Review of Ragnar Kjartansson: The Visitors, Guggenheim Bilbao

The notion of an entire wing of the Guggenheim Bilbao being dedicated to Film & Video phased me at first. Though increasing numbers of modern art installations seem to feature moving imagery, never had I encountered a space dedicated solely to the form. Don’t get me wrong: I consider myself a card-carrying cinephile. However, I am aware that, as the notion of ”art” becomes more porous, its boundaries, if it is to maintain its integrity, require policing, a point restated forcefully by Grayson Perry in his Reith Lectures. Surely this is a problem as much for cinematic as for fine art: where does film stop being cinema and start being “Film & Video”?

At 64 minutes, Ragnar Kjartansson’s The Visitors is pushing the feature-length. Yet such quantitative measurements belie its preter-cinematic artistry. To lay it out simply: the film features Kjartansson and a group of his friends performing a short piece of music. Said virtuosic friends (of which Kjartansson seems to have a larger-than-average number) are assembled at the historic Rokeby Farm, a 195-year-old, 43-room house tucked away in upstate New York, on what appears to be a summer morning, the day’s first light spilling through sash windows and illuminating musky darkness.

Yet the film’s innovation is that the individuals are not actually, but rather virtually assembled. They are filmed separately, playing their individual parts in separate rooms of the house. Each individual is then projected onto a huge screen of his or her own, covering the gallery space wall to wall. Thus each performer occupies a discrete aural and visual space within the gallery, whilst forming part of an ensemble. The premise is simple enough. Its effect, however, is mesmeric. Though relatively simple, there is a melancholy to the cadence of the piece’s simple phrasing that increases with each repetition.

Yet it is the viewer’s ability to admire each performer in turn, a feature unique to The Visitors as an installation artwork, that confers its magic, and earns its artistic credentials. One performer strums a classical guitar in the bath; another plays a grand piano, cigar in hand; a third drums in the pantry. Not only does this setup allow us a glimpse of the house’s transportative period furnishings, its rolling carpets and gilded wainscoting, but creates an almost inappropriate sense of voyeurism. Watching a group perform together is one thing; watching a man sing in the soap suds is another.

The Visitors’ title thus activates an ambiguity. We are visitant to the performers ensconced in various corners of the creaking mansion; yet they too seem to have descended uninvited upon Rokeby Farm, their musical abruption waking the house from its silence immemorial. Most compelling of all, however, is the way in which Kjartannson himself visits this performance upon us. The Icelandic artist earns his place within “Film & Video”, a genre of which I was at first sceptical, by creating an experience which cannot be replicated remotely, but demands to be appreciated experientially.

Ragnar Kjartansson: The Visitors, until 7 September, Guggenheim Bilbao, Avenida Abandoibarra, 2 48009, Bilbao.

Rivkah Brown

1. Ragnar Kjartansson, The Visitors (The Visitors), 2012, Nine channel HD video projection. Duration: 64 minutes © Ragnar Kjartansson Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York, and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik. Photo: Elísabet Davids.