Critics’ Picks

Ragnar Kjartansson, The Visitors, 2012, nine-channel HD video projection, color, sound, 64 minutes.

Ragnar Kjartansson, The Visitors, 2012, nine-channel HD video projection, color, sound, 64 minutes.

Helsinki

Ragnar Kjartansson

Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art
Mannerheiminaukio 2
October 11, 2019–February 2, 2020

A lot has been written on Ragnar Kjartansson’s The Visitors, 2012, an hourlong nine-channel installation featuring nine musician friends playing in separate rooms of the Rokeby, a nineteenth-century Hudson Valley estate about a hundred miles north of New York City. The individual videos were recorded separately but simultaneously as intimate portraits before then being played together as a multi-channel installation, which has been shown in museums globally since its making. The display of The Visitors on the fifth floor of the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art comes shortly after The Guardian nominated it the greatest artwork of this century. While Kjartansson himself dismissed the importance of such accolades in an interview with the same paper, the work does have an epic quality—equal parts melancholic and joyful—which justifies the inescapable hype around it.

The performance features a song written by the artist and Davíð Þór Jónsson, based on poetry by Kjartansson’s ex-wife, whom he had recently divorced at the time of its recording. Named after ABBA’s last, embittered album, it features two main vocal refrains accompanied by drums, piano, guitar, bass, accordion, and cello played by a supergroup assembled by Kjartansson. The first line—“Once again I fall into my feminine ways”—is repeated for the duration of the song. Later a second refrain is introduced: “The stars are exploding around you, and there’s nothing you can do.” While this song alone—which stylistically resembles the haunting electric folk of Bonnie “Prince” Billy—would be moving, its setting in the lavish and decadent surrounds of the Rokeby Estate, as nine friends come together for a once-in-a-lifetime performance, yields a rare crystallization of time and place. When the song finishes, the players leave their rooms and the house separately, before walking off together through the grounds. It is a dramatic end to an unabashedly indulgent artwork, still capable of gripping its audience even in these times of political bombast and information overload.