'The Visitors' Shines Among New MOCA Exhibitions


Scene from The Visitors - ELÍSABET DAVIDS
  • Elísabet Davids
  • Scene from The Visitors
Last week, MOCA Cleveland debuted its Winter 2015 exhibitions; Joyce J. Scott’s Truth and Visions, Jessica Eaton’s Wild Permutations and Ragnar Kjartansson’s The Visitors. While each exhibition is strong in terms of subject matter, aesthetics and execution, The Visitors is a truly transcendent experience.

The Visitors considers and celebrates artistic utopias and friendships in a way that is ultimately deeply moving and life-affirming,” says MOCA Executive Director Jill Snyder. “When it debuted in New York, this work was consistently cited by critics and audiences alike as one of the most popular, exuberant and affecting exhibitions of the past year. It even became something of a cult phenomenon. We expect it will cast a similar spell on Cleveland.”

The Visitors is a video installation by Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson. Upon walking through a black curtain, visitors enter a large, dark room with casual seating in the center, and nine large, high-definition videos projected onto the four walls. Each screen features a different musician in a room of a very old house, except one wall which shows the front porch of the home. The setting is Rokeby House, a historic, lovingly-worn mansion built in New York State’s legendary Hudson River Valley in 1815.

The work is a 64-minute, continuous musical performance by these nine musicians (including Kjartansson, who plays an acoustic guitar and sings lead vocals like a classic bluegrass crooner while taking a bath). Wearing headphones to hear each other, the group plays as if all in the same room. The lyrics are based on the poem Feminine Ways by Kjartansson’s ex-wife, Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir.

Other musicians include two women – one playing a cello in a bedroom, and the other playing an accordion, and occasionally a guitar, by a window. Two men play pianos in what you later learn is opposite sides of the same room (but don’t initially appear to be so). One of them also plays an electric guitar. A very bored looking man plays a drum set in the kitchen. A tall, bald man plays an electric guitar in a large library, while another man plays next to his nude lover. Although she spends most of her time with her back to the man, he is the only one who doesn’t appear completely alone through most of the work.

Ragnar Kjartansson, jammin' in the tub - ELISABET DAVIDS
  • Ragnar Kjartansson, jammin' in the tub
The length of the work is critical to its impact. Over the course of 64 minutes, these men and women become characters in their unique environments. One’s creativity can’t help but create a narrative for each of them. In this way, the viewer takes on an active role in the viewing experience. Sitting in the center of the room, one must constantly twist and turn to see what is happening throughout all nine screens. This adds to the active experience, and helps the work overwhelm viewers during particularly high points throughout the work. Amplifying the experience is the incredible surround sound in the space. When you close your eyes, it sounds as if each voice and instrument were really in that part of the room. It feels like your own private concert.

Throughout the 64 minutes, the musical composition goes through highs and lows. In the quiet moments, you feel a mutual desperation. The softer and slower the music becomes, the more isolated and lonely each person appears to be. As the music builds into several crescendos, the harmonies of the instruments and vocals have a unifying and uplifting quality that offers a more hopeful, even optimistic sensation.

(If you don’t want to know how the video ends, you should probably stop now.)

At one particularly quiet point, the two men playing piano stop and come together for a cigar and a drink. Afterwards, they go back to their pianos and seamlessly join back into harmony with their counterparts. Toward the end of the work, the musicians leave their rooms and congregate around the same piano as the original two men. As they do so, they wander through the other rooms, and it becomes more clear how each room (and person) relates to one another. We begin to realize that these men and women weren’t as alone as they initially appeared to be. At this point, they exit through a side door of the house with whatever instruments they can carry.

On the wall portraying the front porch of the house, we see the group exit, still playing their instruments and singing in harmony. As they leave, the men and women sitting on the porch join them. Slowly, the camera pans away from the house to reveal the true setting of the work: the Hudson River Valley. The landscape is breathtaking in its grandeur, and unbelievable in its pristine, seemingly untouched condition. The view is evocative of the early American landscapes of the Hudson River School. It’s as if they’re walking into a classic American landscape painting.

The work itself is a journey. Although there is no dialogue, the work has a strong sense of narrative, partially created in collaboration with each viewer. The men and women first appear as strangers, seemingly alone, but as the work progresses, music seems to unify them and bring them together. It is through this unity that they ultimately overcome their isolation, first coming together, and ultimately embarking together into the great unknown. As the video ends, you, as the viewer, also leave your room, and embark on your own journey into the unknown.

The Visitors ends on an honest, beautiful and optimistic note. Not only are you sure to enjoy yourself, but there’s a good chance you’ll be back to experience it again – especially when you wake up the next morning with the song stuck in your head.

“Once again I’ve fallen to my feminine ways…”

Trust me, it’ll happen. And you’ll be glad it did.

All of MOCA Cleveland’s Winter 2015 exhibitions run through May 24. Admission is $8; seniors 65+, $6; students with a valid ID, $5; MOCA Cleveland members and children under 6 years old, free.

(MOCA Cleveland) 11400 Euclid Ave., 216-421-8671, mocacleveland.org

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