Last Saturday, I saw Ragnar Kjartansson's 10-channel video installation "The Visitors" at the ICA Boston. It was my third time seeing the piece- saw it twice at Luhring Augustine in NY- and again found myself in an emotional trance by the end of the video.
"Visitors" features Ragnar and 8 of his musician friends playing a semi-improvised song together at a gorgeously weathered hippie mansion - "Rokeby Farm"- in New York State.
Each artist is located in a separate room, playing in isolation. Headphones and mics allow them to play in unison; the lyrics of the song are derived from of poem by Kjartansson's former wife "Feminine Ways":
A pink rose In the glittery frost A diamond heart And the orange red fire Once again I fall into My feminine ways You protect the world from me As if I’m the only one who’s cruel You’ve taken me To the bitter end Once again I fall into My feminine ways There are stars exploding And there is nothing you can do (Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir)
To start, the gallery is dark. Screens light up as the tech goes through all nine rooms, turning each camera on. The musicians are waiting for the signal to begin; we watch them tune their instruments and prepare themselves for the next hour of playing.
It's hard to determine where the preparations end and the performance begins. At some point the noodling on various guitars, pianos, an accordion and cello, transition into the song.
The musicians become absorbed by the melancholy of the tune, rocking in their chairs to the circular rhythm and lyrics. We see the musicians listening closely, pause; we hear their voices falter; we watch them flutter between rooms as they play; we see them staring into space. It all feels incredibly honest, and it's hard not to feel swept up in the layering upon layering of chords and harmonies as they swell into various crescendos.
Meanwhile, we find an exterior shot on the back of the floating screen in the center of the room, where the inhabitants of the mansion are providing additional accompaniment. At two points, the music is interrupted by the blast of a canon, and this detail underscores the emphasis on space, location, and isolation. It is impossible to see everything all at once- as one moves between screens trying to do so, each instrument can be heard. It is only when one stands in the middle of the space that it all truly comes together. As viewers, we bring the piece together- we move between rooms visually and physically to gain a full view.
It's all incredibly sentimental, and it might feel hokey, or contrived, if it weren't for the transparency- we can see each performer set up, question whether their instruments are in tune, and at times, take breaks from playing to let others carry the song forward. After multiple rounds, one-by-one, they begin leaving their rooms. We must scan the room to follow them, and we see them gather slowly in the piano room, and after a self-congratulatory moment (they pop a spraying bottle of champagne, which a towel-clad Ragnar cleans with none other than his towel), leave the room together, appearing in the exterior shot. The entire group leaves the house together and, for the first time, the camera pans to watch them continue singing as they make their way into the distant hills.
There is a consistent rotation between authenticity and contrived emotion; sentimentality and humor; isolation and connection; improvisation and premeditation. Somehow, the simple act of watching the musicians physically "come together" at the end, emerging from their isolation, is incredibly moving.