by Sylvie Schwartz
Some works of art stick with us for a long time, whether it’s because they strike us in just such a way, because they give us an immersive experience that feels all-consuming, because they hold a personal or sentimental value for us, or for a variety of other reasons. Ragnar Kjartansson’s The Visitors is one such work for me and for many others. A video installation comprised of nine screens, each showing a musician alone in a room in Rokeby Mansion, an estate in upstate New York, performing a song that last around an hour in total, the work was on view at the Musée d’Art Contemporain last winter. Long after its departure last spring, I find myself thinking about the piece and missing it as I would an absent loved one. Some of the work’s appeal comes from the music performed—its beauty as much as the repetitive qualities of the song that facilitate the experience of the work as clearly meditative in addition to creating an atmosphere of something like intemporality. Another part of the appeal comes from the beauty of the setting and the communal and familiar feelings fostered by watching a group of people make music together. The more time spent with the work, the more the performers on the screens come feel like friends, cultivating feelings of intimacy, security, and belonging.
That is a lot of work for one installation to be doing, but goes beyond all that. Something worth exploring that is rarely discussed in relation to this work is what it says about what we as viewers do when we look at art. As viewers in the installation, we mirror the fragmented unity of the performers. Like the performers, isolated in their separate rooms though playing the same song, we feel that we are experiencing the work as an individual unit rather than as a collective whole. However, we learn that we are wrong when the musicians begin to converge and play together as a group. As each musician leave their solitary room, we follow them until all the viewers present are gathered around the same screen.
Especially when we visit museums alone, we often get lost inside our heads and forget that we’re looking at art along with other people. Few works of art are as effective as this one in drawing our attention to the fact that going to a museum and looking at art is fundamentally a social experience. Even though we often think about contemplating art as a solitary activity, whether we think about it or not, we’re not alone.