Pulling back the black curtain and stepping into the darkness, we were quickly enveloped by a lulling, melancholy melody. “Stars explode around you, and there’s nothing, no nothing you can do…” sang a chorus of voices. My friend and I turned to each other with broad smiles on our faces. After this brief moment of acknowledgement that we had happened upon something wonderful, we each slipped among the crowd and into The Visitors.
The installation of Ragnar Kjartansson’s piece at Luhring Augustine gallery in Chelsea, is comprised of ten large videos that are projected into the gallery walls and onto both sides of a screen that divides the space. In nine of the ten videos, a single musician is alone in a room, playing their part of a collective melody. In the tenth video, a group of people mill around on the porch of a large, Hudson Valley farmhouse, seemingly listening to the music and occasionally adding their voices to the chorus. This group provided context, an internal audience, and a little distance: the haunting sweetness of the melody, the mournful poetry (by artist Ásdis Sif Gunnarsdóttir) of the lyrics, and the intensity of the visuals were almost overwhelming, so a retreat to the porch provided a welcome break.
Each musician infused the simple words and melody with their own sensibility, a detail that the artist retained by keeping the sound tracks separate. As a viewer, I was free to roam within the space, finding a sweet spot where I seemed to be in the room with both the emotionally raw accordion player and the grounded, bluesy pianist, or allowing myself the voyeuristic pleasure of watching the guitarist (who, it turns out, is the artist) forlornly strumming in the bath. The videos are carefully composed, full of interesting visual details (birds flocking across a bedroom wall, the curve of a wooden banister, the bright blue inside of full kitchen cabinets) that seem to echo the tone and body language of the separate room’s inhabitant, enhancing the sense that the musicians are in their own little worlds.
Though the musicians played alone, they were all connected via headphones and wires that snaked around the wooden furniture and delicate antiques. At one moment, one guitar player set down his instrument to go share a cigarette and a drink with his buddy in the next room, where they then harmonized as the music swelled around us. The freedom of the performers, the “in-the-round” set-up, and the single, unedited take, gave the video(s) a feeling similar to live theater–a living, breathing spectacle, rather than a video to speculate upon from a safe distance.
The choice of an upstate farmhouse was perfect, not only because of the warm, ramshackle decor, but because upstate is where so many New Yorkers (artists or otherwise) go to escape the city. This felt like a little slice of an artist’s retreat, smuggled back into the heart of New York’s gallery scene
The show closes March 9th. Go see it if you can.