The Visitors, Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson’s celebrated nine-channel video projection, opened at The Frist Center for the Visual Arts last weekend. It has been hailed as “a generational masterpiece” by the Boston Globe and referred to by Frist Chief Curator Mark Scala as “beautifully illuminated and composed” with “stunning cinematography.” Scala told a group of visiting media on the Friday morning that it opened that when he first came across The Visitors four years ago, he intended to only pop in and out of the projection, but stayed for the entire hour running-time. He then stayed and watched it again and knew almost immediately it needed to come to Nashville. It’s clear why. It’s immersive and enveloping. It’s easy to spend a good portion of your first viewing simply caught up in the mechanics of it all before allowing the emotion to take over. There are nine screens projected on the walls of the upstairs gallery, eight focused on individual musicians in eight different rooms in the run-down 43-room Rokeby Farm mansion in Upstate New York. The ninth screen gives us a view of a group of people gathered on the porch. The musicians, isolated, all have headphones on as they play a melody built around the phrase,“once again I fall into my feminine ways,” cribbed from a poem by Kjartansson’s ex-wife. There doesn’t appear to be a session leader, save for Kjartansson half-heartedly strumming an acoustic guitar in the bathtub, or that most of the musicians have anything resembling a chart. The dynamics of the piece are communicated solely auditorially. The rises and falls have to be felt. Each projection also has its own speaker which isolates each room’s audio. There is bleed, of course, and depending on where you’re standing in the gallery, you can hear the other instruments, but only in the way you might if you were walking around the mansion, passing through the hallways and stopping in different rooms to visit with the musicians. It’s not clear then, who the titular visitors are, the musicians or us.
For this visitor, once I accepted my awe at the logistics of the projection, I settled in to experience its emotion. I thought of the final hours in every house and apartment I had ever lived in. I considered the moments after acknowledging that a relationship had become irreparable. I mourned the passing of loved ones. I returned to the abject isolation and loneliness of all of those experiences, when there is no one else who understands. When you are alone trying to navigate life’s subtle melodies and defeated by the impermanence of it all. And it is, indeed, impermanent. There are reports of museumgoers, at the Frist and other locations where it has been exhibited, walking out of the gallery in tears.
By the end of the projection’s loop, there’s a suggestion that perhaps we are not alone. Some laughter and joy breaks through. The pain may be impermanent, too. But it’s everything that happens before, that seems of most interest to Kjartansson.
Many of Kjartansson’s works are dubbed “endurance art.” As Scala writes in the exhibit program, “Kjartansson’s performances and videos can take hours, even days or months, to unfold. They often involve the playing and replaying of musical phrases and songs, exploring correlations between repetition, boredom, and a complete absorption in the stretching out of his absurd and endearing experiences.” It is too obvious to consider all of that a metaphor for the lives we live?
Ragnar Kjartansson: The Visitors runs November 18, 2016–February 12, 2017 at The First Center for the Visual Arts in Downtown Nashville.