art · Creativity · Museums

Walking Into The Dark: Ragnar Kjartansson’s, “The Visitors”

Nothing moves me. Sometimes I wonder if I’m dead inside. Kidding, I couldn’t be more opposite. Everything moves me, I’m totally at the whim of my emotions. However, what typically really does not work for me are video art installations. Love art. Love museums, but the video things baffle me. I walk in and it is always something that I just can’t access. Drips of water, strange noises, quick cuts and a flash here, a blip there, a camera fixed on one figure. Never do I ever get it.

Typically, how this goes is one walks in from a lit gallery to a dark cave of a room. You fear you will fall or bump into someone. Maybe it’s the dark unknown that’s disarming, not the art. Might it be the walking in, the entering that fucks the mind into myopia.

Who knows? With all that preamble, I’m happy to share that I found a video installation that resonated with me. I walked into the gallery at the Dallas Museum of Art (Note how the polite Texans deftly avoid the acronym DAM for their city’s art museum. Clever.) expecting to check out the latest from painter, Alex Katz, but found the work of the incomparable Ragnar Kjartansson. I had no idea who this guy was and frankly I didn’t care. I was trying to get upstairs to Sheila Hicks woven works, but goddamn Katz pulled me in. He’s getting up there, he’s 90 something, and I was raised to respect my elders, so in I went. There were a few, new works by Katz. He is a phenomenal portrait artist, but I much prefer his lithography, and other print works. There was one, a landscape, that I liked. He lives in Maine. It reminded me of home while I was visiting Texas. Home never escapes you. It is always there.

social Alex Katz, Crosslight, 2019, Photo by Thomas Müller
Alex Katz, “Social” Photographed by Thomas Muller

So I saw the three or four odd Katz pieces, then I moved on to figure out who this Ragnar guy was. Odd name. Let’s get weird. First set of works by him was a 365-day series of postcards, where he did an image a day on a piece of 3 x 5 cardstock. I loved them. ::Snaps fingers:: You’ve converted this heathen. Quotations, little doodles, and a veritable diary of his life from the year 2018 (I think).

Next, the video installation. As I stepped into the dark, slowly, hoping not to fall or bump into any one or any thing, I thought, “welp he’s about to lose me, or I’m about to get lost.”

I was wrong. Very, very wrong.

I’ve never been more happy to be wrong. Wow! The installation “The Visitors” from 2012.  Nine supersized screens, seven or eight feet tall, and ten or more feet wide, featuring one human in a room, in the same dwelling, playing music, or set to a poem written by “Feminine Ways,” written by Kjartansson’s former wife and fellow artist Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir. The title alludes to the 1981 album of the same name from Swedish pop band ABBA, the group’s last record to date, as divorce and internal strife ended their professional and personal relationships” (Institute of Contemporary Art, website, Boston, 2019). One man is in a bathtub, another at a piano, a woman in her bedroom with her cello, and on and on. The music, the intimacy of peering into someone’s little world, their rooms filled with artifacts of living. And the music, the hypnotic music, I’ll never forget it.

visitor nyt
One screen from Ragnar Kjartansson’s “The Visitors” Photo Credit: New York Times

Perhaps, it was the scale of the screens, or the people that were living out their artistic lives, or the lyrics to the song, but it all affected me so deeply that I cried right there in the dark while others walked around me. Slowly, the song, the musicians, wound down, and they all rose from their bathtubs or perches, and slowly walked outside of the home into the yard to be in true community together.

It was beautiful. Memorable. Poignant in a way no other video performance art has ever been to me. Check out a Youtube video some folks made of the work. This video does NOT do it justice, but it gives you a good five minute glimpse.

Given our current times filled with where we are living our lives out in Zoom boxes, on our squared, or rectangular porches, confined by our four walls, striving to connect in any way we possibly can while remaining at a distance — the work was a premonition. A premonition none of us wanted, but is now our current meta. The only positive realization that I came away with from Ragnar is that something enlightening can come out of stepping into the unknown world of video art installations. Something positive can come out of our current darkness of tiny boxes, homes, porches, and Zoom squares. We can lift each other up, listen to music, create art, write words, converse, console, love.

While we are trying to stay safe, wear a mask, follow the ruled lines of life that feel so confining, we may, just maybe, come out of this with an appreciation for something we all have within us, hope…art…and a lightness in our heart we all deserve.

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