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Ragnar Kjartansson in video installation The Visitors. Photo: Elisabet Davidsdottir. Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York, and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik.

Ragnar Kjartansson's The Visitors

by Philip Auslander

Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson’s nine-channel video installation The Visitors, acclaimed by The Guardian as “the best artwork of the century so far,” was commissioned by the Migros Museum in Zurich in 2012 and has been traveling the world ever since. Kjartansson gathered a group of friends from the Reykjavik music scene and installed them for a week in the mansion at Rokeby, a nineteenth-century estate in upstate New York owned by descendants of the Astor family. At the end of the week, they filmed the videos that make up the installation simultaneously in a single take.

 

Eight of the nine screens show a single room in the house containing, for most of the piece’s 64-minute run time, a single musician, including three guitarists (two electric and one acoustic), two pianists (one of whom doubles on bass guitar), an accordionist, a cellist, and a drummer. Although these musicians are physically separate from one another, they wear headphones that enable them to hear each other playing. They are also guided by a graphic score that breaks the music down into individual units and identifies the instrumentation of each segment as well as chord progressions and other sonic events. Some of the musicians switch instruments (one electric guitarist also plays banjo; the accordionist switches to an acoustic guitar), thus increasing the timbral and textural variety of the music.

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Gyða Valtýsdóttir in Ragnar Kjartansson, The Visitors, video installation. Photo: Elisabet Davidsdottir.

The ninth screen shows an outside porch where other occupants congregate. Above each screen is a speaker through which one can hear the sound being generated by the musician on that screen. As one moves among the screens in the installation, individual performers gain prominence, then recede as one approaches a different screen. Collectively, the musicians on the interior play a single song whose lyrics derive from the poem “Feminine Ways” written by Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir, Kjartansson’s ex-wife. At some points, the people on the porch engage in a sing-along lead by a guitar player.

Ragnar Kjartansson, The Visitors, video installation, 2012. Video: James Lee.

Compared with other of Kjartansson’s works, both the narrative of The Visitors and the musical composition at its heart are structured relatively conventionally. The narrative begins with the set-up. Before the musicians start performing a technician moves from room to room (and therefore from screen to screen) setting up the microphones in each room and turning on the cameras, revealing the musician there. Once everything is in place, the musicians begin playing. The music ebbs and flows, rises and falls over the course of an hour. About three-quarters of the way through, following a delicate passage sung by sisters Gyða (the cellist) and Kristín Anna Valtýsdóttir (the accordionist), the music builds toward a crescendo largely through the increasingly intense pianism of Davíð Þór Jónsson, a jazz musician and Kjartansson’s primary collaborator in his music-themed performances. Just after he stops playing, seemingly exhausted, a cannon is fired outside the house. This moment marks the start of the music’s final section, its coda, and what in narrative terms would be called the falling action following the climax. As the music resumes softly, the musicians start to leave their individual rooms and congregate in various combinations on different screens before coming together, popping open a bottle of champagne, then leaving the house and cavorting arm-in-arm through an open field of green grass, receding into the distance, some still holding instruments and all still singing. At the very end, the action returns to the house where a technician moves from room to room  turning off the cameras that were turned on at the start and bringing about narrative closure as each screen goes to black.

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Ragnar Kjartansson, The Visitors, 2012, nine-channel video, 64 minutes, commissioned by the Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Zurich. Photo: Elísabet Davids © Ragnar Kjartansson;

courtesy of the artist; Luhring Augustine, New York; and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik.

Whereas the narrative of The Visitors has a beginning, middle, and end, Kjartansson has often isolated one or another of these moments in his performances and repeated it. Bliss, originally commissioned for the Performa festival in 2011, consists of the final three-minute reconciliation scene of Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro, performed in full 18th century costume on a theatrical set by professional singers joined by Kjartansson himself, and repeated for twelve hours. It is an ending that seemingly won’t end—until it does. In The End, Kjartansson painted portraits of a mostly-nude male model for the entire six months of the 2009 Venice Biennale, immediately starting a new painting each time he finished one. As Markus Thor Andresson and Dorothee Kirch suggest in their essay for the catalog, “The title, The End, appears at odds with what seems like a never-ending story. . . . The End has no end. . . .” 

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Ragnar Kjartansson, The End – Venice (2009).

Commissioned by the Center for Icelandic Art. Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine and i8 Gallery.

Photo by Rafael Pinho.

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Ragnar Kjartansson, God (2007) at the Mayakovsky Theatre in Moscow in 2019. © The Art Newspaper/Gareth Harris.

For God, a single-channel video work of 2007, Kjartansson, dressed in a tuxedo and fronting an orchestra against a backdrop of cheesy pink curtains, sings the line “Sorrow conquers happiness” repeatedly for 30 minutes. If Bliss is a repeated ending which is therefore no longer an ending, God can be understood as a repeated beginning that leads to nothing. All of these performances do not so much end as simply stop at a pre-determined but essentially arbitrary point 30 minutes or 12 hours or six months after they begin. From another perspective, they do not necessarily end at all, since in 2019, Kjartansson restaged Bliss at REDCAT in Los Angeles and shot the performance for a single-channel video work of 2020. Bliss now has a history that spans a decade; the possibility of further iterations of these pieces as live performances, video works, and installations leaves open the question of whether they can ever be said to be finished. 

The final moment of Bliss at Performa, 2011.

The Visitors is different from Kjartansson’s earlier works; it offers musical resolution and is structured as a tidy, self-contained narrative, giving the work a satisfying feeling of completion and making the ending seem like a denouement more than just a stopping point. Nevertheless, The Visitors shares some features with these earlier works. The most obvious is the obsessive repetition of two lines from the lyrics: “Once again, I fall into my feminine ways” and “The stars are exploding around you and there’s nothing you can do,” sentences that echo the Romantic melancholia of “Sorrow conquers happiness,” a melancholia that is both reinforced and undermined by the commitment and enthusiasm with which these lines are sung and performed. The other, perhaps more subtle connection has to do with the absence of finality despite the appearance of narrative closure. Watching the merry band of musicians venturing out into nature at the end, their voices receding into the distance, I was reminded of Brian Eno’s statement regarding the fade-outs at the end of some pop songs, attributed to him by Laurie Anderson: “A fade out gives the impression that somewhere, the music is still going on. It suggests an eternal music.” The idea that the music goes on forever is also implicit in the opening and closing of The Visitors, the switching on and off of the cameras in each room. The successive black outs of the screens at the end seem to mark the end of the story pretty definitively, yet the narrative is actually cyclical—the ending mirrors the beginning in reverse (turning on becomes turning off), and one need only turn the cameras back on to start the whole thing up again. Which is exactly what happens in the gallery as the installation restarts for the next group of visitors.

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Abba, The Visitors (1981). Photo and Cover Design: Rune Söderqvist

Location: Studio of Julius Kronberg

The Visitors is named for the last album by the Swedish pop band Abba, released in 1981. The cover photo for the album sleeve was taken at the preserved atelier of the Swedish painter Julius Kronberg, a 19th century interior that bears more than a passing resemblance to Rokeby. Abba was a group built around two married couples; by the time of their final album, one of the couples had already divorced and the other was separated. The music on the album is much darker and more introspective than Abba’s usual peppy pop confections. Although the group was frequently depicted as two happy couples, as for example on the sleeve image for their Waterloo album of 1974, the cover photo for The Visitors shows the four members as occupying the same space but distanced from one another to reflect the state of their relationships at the time.

 

In the final scene of The Marriage of Figaro, Count Almaviva begs his wife’s forgiveness for his infidelity, which she generously grants, leading to celebration. Marc Swed, a music critic for the LA Times, observes that the repetition of this scene in Kjartansson’s Bliss can induce us “into believing that redemption, however unreceptive our current culture, is the only way of the world.” By transforming the disconsolate members of Abba who must make music together despite their eroding relationships into the happy band of musicians in

The Visitors whose isolation from one another in separate rooms of the same house belies the palpable warmth that unites them in their common love of playing music and, ultimately, in being together, Kjartansson performs his own act of redemption and invites us all to the party.

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Philip Auslander is the Editor of The Art Section. His most recent book is In Concert: Performing Musical Persona. His essay "Repetition and Theatricality in Ragnar Kjartansson's Performance Art" appeared in the catalog for the exhibition at the Migros Museum for which The Visitors was commissioned. This essay is a revised excerpt from a talk presented by the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, in May of 2021.