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‘The Visitors’ an immersive musical and emotional experience

Ragnar Kjartansson’s exhibit “The Visitors” is a masterpiece.

Held in one gallery at the ICA, “The Visitors” is a sweeping nine-screen experience of video and audio recordings of a performance at a mansion in upstate New York. Each screen features one musician, who are seated in different rooms of the house—one sits on a bed, one at a piano. Kjartansson himself plays guitar in a bathtub. Each musician has a camera set up in front of them, and they all start playing and singing at the same but are recorded individually from each room.

The resulting musical composition is 64 minutes long. The performers, including other Icelandic musicians and Kjartansson’s long-time collaborator Davíð Þór Jónsson, each have a different instrument while they sing. They are all singing together, yet in separate rooms, united by the headset each wears.

The result is an absolutely immersive experience for the ICA visitor. Each screen around the room projects one musician, and an accompanying individual speaker plays their recording. Walking around the installation, you see into every room in the house, watching each musician play in a different place but at the same time.

The most beautiful moments are when the song reaches a crescendo, all the instruments blending together with the singers’ voices. It is a mesmerizing experience to hear each voice and instrument from all the speakers around the room. As you walk around the exhibit, the nearest speakers will be louder than the rest, reminding you that they are all in separate rooms. But the experience created, of a unified performance, is only heightened by projecting each musician on a different screen around the room.

They are all distinctive—one sings mournfully in an airy pink dress as she plays the accordion; one plays guitar, dressed in all black in the library; one’s baritone rings throughout the installation. What the performers have in common is that they seem to play effortlessly, each in their own world of the song. As a viewer, you forget that they had an hour of music to learn.

The lyrics of the song are taken from the poem “Feminine Ways,” written by artist Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir, Kjartansson’s ex-wife. For instance, the lyric “There are stars exploding” repeats in one of the more upbeat sections of the piece and is lifted directly from the poem.

The historic mansion housing the performance is a 43-room house at Rokeby Farm, built in 1815. Its expansive grounds overlook the Catskills. Often used for weddings and other formal events, Kjartansson’s performance made the estate look almost like a fledgling artists colony, an indie group of Icelandic artists living and breathing music in, as the exhibit description notes, a “romantically dilapidated” mansion.

As the song goes on, some musicians drift into other rooms—playing all the while—and sit with each other. Over a piano, three share a drink. Towards the end, the musicians leave their rooms one by one and all meet in the backyard, still singing (and a few, like a guitarist, still playing). They all traipse together through the yard into a field behind the house that opens onto a breathtaking view of the mountains. The camera lingers for several minutes, allowing the musicians to get smaller and smaller, and their singing softer. Only when they reach the edge of the field does the cameraman yell “Cut!” and the musicians all cheer.

What is further unique about the performance is its transparency in letting viewers see its process. At the beginning, each screen is animated one by one as someone turns cameras on in each room. The first five or so minutes consist of the musicians tuning their instruments, testing their headsets and talking with each other. Someone counts down and the performance begins, with slow notes of a cello.

At the end, each musician walks outside one by one while a technician turns off each camera, so that all screens black out except the one following the musicians to the field. This glimpse into the making of the performance not only shows the planning that went into it but also makes it seem more like a live performance—which requires set up, break down, timing—instead of just a video loop.

When I wandered into the exhibit, I did not expect to stay for as long as I did. Sitting in the dimly lit installation, music surrounding me on all sides, I closed my eyes and just listened. I wound up staying for nearly all 64 minutes, reaching the end and then waiting for it to re-start so I could see the beginning. And I would gladly go back and watch the whole thing again.

The ICA’s physical space also provides the installation’s final layer—the “visitors” in the museum. As the screens turn on and off, and especially at the end when all the musicians are in the backyard and filmed on one camera, viewers cluster around the screens that are active. By the end, everyone is around the same screen—coming together, just like the performers.

“The Visitors” is at the ICA until July 28. I highly recommend heading off campus and experiencing this one-of-a-kind installation.

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