There is something monastic about Ragnar Kjartansson’s epic video installation The Visitors. It has already toured Europe and America to wide acclaim, and in each location it has been treated as a secluded and meditative place of contemplation. The journey to its recent installation at The Vinyl Factory is filled with the same sense of pilgrimage, set on the top floor of a car park in London’s Soho.
One is directed to the work by a security guard and rises through a deserted stairwell it is as if expecting to open onto a rave or some other licentious party. Instead one finds themselves steadily following the sweet hum of distant mournful music. The black curtained entrance and dimmed cathedral lighting opens onto nine vast projected screens showing isolated performers playing instruments.
The work is staggered around the room so it is impossible to see all performers at once, one must commit to seeing each individually and only hearing the distant sounds of the others. Everyone is sitting on the floor and staring up at the performers, or else lying down to only hear the melancholy cadence.
Kjartansson is well known for creating these mesmerizing performances. He grew up in Reykjavik in the world of theatre, where both his father and mother were actors. He has since not lost his Scandinavian roots it seems. The work’s expression of remoteness and distance is echoed in the paintings of the vast Northern landscape; here is it echoed in the run-down grandeur of the interiors.
He travelled to Rokeby Farm in upstate New York with a group of friends to make the work. They stayed the week, drinking, eating, and rehearsing for the final shoot. A way of connecting before they were split up into each room to play their mournful music.
Each video screen, composed like an oil painting, shows a single musician playing an instrument. Playing it slowly and reflectively, often stopping and sitting in silence or singing a quiet refrain to speak of heartache and loss. The words were written by Kjartansson’s ex-wife, whom he had split with a few months previous. ‘Once again I fall into/ my feminine ways/There are stars exploding around you/And there is nothing, nothing you can do.” The words are structured to be self-critical and self-analytical, speaking in nihilistic tones of the inevitable repetition of failure and solitude; though a solitude they all share.
Each performer occupies a discrete visual and aural space. Each is connected through headphones to hear the music of the others and respond accordingly, as though they were connected not by place but by some inner emotional expression. They are all alone, but alone together. A theme reflected in the viewers.
As the piece nears its hour-long end the interior rooms are evacuated, leaving the instruments alone and in silence. The screens are inevitably drained of interest and the performers join up in the only outside space shown. The audience ends up echoing the movement of the performers and congregating around the same screen, all stood at the end together. As the video ends the performers walk away from the camera together and out across the expansive lawn. Just as the video ends one finds the audience to respond on kind. The performance now over, we also turn to walk outside; us all having been brought together from our different places to stand and to leave together. It is an entirely absorbing work.
by Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir, the inspiration for the lyrics of The Visitors
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
Images courtesy of http://interludeartlab.com