Feeling with Friends: Ragnar Kjartansson’s The Visitors

By April 15, 2021
Installation view of Ragnar Kjartansson’s The Visitors at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta. Images by Mike Jensen and courtesy of the High.
Seeds, a juried show. applications open through August 5 at Westobou Gallery, Augusta

Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson’s The Visitors has developed a blockbuster reputation since its initial debut in 2012 at the Migros Museum in Switzerland. So, I entered the exhibition, currently on view at the High Museum, with some anticipatory knowledge and armed with experiential skepticism of bearded men in serious relationships with their acoustic guitars.  Given the installation’s rapturous status among the art historical elite, I had assumed The Visitors would be an indulgent and self-serious exercise in sonic experimentation, and it is. But is also funny, lonely, joyful, a bit sad, absurdist and self-aware—a rich communal portrait of the banality, the emotional grotesqueness, and the thrill of being and being together.

Had I read carefully, I probably would have known from the outset that The Visitors takes its title from ABBA’s final album of the same name. Having not realized this, my first hint of the project’s playfulness were the 415 hand drawn cards, cumulatively titled Postcards to Marguerite, which line the gallery right before entering the installation. Illustrated by Kjartansson and sent to the mega collector and owner of The Visitors, Marguerite Steed Hoffman over a period of 14 months. In a blue chip artworld that is often determinately elusive about the money, I appreciate that Kjartansson actually makes his patron a part of the work. Laying bare the often intimate and prolonged relationships artists have with their collectors, having the buyer in the room at the outset both reveals the social structure that made The Visitors possible, and the basic conceit of the work. Each card to Hoffman is a tiny vignette of an observed scene from the artist’s life—his pregnant ex-wife in a doctor’s chair, a self-portrait in the bath, a stepbrother arriving—sometimes accompanied by a quippy line like “Footloose is a bad film” or “Please fall asleep”. Charming and occasionally annoying, these postcard’s cheerily confessional tone hint at what is to come.

The film installation is a two-room space constructed out of nine floor-to-ceiling screens each with an accompanying speaker. Since two back-to-back screens bisect the room, at no point can you stand and see the full orchestra at once, forcing the viewer to move through and around. Filmed at Rokeby Farm, a grand, crumbling Edwardian-eques estate in upstate New York, eight of the screens show a lone musician with only their instruments for company. The drummer taps away in the doorway of the kitchen, the accordionist plays to open French windows, while a guitarist sits at the edge of the bed of a sleeping woman, her naked back turned to the screen. Kjartansson appears in his own vignette, sitting in a bubble bath with his acoustic guitar perched on his belly. The one break from these lonely portraits appears in the screen closest to the door, where a group lounges on a porch with a couple of guitarists and unexcepted percussionist to make up a merry chorus. The setting gives The Visitors a vaguely pre-apocalyptic feel, as if these musicians have convened together at the end. Set among the detritus of the house, each moving image is composed and lit in the tradition of western portraiture, like animated versions of John Singer Sergeant paintings. Their eyes don’t follow you, but their individual voices and noises do.

Installation view of Ragnar Kjartansson’s The Visitors at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta. Images by Mike Jensen and courtesy of the High.

I must have arrived several minutes into the 64-minute-long video, because the music had already begun, the players settled in their spaces. Self-contained in their individual rooms, the eight musicians and porch chorus play and sing a winding a melodious hymn. Presumably, the isolated ensemble stays in unison through headphones, but for the viewer, the audio is almost fully integrated and enveloping, moving with slow intention from soft tones to a grand crashing cacophony, and back down again. There is no seating in the gallery space but that didn’t stop many from finding a spot on the floor to settle into the hour-long experience. However, the closer you stand to a particular musician and screen, the louder the volume of their instrument and voice relative to the full ensemble.  My favorite was the bassist/banjo player Shahzad Ismaily, whose tall frame stretched across an elegant mahogany study, his impassive profile mirrored by the marble bust on the desk and the deep resonance of his voice only perceptible right next to his speaker.  When there is singing, there is only one really describable line, “once again I fall into my feminine ways.”

Nancy Friedemann-Sánchez’s Casta Paintings on view at Halsey Institute in Charleston through July16

Kjartansson has declared that The Visitors is a “feminist nihilistic gospel song.” However given that the chorus line is lifted from a poem written by his former wife and fellow Icelandic artist Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir, and that the piece was produced in the midst of their divorce, the implication that the work is in anyway explicitly feminist is suspect at best. Especially alongside his postcards—which often express frustration with the trappings of family life—the repeated phrase only reinforces the idea that the artist is sad guy dwelling on his relationship. The piece is rife with various prototypical gendered portraits—the female cellist and accordionist are airily dressed in slips while their fully clothed male counterparts smoke cigars and drink whiskey in the golden light. But Kjartansson’s location in the bathtub is also what makes the work so funny and seemingly self-aware, a completely staged, totally exposed pitying self-portrait in the cold water and vanishing bubbles. Like the many indie/alt-rock front men that emerged around the same time—Bon Iver, Edward Sharpe and Magnetic Zero’s, The Polyphonic Spree, Broken Social Scene—his mediocrity and loneliness is alleviated by the grandeur and talent of the ensemble.

Installation view of Ragnar Kjartansson’s The Visitors at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta. Images by Mike Jensen and courtesy of the High.

The relationship to indie/alt/folk music scene of the mid-2000s is not subtle. One of the ensemble members is in the Icelandic group Sigur Ros, and Kjartansson himself led several bands including a group called Ragnar Kjartansson & The All-Star Band. Like the visual composition as classic portraiture in a post-colonial house, The Visitors clearly takes its musical cues from a legacy—Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young etc.—that is, almost without exception, male and white. I don’t mean to dimmish the emotional impact of The Visitors or suggest that the work isn’t sincerely, even beautifully, concerned with complexity of relationships, community and closeness. But the work is deceptive in the same way that a good song can cultivate the impression that it belongs to you, that it is telling your particular story—an auditory illusion of intimacy.

The Visitors is long, but it’s not boring, largely because watching the musicians, isolated in their rooms, is such a tender, cinematic experience. Their faces and bodies move through a range of feeling from laughter to boredom to grief, occasionally swept up with impassioned ecstasy as they bring the composition to a crescendo.  Eventually, the players begin to move in and out of each other’s scenes, a break that initially feels like a shock and quickly turns to relief, as the unity of the group in song is finally realized by its visuals. There is real warmth in the moment when the entire group exits the house, laughing, arms around each other, especially for the contemporary viewer in the eleventh hour of the pandemic and after a year mediating our relationships through the screens. Despite my initial skepticism, I’ll confess to having been moved and swept up by The Visitors’ invitation to share in the emotional outpouring of a group of humans, to be enveloped by their noise and bodies—to shelter briefly inside someone else’s home and baroque feelings.

The Visitors is on view at the High Museum through May 9, 2021.

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