Behind a curtain in the darkened gallery space at Luhring Augustine nine screens, each equipped with its own speaker have been arranged into two somewhat discreet areas. Eight of the screens feature the image of a single musician — a guitarist, pianist, banjo player, cellist, and so forth — and one screen offers a view of the porch of a large house where other instrumentalists, singers and assorted folks have gathered. Ragnar Kjartansson’s video installation titled “The Visitors” documents in a single take the 64-minute-long performance of one song.
The Hudson Valley mansion where the film was made has been employed before by the Icelandic artist: In 2007’s “Blossoming Trees Performance,” he documented two days on the property in which he “performed” the role of a landscape painter. More recently, in 2011 at the Carnegie in Pittsburgh, Kjarstansson staged a live three-week performance (“Song”) in which three of his nieces repeatedly sang fragments from a poem of Allen Ginsberg’s. His work can be situated within the long tradition extending from composers of Gregorian chant to Gertrude Stein, John Cage and Christian Marclay, all of whom employ repetition and duration to explore the sensation of passing time.
Testing the patience of an audience is only one aspect of the Kjarstansson’s gambit. By dilating the temporal, he’s also attempting to reorganize our sense of narrative. After the first, say, 20 minutes of watching “The Visitors” the viewer either accedes to the experience or grows bored and departs. If you stay you’ll see that, on their separate screens, the musicians play introspectively, often almost immobile except for the movements required to sing and strum. Soon you’ll become aware of even their tiniest movements, the slightest variations from their otherwise inward, almost stately dispositions. When the pianist lights a cigar during a lull, it feels as if the first rudiment of a story has been put in place. When the bassist leaves his room/screen to join him in a smoke, the effect approaches the dramatic. Otherwise insignificant gestures acquire purposeful heft as they fill out the durational largesse.
Each screen is a carefully lit tableau vivant: sculptures, paintings, floral print fabrics and domestic bric-a-brac contribute to a painterly scene — a guitarist sits at a desk in a library of red leather-bound books; another guitarist perches on the edge of a bed while someone sleeps beside him; an accordionist sits half in shadow, half in light by an open window. The HD video projection shimmers with detail and depth: Vermeer or Caravaggio could have set these stages.
The stillness of these scenes, the dirge-like pace of the song, as well as its repetitive lyrics (the line “Once again I fall into my feminine ways” is probably heard a few dozen times) combine to focus attention on what is typically recessive, unnoticed — the visual space between the players, the auditory space between the sung words and struck notes. As viewers, then, we find ourselves amid rather than at a performance. As our status as viewers gradually erodes, we discover that we aren’t the audience; we’re, well, visitors.
The musicians play the arrangement precisely and in harmony, their successful interaction facilitated by the headphones they wear. They are alone, each isolated in one room of the house (except those on the porch), yet intimately connected via technology, via their common endeavor—the performance. The house itself becomes a metaphor for this duality of alone and together, inside and outside, as we roam about its interior and then see the whole structure in the shot presenting performers and friends on the porch and lawn. Perhaps more than a metaphor, the house is, in fact, the instrument they are all playing.
Kjartansson has placed himself in perhaps the least aesthetic, most comically self-deprecating circumstance; he strums a beat-up guitar while lounging naked in a suds-filled tub. Pudgy, pale, and dreamy-eyed, he makes an improbable yet somehow charismatic front-man. In a manner similar to the artist’s performance of a landscape painter in “Blossoming Trees,” here he plays a role — the musician lost in tuneful reverie; at one point he sets down the guitar and splashes the water as if it were a keyboard.
If Kjartansson is the soulful singer in the shower, privately enacting a public role, the other musicians follow suit to varying degrees; the cellist rocks in her chair as if possessed by the swelling sounds and the accordionist’s feet dance beneath her chair. No one regards the camera: they act as if they are unobserved. They portray aloneness, even as they act collectively.
Is this duality — its tensions and attractions — in some way related to the repeated declaration the singers make, that they are falling into their “feminine ways”? The line comes from a poem by artist Ásidís Sif Gunnarsdóttir, Kjartansson’s ex-wife. Another much repeated line is “There are stars exploding around you, and there’s nothing, nothing you can do.” This, too, suggests ways to think about individual subjectivity in the midst of larger social subjectivities. Are the negotiations between these modes what constitute feminine ways?
Walking around the divided room, circumambulating the center wall with its screens on either side may be the ideal way to inhabit the installation. Such movement feels apt when set against the relative stillness on the screens. (The group on the porch, though, is more active. On the lawn a cannon barrel is tamped with old rags and eventually detonated.) As the hour mark nears, Kjartansson rises from the tub and, wrapped in a towel, departs the bathroom; the other players also leave their posts, all the while playing (even the cello is borne along) and singing, congregating in one room, and then proceeding out to the porch. The entire group then ambles down the lawn to the field below the house. The camera remains stationary as they drift into the encroaching dusk, their voices growing ever dimmer.
The band and sundry friends, now finally joined together, their voices meshed without mechanical aid, appear fanciful, like medieval troubadours, as their song — their very long song — finally fades. The sense of ending is unexpectedly profound. While nothing has really happened, musicians merely played and sang, the overall experience pulses with momentum; paradoxically, the lack of action has made much of very little. In leaving their separate rooms and gathering for the journey outward, the musicians seem to enact an ancient and joyous ritual.
In “The Visitors,” Kjartansson tries our patience, but not without an emotional reward that is all the more stirring for rising out of the commonplace. The beauty of this immersive work catches us unaware, in part because the artist has situated us in the midst of his art. We, too, perform as we “visit” each screen, listen closely to each voice; we’ve fallen into this house and its ways. And when the video ends and you part the curtains to leave, you cannot help but feel the fresh excitation of setting off, in company, with real and imagined others.
Ragnar Kjartansson: The Visitors is on view at Luhring Augustine (531 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through March 23.