New York

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.

Ragnar Kjartansson

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

As it has threaded itself into the fabric of contemporary practice and discourse over the past decade and a half, the notion of “relational aesthetics” has come, fairly or not, to be almost exclusively associated with efforts to reimagine the sociospatial contexts of spectatorship, often taking the form of situations staged to conduce interactions that become literally constitutive of the works themselves—the gallery repurposed as dining table, as laboratory, as factory, as seminar room, as town hall. In truth, this is probably due as much to the way Nicolas Bourriaud’s original conception was framed by later deployments (and well-known critical kneecappings) as to anything explicit in his relatively capacious gathering-in of what he’s summarized variously as “artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context,” or, quoting Maurizio Cattelan, a “dolce utopia” of newly available intersubjective potentialities.

The work of Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson is not typically considered to be part of the relational aesthetics trend, even though he has flirted before with broadly similar strategies. His contribution to the 2009 Venice Biennale, for example, refashioned the exhibition space as an open atelier where he spent the entire run of the show painting portraits, one per day, of a friend, thereby figuring the “human relations” between artist and model as a performative endurance test. The Visitors, 2012, his gorgeous, unexpectedly moving new project recently on view at Luhring Augustine, is certainly not conventionally relational in its formal trappings—it is a multichannel video presented on large screens in an unmistakable gallery environment. But the work did provocatively engage questions around the production, through the artistic gesture, of conviviality, sociability, and encounter. The rapport enacted within its narrative seems to melt and spread beyond the confines of the artifact, somehow managing to plug the viewer, at least emotionally, directly into the network of contingencies it depicts.

A sixty-four-minute loop shown on nine large individual screens in the gallery, The Visitors—which takes its name from the final album by the Swedish pop group ABBA, produced when the band’s professional and personal relationships were coming to an end—is essentially an extended music video for a composition written by Kjartansson and his frequent collaborator Davíð Þór Jónsson. Described by Kjartansson as a “feminine nihilistic gospel song,” the musical piece is performed in one take by a group of the artist’s friends, all of whom play their instruments (guitars, drums, pianos, cello, banjo, accordion) simultaneously, even though each is positioned in a different room of Rokeby Farm, an elegantly faded two-hundred-year-old, forty-three-room Federal pile in upstate New York. Ebbing and flowing over the course of its hour-plus length, the composition is simple, sad, and anthemic. The lyrics, taken from a poem by the artist’s ex-wife, Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir, are cryptic and similarly spare, with two refrains—“There are stars exploding around you, and there’s nothing, nothing you can do” and “Once again, I fall into my feminine ways”—sung over and over again by several of the musicians, as well as a crowd of other friends who are seen sitting on the house’s large front porch.

The entire ensemble—and it is emphatically an ensemble, even though each member spends the majority of the piece isolated, figuratively and literally in his or her own world—is “fronted” by the artist, who sits naked in a bathtub, rosy-cheeked and cheerfully strumming a guitar. From time to time, Kjartansson’s “bandmates” take five, change instruments, wander away and into each other’s spaces to share a drink or a smoke. Finally, as the song winds down, the entire group assembles around a grand piano. Champagne is opened, and they make their way outside and down across an enormous lawn, still singing as they head toward a classically romantic Hudson River School horizon. Vivid moments of levity like these, which color and leaven the work’s organizing wistfulness, might mark it for some as little more than a lark. Yet Kjartansson’s masterful holding in tension of solitude and togetherness, and his figuring of both the private symbolic space of the artist and the communal environment of the artwork’s execution, is deeply affecting—not a utopia, perhaps, and more bittersweet than sweet, but for that hour or so, very nearly ideal.

Jeffrey Kastner