Nine screens, a 200-year-old 43-room farmhouse and a dozen performers all singing and playing together in different places in the house. Someone plays electric guitar in a bedroom with a woman asleep next to him. A cellist is poised on a chaise. A drum kit takes up a faded entryway, and an acoustic guitarist doesn’t seem to care that his bathtub is getting his instrument wet.
No one seems to be taking the lead; the song’s phrases flow into each other in a decisive way that makes you not quite able to tell if you’re listening to a folk band, attending a new age ceremony or just watching a casual jam session unfold.
These are the sounds of Ragnar Kjartansson’s exhibit “The Visitors,” which opened at the High Museum last weekend.
Kjartansson finished the audiovisual project in 2012, featuring nine channels of sound and video shot at an old upstate New York farmhouse.
The music played on screen is adapted in part from lyrics by his ex-wife Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir and features many prominent Icelandic musicians.
Each musician is trapped in their own screen, connected only through the hallways of the house and pairs of wired headphones. For an exhibit created a decade ago, the melancholic feeling of the musicians performing alone yet together will ring true to visitors today.
Tech student Kathryn Higinbotham, fourth-year LMC, visited the exhibit this past weekend. For Higinbotham, it was her first time returning to a museum since before the pandemic.
“I was expecting to enjoy the exhibit going in, especially since I haven’t gotten to the museum in a little over a year. But I think what was unexpected for me is how emotional the whole thing made me,” Higinbotham said.
When first entering the special exhibit section in the High’s second floor, a bright room greets you filled with hundreds of postcards. Kjartansson wrote these notes daily from April 2010 to June 2011, all addressed to Marguerite Steed Hoffman, art collector and patron, just before his work on “The Visitors.”
Most of the notes have a mixed media illustration and block letter caption that ranges from everything from banal to profound, often with misspellings sprinkled in.
“House where happy could be,” reads one, while the next just says “Soup.”
“Asdis bought new shoes and I betrayed a friend.”
“we are all so alone, it’s so rad.”
Each card was actually stamped and mailed, which grounds even the most symbolic in a distinct time in Kjartansson’s life.
While you look at the walls of postcards, the ebb and flow of the music beckons you from the next room.
If the postcard wall is like a life-sized Instagram feed of illustrations, then the next darkened room feels like an immersive zoom call with its nine-screened musical experience. Ragnar Kjartansson describes the music as a “feminine nihilistic gospel song.”
For the most part, each musician performs from their own rectangular confines, playing repetitive strains.
“There are these really beautiful swells in the music where it would be really quiet for a while and you can hear more of the individual artists, but then all of a sudden there’d be this build,” Higinbotham said. “There was one point in particular where I remember that they built up to this crescendo and it was just this almost overwhelming noise. And as it was building I just felt the swelling in my chest and felt intensely emotional in a way that’s kind of difficult to describe.”
At times, a performer would leave their screen and wander into the next room over, to listen or have a smoke, but most of the time they stay connected only through the headphones.
On the front porch, a group listens and sings faintly along as well.
Words, if present, come sparsely and repeatedly. “There are stars / they are swirling around you / and there’s nothing you can do,” the group sings at one point. At another, they sing “once again I fall into my feminine way.”
If you stay until the video loops through to the end (the run time is 64 minutes), you see the musicians one by one begin to join together, continuing to sing as one, some carrying their instruments. The group goes outside, and you see them walking away into the distant countryside dusk.
Eddie Bryant, a museum security guard who has been stationed on the special exhibits floor for several seasons now, described the exhibit as “very different” from anything that the High has hosted so far. After seeing it three times through during its inaugural weekend, he said, “I finally understand it. It’s the pandemic, and the end when all of them were walking away together means it’s over.”
Indeed, while observing the characters play off of each other and connect musically while apart in the crumbling farmhouse, it’s hard to imagine that this idea came about in a pre-pandemic world.
“I can’t even really tell you exactly what I was feeling I think it was some joy, but also some sadness at the same time, which I think speaks to the emotional power of the exhibit in general,” Higinbotham said. “Particularly now that sense of community and our voices together I think is particularly powerful, in a time that has felt really isolating.”
This type of immersive exhibit has the potential to draw much more traffic to the High, as attendance is still significantly lower than pre-COVID-19 times. In the past, high-traffic visiting exhibits like Yayoi Kusamain’s Infinity Mirrors drew as many as 9,000 visitors on a weekday.
When the museum reopened in July 2020, the museum saw less than 100 people total across three weekdays.
“I’ll take it to silence,” said Bryant with a laugh on listening to “The Visitors” so many times in a row. “Many people want to come to the museum and like it to be quiet. You can hear a pin drop. This is catchy and I love it.”
He mentioned how this alone-together musical concept could really do well across genres like blues and jazz.
Students can visit high.org to reserve tickets ahead of time. The second Sunday of every month is free, with limited quantities of time tickets available to maintain social distancing. “The Visitors” will be on view until May 9.