. The event takes place as dusk sets in, and outside the house a chorus of crickets lays down its own audio track. At one point Kjartansson adds hot water to his bath, and the faucet noise becomes part of the mix. All this John Cagian atmospheric sound adds an element of musical chance, which in a studio recording would be filtered out. During a brief music caesura, a man on the lawn by the veranda fires a cannon, and then methodically reloads for the next interlude. You can’t step back and take it all in at once, so gallery visitors in essence control their own audio and video mix with their feet, and each person experiences the performance differently.

Kjartansson is doing more than pulling off a neat stunt; The Visitors is an evocative and emotionally transformative work of art. There is no real narrative, but when it’s over you can’t help feeling that something operatic has occurred. The minimalist lyrics are drawn from a poem penned by Kjartansson’s ex-wife (artist Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir) in response to their divorce. Most prominently repeated are the lines, “Once again I fall into my feminine ways” and “There are stars exploding around you and there’s nothing you can do.” With shifting instrumentations and harmonies, the repetitive melody and lyrics achieve remarkable emotional range, from aching sweetness to soulful lamentation to raucous brio. Parts are performed in faint a capella, then swell to lush harmonic and instrumental crescendos, and occasionally lapse into drinking song zeal. No postmodern irony here, only heartfelt sincerity. The melody is earworm memorable (I sang it for three days), but it’s the virtuosic performance that imbues it with profound intensity that is in turns wistful, embittered, resigned, and finally joyous.

Over the course of an hour the effect is one of catharsis, a literal cleansing, in which Kjartansson undergoes a process of loss and deliverance. As the performance nears its culmination, the artist leaves the tub and wraps a towel around his waist, then gathers the still-singing musicians in one room. Champagne is uncorked in post-ritual jubilation. They exit the now hauntingly empty house en masse to collect the remaining chorus on the porch. The gallery audience naturally gathers with them as the strolling troubadours head across an expansive meadow, the camera pivoting to follow. The verdant expanse offers promise; the day is done and the tattered past is literally and figuratively behind. A couple dogs prance along, and a playful chase ensues in the distance when a member of the troupe yanks off Kjartansson’s towel.

Eventually someone shouts “cut,” abruptly reminding us that this is all just staged artifice, a performance. Despite this, there’s something markedly authentic in The Visitors. It may only be art, but Kjartansson creates the impression that through this particular work he did perhaps get back to the land and set his soul free, and maybe the audience’s too. The exhibition remains on view until May 14.