Hard not to like an artist who is unafraid to quote his dad in an interview (as you can see Kjartansson does in the footage above): “It’s sad and beautiful to be a human being”.
There’s also an honesty about his subject matter in The Visitors. It’s not about poverty, war or global pandemic. He’s Icelandic, after all. They are not supposed to have such things.
And lastly, he took the title for this nine-channel, 64-minute video installation from an album by Swedish popsters Abba. True, everyone likes Abba. But not everyone will admit it.
To put The Visitors in a nutshell, it’s an hour long promo video in which many musicians, in many rooms of a bohemian mansion, play a single piece of overwhelming music.
The song is minimal and repetitive and the most repeated line, “Once again I fall into my feminine ways”, is from a poem by the artist’s ex-wife Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir.
In Iceland they do at least have divorce and Kjartansson made this piece to reflect, as he says, a period of his life coming to an end. It is indeed a ‘sad and beautiful’ artwork.
A choir is gathered on the veranda and as the piece crescendoes one resident sets off an ornamental cannon. It’s the 1812 Overture rewritten for some protracted marital strife.
The cast of The Visitors are friends of the artist, whose background is in the Reykjavík music scene. So it’s a heartwarming collaboration at odds with the desolate subject matter.
Music can hotwire the emotions, so you have to be wary with a piece like this. But tingling hairs on the back of the neck aside, this emotionally awkward installation gives you something portable.
In the exemplary way these musicians pull together The Visitors offers a slice of fragile utopia. It explores similar territory to a film by Johanna Billing, another Scandinavian music fan.
Her piece, You don’t love me yet (2003), borrows the look and feel of a charity record to present the performance of an overlooked Roky Erickson song by a Stockholm-based supergroup.
It’s worth a look. Both works demonstrate that optimism and pessimism are often hard to tease apart, and that this state of ambivalence might be something eternal in the human condition.
The Visitors can be seen at Ffotogallery in Penarth, Cardiff, until 22 February 2015, as part of artes mundi 6. It is also in Museo Guggenheim, Bilbao until 2 November 2014.
Those interested in this piece might also enjoy this review from Art in America, written in April last year.