Visiting “The Visitors”

Ragnar-Kjartansson-The-Visitor-Luhring-Augustine-2013.-Installation-view-1

“Once again I fall into my feminine ways.”

“Once again I fall into my feminine ways.”

So Ragnar Kjartansson sings, on repeat, while strumming a guitar in a bathtub. Recently I read of the Icelandic performance artist in the New Yorker, which said of him: “Exuberance is Kjartansson’s default mode, in directing as in life.” And so, when I heard he had an exhibition at the Barbican I decided we must go. After all, performance art is not about knowledge, or even story. It’s about experience.

The nine-screen installation “The Visitors” is in a room through a black curtain. A plaque outside describes briefly what you’re about to enter into, but there’s really no way of knowing until you do. People seem to go in but not return. It is Sam, Amy, and myself, and we collect one another before making this seemingly permanent transition. On the other side, eight other performers play different instruments in different rooms of a single house (Rokeby Farm in upstate New York), and over the course of the sixty-four minute running time, they join in with and repeat the artist’s refrain, an ABBA lyric, their voices rising and falling as they give way to melancholy, reflection, bliss.

Together they’re mesmerizing, more so than any art I’ve ever seen, and while there’s a painting-like element there’s also engaging intensity; fine art for the Netflix crowd.

The piece culminates in clamour and rollicking as the nine musicians, having left their posts, collect the friends who have been porch-bound for the duration (just before, an elderly gentleman has aroused himself from a nap and fired off a small cannon), and dance, now singing at the top of their lungs, to the very edge of what we can see. It’s joyous, and then a little lonely being left behind. Are they the visitors, or are we?

When we finally emerge from the room, we’re silent for a moment. “I think I need a little time to assimilate,” Amy says. We all agree, and after wandering around the rest of the exhibit, convene outside by the lake with Icelandic pale ales.