Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson’s nine-screen installation The Visitors (2012) is a pop-music video in extremis, breaking every protocol for the genre. It’s long (at 64 minutes), slow and repetitive. There are no quick cuts, cool costumes or visual hijinks. The work—one of the most enthralling I’ve seen in years—was created at Rokeby Farm, a once magnificent but now faded Hudson Valley mansion (still inhabited by an eccentric cast of descendants of the original owners). While playing a spare, enigmatic song, from a poem (“A pink rose, in the glittery frost, a diamond heart, and the orange red fire . . . “) by Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir—Kjartansson’s former wife—the musicians were isolated in different rooms and filmed on single, stationary cameras. Their performances were recorded in one take, and while they could hear the others through headphones, they couldn’t see one another, making for a poignant mix of togetherness and solitude.
The eight band members look vivid and lush on their large individual screens, like paintings come to life: the ethereal Kría Brekkan, for example, in a flowing dress, seated before an open window as she plays her accordion; Kjartan Sveinsson, bass guitarist, slumped on a green davenport; David Thor Jónsson at a parlor piano, sometimes smoking a cigar. Kjartansson chose a humble place for himself. He spends almost the whole time soaking in a bathtub while strumming his acoustic guitar, singing and occasionally splashing water, the sound of which becomes part of the song. These are exceptionally talented musicians, and the performances are exemplary, but what equally matters are their glances, intense expressions and bodies charged with emotion.
You give yourself over to this work: to the mansion, with all its entropy and enduring vitality; to the constellation of thoughtful and impassioned musicians, with all their depth and nuance. While the mood is often somber, coursing throughout is a celebration of friendship, collaboration, creativity and life, by turns ragged and exquisite. Desolation abounds (Kjartansson and others repeatedly sing, “There are stars exploding around you, and there’s nothing you can do,” passing from dirge-like lamentation to gospel-like fervor), but so, too, do loveliness and grace. There is also a recurring refrain, at once soothing and haunting, sung by both women and men: “Once again I fall into my feminine ways.” One screen shows residents of Rokeby Farm twice firing a small cannon on the porch. The resounding boom and murky smoke perfectly mesh with the song.
The Visitors takes its title from the final album by Swedish pop stars ABBA, recorded while the band was being riven by dissension and divorce. Last summer Kjartansson, an acclaimed performance artist and musician, invited several of his close musician friends, mostly from the thriving Reykjavík scene, to accompany him upstate. Each was going through a significant personal upheaval (Kjartansson was getting divorced; Sveinsson was leaving the famous band Sigur Rós). They lived together for a week, culminating in the performance. Nothing of what happened during that time is explicitly revealed. Instead, everything flows into the music: troubles, sadness, joy, trust. After you’ve heard the “feminine” refrain about 40 times it seems almost liturgical, evoking a state where sorrow, resignation, acceptance and elation coexist. Near the end, the performers, still singing, vacate their separate spaces to move outside, joined by others from the porch. All of them—accompanied by two excited dogs—parade down the hill directly into the spectacular Hudson Valley landscape, and it’s heartbreakingly gorgeous: a sublime musical troupe in the capital of the American sublime.