[About Town] Softmachines at the End of Time: A Review of Ragnar Kjartansson’s The Visitors, on display at Montreal’s Musée D’Art Contemporain, February 11- May 22, 2016

Stones only, the disjecta membra of this Great House,

Whose moth-like girls are mixed with candledust,

Remain to file the lizard’s dragonish claws.

The mouths of those gate cherubs shriek with stain;

Axle and coach wheel silted under the muck

Of cattle droppings.

Three crows flap for the trees

And settle, creaking the eucalyptus boughs.

A smell of dead limes quickens in the nose

The leprosy of empire.

‘Farewell, green fields,

Farewell, ye happy groves!’

Derek Walcott

Eight musicians in eight separate rooms of a mansion, connected in real time through the necessary technology play the same song ( 64 minutes) non stop until the song’s  epiphany-like culmination. This is Ragnar Kjartansson’s The Visitors, on display at  Montreal’s Musée D’Art Contemporain, February 11- May 22, 2016.

If  Danish film director Thomas Vinterberg (in the incarnation of his 1998 film The Celebration) and the 19th century painter Caspar David Friedrich had a child (add a splash of Robert Altman), one of the progeny might be the Icelandic contemporary artist, Ragnar Kjartansson and more specifically Kjartansson’s video work, The Visitors.  The Visitors is a collective musical art performance by eight musicians, (each stationed separately  in eight rooms)  all separated but synchronically  performing the same deep  song, towards a “final goal”.

Moving towards ecclesiastic pleasure and also at once dirge-like, Kjartansson’s The Visitors staged musical performance takes place in the  picture-perfect ultra  historic Rokeby Mansion, once home to the “upperest” of the upper crust of Manhattan, the Astor family. When one researches the history of the house, one understands that the Rokeby Mansion is in fact  “a shabby shrine to a bygone era of outlandish wealth”and hence the performance, like a a series of stages washing over this “once” great house[1].  The similarities to Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration begin with a particular place being a vessel for a communal gathering and the lieu in common, being that of a family mansion estate, a “great house”.[2]  Kjartansson’s  The Visitor’s however could  thus be said to be the anti thesis or in fact might go where Vinterberg’s The Celebration left off.

If  The Celebration ultimately revealed the total delegitimization (the dysfunctionality, racism, insularity) of a “picture perfect”  wealthy Danish family,  Kjartansson’s The Visitors,  “in hypothetically” starting off  where The Celebration left off, might be proposing the reconstitution of  lost bonds (of kinship/ while proposing new types of bonding and kinship). The Visitors might be testing out new types of  bonding/ kinship, community building  – first through letting  each (musician) as separate units test the maximum fruits  of their own musical individuations/ experiences (housed in separate rooms), and The Visitors might also be proposing a reconsideration of bonding/ kinship through ultimately seeking to let the rhapsody the eight musicians play, speak beyond the world of Ideas.[3]  The collective rhapsody developed after Kjartansson’s  group’s spirited one hour slowly rising compression of music become beautiful cacophony, a very  calculated/ not calculated  joyful science become quasi-sacerdotal rite.

The musicians  of  Ragnar Kjartansson’s The Visitors are in fact visitors to this once glorious and thriving wealthy estate.  Perhaps visitors because as ephemeral passersby, they may not  be invested in the History of the place and instead may presumably be working through the ancestral rigidity that might infuse this “great house’s” walls,  in moments of fragmentation like the fragile, fragmented, almost translucent, and at times frenzied singing/ accordion performing young woman in the white night shirt where we at times see her protruding bones through the folds of her billowing night shirt; instead they may be presumably working through the ancestral rigidity that might infuse this “great house’s” walls, in moments of the seemingly inauspicious like the far reaching search of the young woman playing the bass, seated in front of something resembling a child’s bassinet/ day bed).

At first glance, one might assume the undertones of a group of hipster[4] musicians getting together to indulge in “a jam”.  What may start out as the such soon moves into delphic oracle like leanings exploring pure symbiosis, a separated group all working “in” their own to the utmost of their musical abilities to touch the essence of things.[5] But in fact (and yes we cannot but wish their might have been a less monocultural presence[6]) (but perhaps that is the point- working through the demons in a particular time and place), we as viewers are called, culled, and invited to a series of musical states (stages) that slowly begins to evoke a shamanistic movement of visuality, body/ movement/ ritual and sound. We as viewers are naturally encouraged (intoned)  to wander around the carpeted gallery’s nine screens and follow the simultaneous song (and visually/ sensorially go) into each room, and to passionately follow the every growing narrative, as it unfolds.

Kjartansson presents very spare tracts by issuing a simple, meaningless,  and ironic endlessly repeated song lyrics that nevertheless brings “us there”. The repetition is aurally hypnotic. We learn from Ragnar Kjartansson that “getting there” (where the music is bringing us ) is about being completely present, repetition, and a certain geometric grace (see the many visually luscious decor/ rooms the musicians play in, especially the room of the bassist, like a siren couched in child’s bassinet/ day bed, which evokes the 17 th century Flemish Baroque painter Clara Peeters).  We learn that where Kjartansson is  “bringing us” there is a need for a  mix between motion and stillness, stillness and motion,  in our viewing, finding just the right balance.

And like a “perpetual motion machine” the spectators might become in watching (as long as they stay for the duration) The Visitors, the visitor/ spectator is lulled into a field (“un champs” of non- language), sensorial persuasion/ immersion, and yet still given the free reign of sovereign decisional impulses.  In this sense, Ragnar Kjartansson’s The Visitors is somewhat modal (modular?), in the sense that we try it on, it may or may not fit, but then we can adjust it [7] to our own preferences (simply move to another screen/ view of the performance), present needs, and insights encountered viz. the work. As modal art (art that fits like a costume),  The Visitors could be seen as a kind of portal via “a bohemian castle”(Kjartansson), moving us through the “diamond heart and orange red fire” (song lyrics), towards and ultimately through the suggestion of softer machines rather than hard wired machines for us to ride all the way through the music.

Near the end (spoiler)the musicians leave the “isolation” of their respective rooms where they have all been playing, walk into each other’s rooms (“passing through each other’s rooms”), ultimately all heading outside to sing together, in proximity. They all sing on the porch, the ultimate gathering the performance had always been working towards as a kind of crescendo, and the ultimate ensuing procession of the whole group gathered, singing, playing, and  walking in procession all the way into the distant valley (‘walking into the valley’), until the visual frame becomes that of a typical Caspar David Friedrich painting, and also at once until the visual frame also hopefully becomes at once an insurrection of any mere ideations of an easily accepted and ahistorical (austere) notions of the sublime. This is the present challenge for European artists- to issue such a challenge to that former “great house”

As spectators, we miss the musicians, the moments we have experienced. We miss the rooms each musician had inhabited and we had inhabited. We stay in the installation wanting to see more, absorbed and looking in the room for the musicians that had been there. Each room, now empty of the respective musicians now walking along the wide open plane/ valley into the distance till we experience “the quiet before it all and all the quiet  that will be experienced after it all.”

 At the end of the day (being diurnal art), this all amounts to being an experimentation with being  a“community of lovers”. Maurice Blanchot used this term to speak about  how for their to be the unlimited  presence of  “the/a  people” (a mass movement), they would have to accept doing nothing , rather than the usually necessarily thought having to do something. Blanchot gives the visceral example of such a powerful form of community, ephemeral or otherwise in describing a crowd that formed in the Paris Streets after a senseless murder:

“There has never been a clearer example than the (community)  that affirmed itself with sovereign amplitude…walking in a  procession for the dead of Charonne, an- immobile, silent crowd gathered, whose number there was no reason to count because there was nothing to be added, nothing to be subtracted: it was there as a whole, not to be counted, not to be numbered, not even as a closed totality, but as an integrality surpassing any whole, imposing itself calmly beyond itself.”

In Ragnar Kjartansson’s collective musicians’ ever repeating musical phrase “Once again I fall into….” , we begin to identify with a sense of also living lives where we are also prey to fall once again into “this or that”, the tireless repetition of our own failures / successes (See Taryn Simon’s Ted Talk on “repetition and the endless circle”), the tragic comedy of the repetition and never ending story (Disney as culprit?). But ultimately in this fairy tale like mansion with the lulling of song, we begin to understand that the “work reflects a place where reality merges with fiction and everyday life with dreams. Rokeby (Mansion) stands as a psychedelic relic from a golden age of splendour, a villa full of 19th century art, contemporary shamanism, eccentric lives.  “(Kjartansson)

Ragnar Kjartansson’s The Visitors, as well as its accompanying videos World Light- The Life and Death of an Artist (2015) and A Lot of Sorrow, at Montreal’s Musée d’Art Contemporain is not just a huge success for Chief Curator John Zeppetelli.  Ragnar Kjartansson The Visitors also marks a natural an esteemed culmination in Zeppetelli’s studied curatorial practice going back to his work as Curator of Montreal’s hottest gallery,  DHC Gallery. The natural culmination can be seen in Zeppetelli’s very calulcated trajectory until now, via past presentations of

  1. Immateriality/ aspects of intangible culture, as in  Mexico’s iconic Teresa Margolles[8] - Chronicles of a Disappearance show, DHC
  2.  Philippe Parreno’s The processional dirge- like impeccable dramatic film re-dramatization of the train carrying JFK’s body- Chronicles of a Disappearance show , DHC
  3. Christian Marclay’s durational marathon, The Clock (a huge success for the Museum)- Musée d’Art Contemporain
  4. The mix between the sacred geometric and geopolitical of Adrian Paci’s The Column
  5. Patrick Bernatchez’s Lost in Time  - Musée d’Art Contemporain

All these as natural progressions in Zeppetelli’s refined curatorial practice of finding new contemporary footholds in looking at the sacred in art (art as sanctorum), aspects of temporality in art (durational art),  performative and interactive installations  that engage viewers and never  lose sight of also offering the optic on what is contemporary (See Alain Badiou), what is social/ political (the personal an global geopolitical), what is now.

Kjartansson’s The Visitors grills  ideas of individual rumination within the collective, issues the challenge to its musicians to attain the kind of synchrony rowers sometimes attain referred to as “swing”. The musicians, as actors in a human drama occupy this ghostly manor and search for a divine sense of community, and are ultimately are artists trying ever so hard to touch the essence of things. Unlike the hard wiring machines of one’s natural blood and family, Kjartansson’s The Visitors proposes a soft machine to construct a new spiritual family.

Ragnar Kjartansson’s The Explosive Sonics of Divinity, one off performance (as a an accompaniment to the ongoing exhibition) with  music by Kjartan Sveinsson takes place March 3, with a former member of the group Sigur Rós, and a succession of canvases painted by artist Ragnar Kjartansson as stage sets.


[1] It is interesting to note another art performative (art performance by mere chance rather) historical case of a band recording in a mansion but to different ends. In June of 1971, The Rolling Stones  started recording their album Exile on Main Street in the infamous french Chateau named Nellcôte.  The recordings at the Nellcôte Villa were characterized by disastrous ends  - Keith Richard’s fully developed daily heroin use at that time, police raids, robbery, band members not showing up for recordings sessions. Noteworthy because, two years before The Rolling Stones  had expressly tried an experiment with utopia-building at the Altamonta Concert in 1969. A devout disaster (with several people killed), the Altamonta concert marked for many, the end of 1960s experiments with new social experiments of community building  and social movements. Kjartansson’s “visitors” inhabit the mansion as a place for re- community building and experimenting with the bright diurnal presences possible in art practice.

[2] In many ways, we are also in the territory of Visconti’s The Leopard and Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia.

[3] Beyond Ideas like that of a  “great house” (ancestral rigidity/ imperial)  which usually ends up in something like this:

“O, if I wake, shall I not be distraught,

Environed with all these hideous fears,

And madly play with my forefather’s joints,

And pluck the mangled Tybalt from his shroud,

And, in this rage, with some great kinsman’s bone

As with a club dash out my desperate brains?

O look, methinks I see my cousin’s ghost

Seeking out Romeo, that did spit his body

Upon a rapier’s point: stay! Tybalt, stay!

Romeo, Romeo, Romeo, here’s drink! I drink to thee!”

(Romeo & Juliet IV.iii.14-57)

[4] The lyrics “There are stars exploding around me and nothing I can do” did at first evoke a kind of hipster “fashionable nihilism” but this is soon dispelled as the intensity of the performance increases.  We see that the musicians are move beyond that. The philosopher Mehdi Belhaj Kacem speaks about this kind of fashionable nihilism in his book French Psychose.

[5] His country mates SIgur Ros and Efterklang continue to do so. Kjartansson’s work with the National also featured at the MAC also goes down this path and is very much also worth sitting through.

[6] Much of the work of the band TV on the Radio has often brought to the fore this sort of “ecclesiastical” feel of a community of singers.  See their recent video for the song Trouble and past songs like “Family Tree” for relevance. See early century white and black groups

[7] I am thinking of Nick Cave’s “Soundsuits”.

[8] Her “use of bodily substances and its evocation of traumatic events. Water drips from above, hitting heated metal surfaces and evaporating instantly. Sourced from a morgue in Mexico City where the artist has worked, this is water used to cleanse corpses after autopsy—possibly also murder victims”. (DHC Art Website)