Review of The Visitors at Luhring Augustine

by Chris Mansour

Ragnar Kjartansson. The Visitors, 2012. Still. Nine channel HD video projection. From an edition of 6 and 2 artist’s proofs. Duration: 64 minutes.

The ability to express the profound sense of love and completeness we experience when bonding with friends is difficult to do without being overly light-hearted or kitschy about it. We consider Hallmark cards, emoticons, or even flowers & chocolates to be tinted with an element of corniness. Often, artworks about friendship no less escape this same fate. They usually either expose facets of the relationship that are considered undesirable, or end up recycling mushy formulaic tropes. Despite these dangers, artists have sought to viscerally capture this bond since time immemorial. The Icelandic musician and performance artist Ragnar Kjartansson has bravely offered a video and music installation on this theme at the Luhring Augustine gallery entitled The Visitors.

As a nine-channel video installation in a darkened gallery space, eight of the nine videos project a static shot of each musician in a separate room of the same house. They are all listening to each other play along through headphones, forming a musical ensemble. The shot is composed in a portrait-like fashion, while the background and natural lighting make for a dramatic image. The setting is a decadent but dilapidated 19th century Federal-style mansion, which is said to be a family-owned residence called Rokeby Farm in the Hudson Valley area, a historic site for bohemian culture. Only a section of the house’s exterior is viewable in the ninth video, which depicts a wide-shot of the its front porch where a small crowd of eclectic on-listeners sit relaxing or singing along.

All the musicians inside mansion are leisurely playing a down-tempo folk composition (or, as Kjartansson describes it, “a feminine nihilistic gospel”) that lasts about an hour, wavering through various intensities and drawn-out crescendos. Lyrics are minimal and repeated frequently, where the most memorable lines set a romantic but resigned tone: “”Once again I fall into my feminine ways,” or “There are stars exploding around you, and there’s nothing, nothing you can do.” These two particular verses—which are the most oft repeated—play into Kjartansson’s purported nihilism, but still somehow manage to emit a veneer of hope.

Ragnar Kjartansson. The Visitors. Installation View. Luhring Augustine 2013.

Each participant in the videos are said to be Kjartansson’s “closest friends,” and although this fact can never be known to the viewer from the get-go, it is easy to guess given the synergy between the musicians and the relaxed atmosphere. When the musicians are not playing their instruments, they navigate around the room, smoke cigars, or take sips from their glass of liquor. Kjartanssoon himself, laying in a bubble bath, strokes his guitar and sings with passion, appearing entirely self-content and at ease. Taken as a whole, the imagery and actions of the performers perfectly embody the idiom of a “lazy Sunday afternoon,” and comes of as the common activity where friends share an experience through a “jam session.”

Although the installation boils down to an unorthodox approach in making a music video, there are pinnacle moments that put The Visitors in the vain of an unorthodox home movie. Indeed, home movies are not an official genre since non-artists and amateurs typically produce them for private use, but they are still an easily recognizable type. Video documents of family vacations, a day out with a group of friends, or children rehearing a play are the usual examples. The occasions Kjartansson’s videos welcome this read are minimal and scattered throughout its long duration, but strongly color the whole project. For instance, the entire film is unedited and uncut in the same way home videos are.

In the beginning, we see the performers and camera operators setting up for the shoot, and the song does not start until a few minutes after the viewer is subjected to watching this process unfold. And at the video’s end, all the musicians convene to celebrate their friendship (by smoking more cigars and popping a bottle of Champaign). They then whimsically leave the mansion and walk off into the distance, still chanting the lyrics while the sun sets. As they fade into the background, we hear the camera operator chatting, drop a beer bottle, and dogs recklessly barking in the yard. This scene is followed by the camera operator walking throughout the property, turning off each camera while whistling the tune of the song.

Even though these moments may not have been scripted for the videos, Kjartansson most likely saw them as happy accidents since it played into the feeling of “living in the moment.” The raw footage that almost proudly displays these instances heighten The Visitors’ sentimentality much in the same way that home movies seek to authentically capture moments to remember.

Ragnar Kjartansson. The Visitors, 2012. Still. Nine channel HD video projection. From an edition of 6 and 2 artist’s proofs. Duration: 64 minutes.

To call the Visitors a kind of home movie is not to say that the video installation solely function this way. There is nothing amateur about its production, and it was obviously made for an audience in mind (while most home movies are often not meant for public viewing). Unlike home videos, each camera shot is highly considered. The song is well composed, and the musicians are fully aware that they are putting on an act. When there are moments that mimic an amateur video, they are intentionally done. Likewise, The Visitors does not easily sit in the genre of a music video given its length and purposeful lack of glamour. Nor is the installation centered solely around the end result of the song itself—it is directed more towards the process of making the song, and focuses on the interdynamics between the friends.

If The Visitors were to be couched in an art historical framework, it is most similar to Andy Warhol’s durational films that portray his entourage in intimate or mundane moments (e.g., Sleep or Chelsea Girls). Both Warhol and Kjartansson utilized an epically long format and casted those who surround them. However, where Warhol was keener on the superficial appeal of stardom, Kjartansson is seemingly more concerned with the putting on display the depth of genuine relationships.

It must be questioned though: was the intention of The Visitors to arouse the sense of love and completeness we experience when bonding with friends? And if so, was Kjartansson successful in doing so? On the one hand, The Visitors seems to be an entirely sincere ode to friendship given its cast and formal strategies. However, there are underlying elements of The Visitors that make us wonder how complete they can actually feel. This is the effect of the curious sense of nihilism embodied in the lyrics and setting. While the friends rejoice about their friendship through singing and playing a song together, the environment that surrounds them is deteriorated and neglected.

Although Kjartansson and his friends were transplants in Rokeby Farm, and were indeed just visitors of its disrepair, the decadent mood emitted from the piece pervades well beyond the moment they documented, and for that matter, well beyond their own. In this way, the location they filmed and the lyrics they chose can be understood as an allegorical gesture, and can speak to others in ways that most “home movies” fail to do. Rather than an ode to friendship as such, it might be more precise to say that The Visitors is purposely pointing towards the failure of friendship because, in the world this video installation exposes, friendship is both impossible and necessary. 

Thus, The Visitors is successful in conveying the energy of love and closeness in friendship bonds, but the sense of completeness is truncated by the videos surrounding and fatalistic lyrics. The viewer cannot easily write off the video as trivial or corny, nor can they claim that the friendship they are witnessing is inauthentic or undesirable. The resignation and nihilism expressed by Kjartansson and his friends is not about their own relationship, but the condition of the surroundings that they find themselves in. This perhaps could be the very reason that brings them together so closely. No matter how much love they share with each other and try to capture through the format of a home moviesque installation, Kjartansson has shown that we are still always left wanting. 

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