Although The Visitor’s left Boston a couple months ago, I can’t help but think it was the best exhibition I’ve ever seen. My mind was blown. When I first heard of it, I thought, “Mehhhh… video work?” But as an assignment for my Art World class we had to experience an exhibition that ‘challenged’ us in a way. Below is a play by play of my emotions and reaction to the exhibition…
“It was raining, cold and the sun was just setting when I reached the parking lot of the Institute of Contemporary Art. I hurriedly walked from my car to the front door of the museum. I stepped into the lobby, bought my ticket and went straight for the elevator. When the elevator doors opened I turned to the left to a darkened area where Ragnar Kjartansson’s “The Visitors” entrance greeted me. I stood there as the haunting music slowly spilled out from the walls to where I was standing. I quickly glanced over the artist statement to see what exactly the Kjartansson was trying to convey with this piece. According to the Institute of Contemporary Art, “The Visitors” was “a celebration of creativity, community, and friendship, The Visitors (2012) documents a 64-minute durational performance Kjartansson staged with some of his closest friends at the romantically dilapidated Rokeby Farm in upstate New York.” I usually never like to read what the artwork is ‘supposed to mean.’ I always want to digest my own feelings and then see if it matches up to the artist’s intent. However with video work – the intent is usually lost on me. For some reason I can’t wrap my mind around it. As a product of the millennial culture, shocking or interesting video footage is at my fingertips – just by typing into Google. And then with a slight hesitation, I strolled into The Visitors.
That was the feeling I got in my chest while standing there for the first moments, letting all my senses settle over what was in front of me, or I should say all around me. Nine screens dimly lit the dark room, with a single musician in eight of them playing instruments in unison, only connecting musically through their headphones. As Sebastian Smee described in his review for the Boston Globe, “The lyrics, we learn, are from a poem by Kjartansson’s former wife, the artist Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir… Charged by the melody’s inchoate ache, her words evoke a mood of ironic, possibly bitter resignation. They take on different hues — sometimes humorous, sometimes soulfully lamenting — depending on who is singing them.” The artist creativity and flow was perfectly in sync with one another. Each screen held a speaker above so that a single artist shined brighter the moments you stood in front of them. The sounds were beautiful and nostalgic. The videography was still and calming as if I was watching a canvas come to life with just the subtle movements of music making.
As I moved to the left of the room, I stood in front of the female musician who was playing the accordion. When I think of the accordion I imagine a large polish man plugging away at the instrument – but here right in front of me was a wisp of a girl with no shoes and messy hair, singing quietly and fiercely alone. Her dress was rumpled and hanging off of her; she looked so vulnerable. Her arms swelled with the accordion as it let out the soft exhale of music. It was beautiful. Her backdrop was of natural light and girlie, beautiful bohemian fixtures strung about.
This exhibition of music and carefully curated setting is exactly what one would imagine in a slightly disheveled bohemia utopia. Each room felt like an Anthropologie ad come to life – what Millennial would be dying to Instagram. After watching an interview with the Ragnar Kjartansson, the setting appears to be exactly his inkling for wanting to use the space, as Kjartansson describes the old farmhouse as a “palace of bohemian on the Hudson River.”
As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw tiny clusters of young people, huddled by the entrance, leaning against the walls, and a few people like myself, who were standing alone in awe in the middle of the room. Instantly there was a comradery of viewers at this exhibition, everyone understanding the beauty and depth of this exhibition. Smee wrote in his July 24th 2014 review that, “the work seems to me to be a generational masterpiece…Years from now, it may even be remembered as having helped trigger a change in the climatic conditions of contemporary art.” “The Visitors” taps into the millennial ‘hipster’ culture effortlessly. It is a wondrous reflection of America’s coming-to-age demographic with Kjartansson’s expressive music ideals, as their common denominator. Kjartansson echoes this hipster belief with his selection of the Hudson River farm house as the setting, sloppily curated friends, items and overall artistic vulnerability through their music.
As I shifted over to the next screen, I was lured in by the piano and the young man that was playing the piano with the great facial hair wearing flannel. He felt like home. I was entranced by his piano playing – it was here that the music started to pick up and with that my emotions, the lyrics took on a chant of “there are stars exploding / and there is nothing you can do.” Everything got louder, a feeling of excitement and anticipation started to fill the room and then a long sigh of relief as the middle screen shot off a cannon that was timed to end that particular musical segment. It all happened so organically. The next few moments each artist took a moment to take in their settings, light a cigar, take a sip of whiskey, and stare longingly at nothing, all the while still being filmed. These breaks allowed audiences to recover from the dramatic build up of the music but still include their actions into the video and sound production: the glass moving atop of the piano, Kjartansson splashing water onto his face and then slowly started to strum his guitar and the cycle continued. After some time I grew restless and apparently so did the artists. The musicians started to trail off their music. One by one the music stopped and they began to step outside of their screens onto their neighbors – it was here that the audience could see how the rooms connected; the video became a full home and it all ended in the main pianist room. A bottle of champagne was popped.
And on the gallery side of the screen, the remainder of audience standing in the dark ICA gallery clustered together. The artists once again continued their music – but this time carrying it outside onto the porch where they chanted the last few verses in a parade like fashion. They followed each other into the yard and then panned out to the Hudson River landscape where the artists soon turned from larger than life figures, to small figments dancing on the screen with the slow fade their chants. The repetitive chants turn into what Smee refers to as “a rather unremarkable song — it somehow transforms latent irony into sincere and open-hearted expression.” I stood there a moment with the other audience members whom I had just spent almost an hour with, everyone was smiling, and whispering how great they thought it was. Like a silent agreement that we all just experienced something life changing. The ICA brought quality artwork that gave audience members an event to view and participate in emotionally through a visual and audial stimulations, not just a viewing experience, as well as challenging what audience members may consider artistic video artwork.
1. Boston Globe Critique, Sebastian Smee