Ragnar Kjartansson and the theatre of the intimate
This post is a complement to my article Ragnar Kjartansson, «The Visitors» published in the journal ETC MEDIA #109. Érudit: https://id.erudit.org/iderudit/83892ac Full version.
©Ragnar Kjartansson; Image used courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York, et i8 Gallery, Reykjavik. Screen photos: Elísabet Davids; MACM view with sitting visitors: Maryse Morin.
Many of us made the journey, more than once, to the heart of Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson’s immersive installation The Visitors (2012), where we spent rapt hours at a time. The artist, a master at creating protean works blending together irony and melancholy, challenged our conception of theatre, performance, painting and music.
The immersive installation was housed in a vast room of the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal from February 11 to May 22, 2016, and engaged “visitors” in an expertly orchestrated journey forming a 64-minute loop. This first major Canadian exhibition of the artist’s work was put into dialogue with the works A Lot of Sorrow (2013), Worldlight (2015), and a “picture opera” entitled The Explosive Sonics of Divinity (2014).
Three Chords and the Truth
The Visitors plays out like a choral piece in which Kjartansson “stages” eight musician-friends in the midst of musical creation at Rokeby Farm, a 195-year-old mansion falling into decrepitude in New York State.
From the moment the visitor enters the immersive space, the cycle begins working up to its anticipated culmination. Lurking in the shadows are nine spatialized screens—initially blank—including a two-sided surface splitting the room into two equal halves. A moment of apparent synchronicity, marked by a tenuous silence, gives way as the screens begin to come to life. One by one, the screens direct the visitors’ movements in an imperceptible (dis)order.
Foremost among the acts staged by the artist are instructions given to the eight musicians waiting for their cues, instruments in hand and headphones on, with each musician isolated in a luxuriously furnished room of the manor (bedroom, living room, bathroom, etc.) as technicians busy themselves all around them. This is the first (re)enactment proposed by the artist, who, like a stage manager, steers our furtive movements through the “fictionalized” space of the Museum. The visitor is led forth, from tableau vivant to tableau vivant, contemplative and captive before the unusual juxtaposition of the musicians against their sublime scenery replete with evident allegories.
A pink rose
In the glittery frost
A diamond heart
And the orange red fire
An initial chord emerges from the darkness. It comes from the screen showing Kjartansson lying naked in his bathtub, foamy water against a decrepit backdrop. Kjartansson strums a series of chords before intoning the first verses of a lyrical poem written by his ex-wife Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir. One by one, the musicians join in from the solitude of their respective rooms. Alone, yet connected by their headsets, they yield up a compassionate song in the form of a hymnlike crescendo. The arrangements are by Kjartan Sveinsson, former keyboardist of the Icelandic band Sigur Rós, whom we see in one of Rokeby’s great salons, playing at the piano with a cigar in his mouth. We are with family here.
Once again I fall into
My feminine ways
Kjartansson, whose mother is an actress and father is a playwright, cites as his inspiration the endurance art of Chris Burden and Marina Abramović, the serial music of Erik Satie, and the electronic music (EDM) technique of constructing soundscapes from digital loops as practiced by Karlheinz Stockhausen. His passion is for backstage games, the craft of actors, and the permutations between place and behind-the-scenes decor. In the words of Laure Fernandez, from ut pictura theatrum to ut pictura theatrum, his work is driven by the poetic power of repetition, of failed takes, and of the mechanistic play of imminent images and sounds; in short, the artist isolates, sketches and showcases those moments when action slips into illusion, flawed and fascinating, like a writing of space. This raw material, a priori framed and then spatialized by the artist, on more than one occasion dictates the relationship resulting from our presence within the installation. Each screen is a tableau in and of itself, but the work really only comes into its own when the nine screens are united and spatialized across the premises. “Theatre,” to quote Roland Barthes (1973), “is precisely this practice of calculating where things will be seen.”
You protect the world from me
As if I’m the only one who’s cruel
You’ve taken me
To the bitter end
There are stars exploding around us
And there’s nothing, nothing you can do
— Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir