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Visiting ‘The Visitors’: Ragnar Kjartansson Comes to the ICA

ICA "The Visitors" Still
Ragnar Kjartansson strums his guitar in the ICA exhibit "The Visitors."

Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art opened its newest exhibit, “Ragnar Kjartansson: The Visitors,” this past Wednesday — a “monumental nine-channel sound and moving-image installation,” according to the museum’s press release.

To create the installation, Kjartansson filmed himself and other performers in separate rooms of a historic estate in upstate New York, all synchronously performing different parts of a musical arrangement. The arrangement was composed by Kjartansson and Davíð Þór Jónsson, and Kjartansson described it as “feminine nihilistic gospel song.”

The installation is set up to fill the entire room. Two massive screens stand back to back in the center, while seven others line the walls. Each screen has its own speaker, so the sound that fills the room varies from place to place. Though the performers begin in separate rooms on separate screens, they slowly come together over the course of the 64 minute performance, leaving some rooms empty and congregating in others.

Several visitors remarked on the effect of spatially navigating the exhibit.

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"An interesting thing for me was trying to piece together the different parts of the house in each of the different channels — watching, ‘Ok, people are leaving from this screen; oh, they’re showing up over here,’” Joshua D. Anderson, a visitor at the exhibit, said.

Museum patron Lydia M. Vanderburg also spoke to the unique spatial aspects of the exhibit.

“As you walked around the room, you’d hear one performer more strongly, but because of the acoustics of the room, you could still hear everyone. That was really surprising; I’ve never been in an exhibit like that,” Vanderburg said.

Some visitors, however, said that they had mixed feelings.

“It drew me in right away, because you had to run around and see where all the different sounds were coming from, but once that wore off it was kind of, like, just a song,” David L. Nickerson, visitor and ICA member, said. “It kind of reminded me of people I went to college with that I don’t talk to anymore, intentionally.”

The exhibit’s title, “The Visitors” — a reference to ABBA’s final album — is applicable to more than just the performers themselves. Audience members themselves become visitors in the exhibit’s world: Kjartansson strums an instrument and sings in a bathtub while another artist plays sitting on the edge of a bed, with someone who is presumably a lover still naked under the covers. Even the musicians who sit in more traditional recording settings seem absorbed in creating the music as a private and organic act. As they come together, the performers chat, smoke, and pour drinks before congregating in a single frame outside the house to set out across a field together, still singing.

“It feels like you’re part of this group of people for a while,” Christine L. Costello, an ICA visitor, said.

The lyrics that the performers are singing are taken from the poem “Feminine Ways,” written by Kjartansson’s former wife Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir. For the first stretch of the song, the lines “Once again I fall into / My feminine ways” are sung again and again, with a variety of musical structures. Then, later: “There are stars exploding / And there is nothing you can do.”

The dimension of the lyrics struck a thematic chord with Vanderburg.

“I feel like the feminine is something that gets a little less exposure in art than it should," Vanderburg said. “It was really interesting to see these different people playing different instruments, of different genders, in different parts of the same building… They’re walking away singing this song that is very much like a unifying anthem from a performance that was all about how segregated they were in different parts of the house.”

“Ragnar Kjartansson: The Visitors” will be on display through July 28. The Institute of Contemporary Art offers free admission with a Harvard ID.

Correction: Feb. 21, 2019

A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to Christine L. Costello as an ICA member. In fact, she is a visitor.

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