The temptation when watching Ragnar Kjartansson’s nine-channel videowork The Visitors (2012) is to succumb to joy. Based on a live musical performance at Rokeby Farm, a bohemian estate on the banks of the Hudson River in upstate New York, the installation features nine large screens on which are projected images of musicians, most alone and a few in groups, playing the same song in different rooms of the estate’s white manor house.
At the beginning of the 64-minute loop, the screens are dark. They light up one by one as the performers, hipster types the artist knows from his native Iceland and beyond, enter the different frames. The artist himself (it goes without saying that he is bearded) appears naked in a bathtub clutching his guitar above the soapy water. Lackadaisically, the performers tune their instruments: a cello, a banjo, a grand piano, an electric bass. After a few minutes, all of the performers fall quiet save Kjartansson, who, in a reedy voice, begins his song. Basing it on a poem his ex-wife wrote, he warbles the words, “Once again I fall into my feminine ways”, and then other musicians slowly join in. Before long, they are all singing together with their heads thrown back in ecstasy. The viewer, one presumes, is supposed to be swept up in this swell of collective emotion.
The problem with The Visitors is that it offers the same sort of pleasure as, say, daydreaming what life would be like if it were lived in a spread from Dwell. The work is aspirational rather than meaningful: you wish you were sitting on the columned patio of the house, listening to the music rise from within, but you don’t walk away suddenly believing in God (as I did, for example, after sitting in the midst of Janet Cardiff ’s Forty Part Motet, 2001, at MoMA PS1). Or maybe you do, if your God looks like one of the guys from Bon Iver.
The beauty of the piece is obvious, but it’s empty – a low-hanging fruit primed for embrace by an Internet generation used to watching music videos and live performances on YouTube. To call the work kitschy would give it too much agency. Kjartansson no doubt set out to stage a happening in which his friends could play great music and have a memorable time in an idyllic setting. But the performers aren’t virtuoso enough to be arresting for more than a few minutes, and the music, arranged by Kjartansson and Davíð Þór Jónsson, lacks the depth and emotional weight to stand on its own. After a few minutes of pacing around the gallery, you’re ready to click through to the next song.
If you stay until the end, you get to see the musicians leave their rooms and go frolicking together across the green – and misty! – hills that lead to the Hudson River. Outside of New York, all of this might seem exotic, but this jaded native rolled her eyes and made a mental note to check listings for a summer rental house in the Hudson Valley.
This article was first published in the May 2013 issue.