A Mesmerizing 'The Visitors' at CAM

Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson's video installation arrives at the art museum with Rock-star buzz

Mar 27, 2018 at 1:00 pm
click to enlarge Installation view of "The Visitors" - Photo: Farzad Owrang @ Ragnar Kjartansson/Courtesy of the Artist, Luhring Augustine New York and 18 Gallery, Reykjavik
Photo: Farzad Owrang @ Ragnar Kjartansson/Courtesy of the Artist, Luhring Augustine New York and 18 Gallery, Reykjavik
Installation view of "The Visitors"

Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson’s nine-screen video installation The Visitors, which will be at Cincinnati Art Museum from March 30 through June 17, is just six years old and already a landmark of contemporary art.

It’s both an installation and performance art and has been touring museums constantly. The artist and eight friends repeatedly perform a song refrain in different rooms of an old New York mansion until they slowly come together. As it plays out in real time, museumgoers move from screen to screen to watch. It’s easy to become enchanted by the music and the slow but sure way the participants join up while hauntingly singing, “Once again I fall into my feminine ways.”

The Visitors is based on repetition, a concept that Kjartansson finds fundamental to much of his work. In The Visitors, it builds a sense of drama, as each of the nine musicians provides interpretation and meaning to the lyric, taken from a poem by Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir because of its hypnotic effect.

“Repetition is ancient, good stuff,” says Kjartansson, in an interview. “It’s the basic fundamental of all our religious practices; Christianity, Islam, Buddhism. Everything is about repetition. Say the same thing again and again and again and somehow it becomes spiritual.”

The musicians are united only in song throughout most of the 64-minute piece until the end, when they all exit the house and congregate outside, continuing to sing and play as they head away from the building. (Kjartansson plays the guitar in a bathtub for part of the video.)

The repetitive nature of the work, the recurring refrain and the cathartic joining together at the end could be viewed as a metaphor on the nature of life, a potential commentary on existence. Kjartansson doesn’t shy away from this conjecture, but he doesn’t necessarily subscribe to it, either.

“I have no expectations of viewers, never,” he says. “You’re not supposed to feel anything special. It’s there for you, voilà — hope you enjoy. Everyone gets something, hopefully something different, from it. That’s the kick of art in general — to put something out into the world and maybe it matters to people in ways that you have no idea that it was going to do.”

This is a sentiment that Stacy Sims agrees with. The Cincinnati-based mind-body educator, author and founder of Mindful Music Moments and City Silence recently saw The Visitors at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. She says the way she experienced it might not necessarily be how anyone else does. People move around the darkened room, from screen to screen, at different speeds, she says.

“There’s a lot of wonder and curiosity, like you’re figuring out a puzzle,” she explains. “It’s very visually soothing and interesting. The people are beautiful, the rooms are beautiful and then there’s this communion with this beautiful moment in time. You get to become a part of this experience, and you’re also watching other individuals enjoying this experience with you.”

Music helps elevate that experience, says Kjartansson, referring not just to The Visitors, but also to many of his pieces. He references the recent The Sky in a Room, a performative exhibition at the National Museum Cardiff in Wales, which takes its title from an Italian love song and features musicians individually performing it on a 1700s organ. There’s also A Lot of Sorrow, his video that features Rock band The National repeatedly performing their song “Sorrow” for six hours in front of a live audience at the Museum of Modern Art’s PS1 in 2013.

A Lot of Sorrow screened at the Contemporary Arts Center here during 2015’s MusicNOW festival, which is organized by The National’s Bryce Dessner. And one of The Visitors’ featured musicians, Kristín Anna Valtýsdóttir, will perform songs from her recent album at the art museum during the upcoming Homecoming/MusicNOW weekend, April 28-29. (She is also one of the headliners at MusicNOW’s April 27 Opening Night Reception at Cincinnati Masonic Center.)

“A song makes the experience of living so much deeper and more profound and interesting, and songs are of such importance to me that I want to make portraits of songs,” Kjartansson says. “That has been done a lot in the visual-arts tradition, in abstract paintings, but I was really interested in capturing the essence of a song through repetition. There’s something that happens with repetition that it actually becomes almost distilled, like good bourbon.”

If The Visitors and much of Kjartansson’s other performance-based work feel more lighthearted, his Scenes from Western Culture — also being presented at the art museum — is decidedly more sober. He filmed friends in what he calls “extreme Western situations” in different locales around the world, from a lake in Switzerland to a “super white kind of creepy restaurant” in New York City, creating video portraits.

“I’m really happy they are showing (them) together because Scenes from Western Culture is a piece that is very silent, but it’s all kind of ambient noises,” he says, calling it “a very nihilistic” work. “It sort of has the feeling (that) everything is so futile, our Western longings are so futile and melancholic.”

The juxtaposition of these two sides of Kjartansson’s work is a tidy summation of his general artistic ethos.

“I’m really interested in both — the joy of life, the beauty of life, and also just what a sad condition the human condition is. I think a mix of them both is something that is a string through my work.”

Despite his serious ruminations, Kjartansson has playful, tongue-in-cheek advice for visitors of The Visitors’ darkened room, which serves to highlight his sly ironic humor.

“You can kiss but you can’t make-out full-time in the exhibition,” he says.  

The Visitors and Scenes from Western Culture is on display at the Cincinnati Art Museum March 30-June 17. Admission is free. More info: cincinnatiartmuseum.org.