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There are stars exploding around you, and there’s nothing, nothing you can do.
The group with whom I entered the dark gallery grew restless quickly. The nine-channel video projection that wrapped around the walls depicted empty rooms in an old decrepit house.1 A few projection screens remained dark without any inherent sound to speak of other than incidental off-camera mutters. Someone in the gallery spoke up, “It’s amazing what passes as art these days.” Another chimed in “Yeah, if you gave [him],” he gestured to his friend, “nine cameras and projectors, I’d bet he’d come up with something just as good.”
As knee-jerk and puerile as these reactions were to Ragnar Kjartansson’s The Visitors,1 I don’t slight them at all. When I first visited the day before, I walked in mid-way through and encountered videos of nine musicians wearing headphones—each on a different screen and each in a different room bedecked with tattered wallpaper, ancient books, marble and bronze busts, and dark oak trim—noodling around on their various instruments. Grand pianos, banjo, guitars, accordion, cello, bass guitar, and drum kit were all present as their respective players aimlessly tinkered away. After a minute or so, my patience began to wear thin as the meandering notes swelled in volume and I contemplated listening to this cacophony for an unknown duration.
I turned to leave and saw one screen placed between the entrance and exit doors: a scene from the veranda of what I assumed was the old home in which the musicians played. On the porch a group of people listened along just like me. Some wore headphones while others must have been listening through a speaker. I wondered if their patience was tried as well.
Just then, the instruments stopped, save for one acoustic guitar that buzzed and hummed as a pale, nude, bearded man soaking in a bathtub gently strummed its strings. Despite their geographic isolation, a few voices began to quietly sing along with the bather, “There are stars exploding around you, and there’s nothing, nothing you can do.”1 As this phrase was repeated, it gathered new singers, harmonies, volume and instruments, until it resembled a ballad drunkenly crooned in a dank basement bar with beer sloshing from the swinging mugs of its arm-in-arm singers.
I walked around the space as sound from each suspended projection speaker became more distinct. I mixed the music, adjusting volumes and timbre through my own proximity to the different screens. I could edit the video by ignoring other scenes and choosing to focus on different rooms at different times.
Other musical themes and lyrics worked their way in and out of this semi-improvised composition. “Once again, I fall into my feminine ways”—a phrase that appears and reappears, culminating as the refrain when musicians, one by one, abandon their headphones, instruments and furniture to move throughout the house and through one another’s spaces until they are all gathered on the first floor around the grand piano. A capella, they continue to sing, “Once again, I fall into my feminine ways,” while Champaign corks are popped and cigars are smoked in a methodic but collegial atmosphere. The bather quickly removed his towel to sop up some spilled bubbly from the floor. His nudity was ignored, though. What’s a bare bum between bohemian friends?
Next, they all saunter out of the house, the denizens of the veranda joining them as they wander toward the sunset over a distant river. “Once again, I fall into my feminine ways. Once again, I fall into my feminine ways.” The song grows more distant as the troubadours careen over the pastoral, hilly estate and out of sight.
Rather than leaving 30 minutes prior, I had stayed until the silent end.
When I returned to MOCA to catch the beginning of the video that I missed the day before, I entered with the aforementioned group of impatient and sarcastic individuals. After they made their initial comments, I quietly explained that they arrived just at the very end of the piece, but that the videos were about to loop and it would be worth giving it more time, much more time. So they did. They stuck around as the videos restarted, the musicians assembled, and eventually the music gently and unassumingly crept out of the speakers.
I observed this disparate group of querulous strangers drifting around a dark room while their impatience melted away and they found seating to rest, and absorb and be in this experience—separate from the performers, separate from each other, but completely together.
Ragnar Kjartansson’s The Visitors is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, February 6 – May 24, 2015. On loan from the Gund Gallery at Kenyon College, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Graham Gund.
Christopher Lynn is an artist, designer and curator who lives and works in Cleveland, OH. He was the executive director of SPACES (2008-2013) and is a founding member of commonfield.org. View more articles by Christopher Lynn.