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  • Articles by Susan

    Review: The Visitors by Ragnar Kjartansson (November 2015)

    Brewer Street Car Park in sanitised Soho is the newly modish venue showing Ragnar Kjartansson’s video installation The Visitors. Now decked out in black cloth and giant screens the old place is spot on for this ecstatic spectacle of decay and communion. It certainly fits its internet raised audience like a glove, giving them space to lounge gracefully, to stare up at the screens and immerse themselves in dreams of living the bohemian life in the vast and prettily decaying house on Rokeby Estate in upstate New York.

    The Visitors shows Kjartansson performing an hour long song with several of his friends, all musicians, in this magnificently dilapidated house that once belonged to the Astor family. The nine larger than life video screens mostly focus on single musicians in different rooms of the house giving a performance of a poem  written by Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir set to music. Each musician has been recorded individually, so that when the videos are shown together the performance becomes whole.

    To stand surrounded by this music and song and this larger than life house, is to be entranced and beguiled.

     A man in a bath plays a guitar, the water threatening to engulf both of them. A woman in pale pink dress squeezes an accordion and escorts its wheezes away with her reedy voice. A man hammers at a piano, two cigars perched nearby.  And sure enough the pianist is joined mid performance by a fellow musician who leaves our view and reappears across the room on the opposite screen. A cellist, a drummer, guitarists and whoever can sing perform the repeated refrain ‘Once again I fall into my feminine ways’.

    Surrounded by these larger than life images, which loom out of black space, is rather like being carried away inside a planetarium; that sense of moving realistically through the heavens and being un-tethered from the real. And there is something thrillingly transgressive about staring so intently at a stranger carrying out some task whether mundane or astonishing; a man in a bath, a drummer in a kitchen, a man smoking a cigar. No matter.

    But these are giant TV screens, really, and the saturated colours, deliberately reminiscent of the great masters of oil paintings hook our attention all too glibly. (Kjartansson has cleverly played on this by evoking the name of the house through Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus, with glimpses of a woman stretched out, behind her guitarist boyfriend, on a crumpled bed. The words made flesh). The Visitors with its glamorous setting and its hipster musicians is also the descendent of slick music videos, making the thrill undemanding and the subversion thinly veneered. There’s certainly that sense to it and it’s disappointing to step back and to realise that The Visitors might not stand up if you prod it too hard. 

    But the work isn’t all dependent on the people. Kjartansson uses Rokeby to explore architectural conventions. As the camera pans through the house we can see how a building will shape its inhabitants as much as it is shaped by them. He shows too how his visitors can overcome the limitations of bricks and mortar – the same ones they have created –and become an ensemble despite the walls.

    Although The Visitors is no brief for aspiring architects and planners, it does offer the irreverent spirit of iconoclastic urban critic Jane Jacobs dancing in its corridors; harking back as it does to the 60s, not just the bohemian splendour of Rokeby, but in its response to the place where the individual meets the built world. Here Kjartansson has created Jane Jacobs’ intricate sidewalk ballet, unfurling the walls of Rokeby and allowing us to watch alongside her. 

    The viewer is an unobtrusive observer, looking up at the ballet of Rokeby, mapping the details of the rooms, the time of day, the location of the house. The views and vistas that we take such value in and that can be seen from the porch are ignored here. We can’t join in, we can only observe, detached, and look inwards. The cast of musicians act out independent plots, but are brought together despite the walls that separate them. The visitors have come with their own customs and laws which control their use of this space. It’s about how we are together and apart.

    Kjartansson’s dream is mutilated though, like the lovely decaying Rokeby. It’s similar to Denis Severs’ East End house with its wonderful erotically charged bedrooms and browned apple cores and stinking piss pots left about the place, of people having just left its rooms. Both these buildings have an indwelling-ness which speaks of kinship and communal living with their legacies of old photos and curtains, and bedspreads.  But Kjartansson’s visitors are not communal. They are not visiting anyone or anything except to their own privately contained universe where a musical dialogue becomes a performance about solitude, normally related to silence or peace.

    There’s no real silence here though and this dependence on a dreamlike escapist world, set in the type of place that hardly anyone will ever have the means to live in, is a problem too. It’s too charming, too bohemian. Too much of the average hipster’s desire to live out his fantasy from the pages of some glossy architectural tome.  It is so far removed from reality that it becomes ridiculous, a silly advert for an unaffordable way of life. And yet it is still a consuming work with visual and acoustic power because of the great animal strength of Rokeby.

    The Visitors, despite its affectations is a carefully crafted concept where the starting point is the viewer’s understanding and reaction to the environment, and where the concept of serial vision constantly plays on the existing and emerging views. This is where musicians and audience are able to satisfy their desire for creativity and self-fulfilment, aloneness and belonging.

    The Visitors is not a difficult work to read but its charm belies its strict degree of planning, turning potential chaos into an ordered whole. Kjartansson’s success is the result not just of Rokeby’s charming physical environment, but operates under rules as strict as those for a Palladian villa.



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