The Visitors

UB Gallery at Center for the Arts

> by Jack Foran

There’s a distinct look and feel of the ‘60s about artist Ragnar Kjartansson’s elaborate video and sound installation called The Visitors, currently at the UB gallery in the Center for the Arts.  This peacefully hippie-looking bunch of musicians from Iceland of all places takes over this rather magnificent but pretty down at the heels old estate mansion along the Hudson River–more or less Woodstock territory–and puts on this kind of bizarre, kind of beautiful musical event for themselves and a few friends.  Well, also to make a nine-channel video of the happening.  

Nine musicians, each one set up in a different room or area of the house, except for two pianists apparently in the same room, probably once called the music room, with two grand pianos, and walls lined with bookshelves full of  expensive looking leather-bound book sets.  Paint is seriously peeling from the walls of some of the other rooms, and on the outside of the house, where one of the musicians is set up on the huge porch veranda, a guitarist who also directs a motley small chorus of some singers. There are some folks just listening there, as well. 

For purposes of coordination of the musical performance, the musicians are connected via headphones.  The performance is a combination of instrumental accompaniment–the two pianists, a cellist, a drummer, several guitarists, acoustic and electric, one doubling on plaintive banjo, and accordionist, doubling on guitar–to a repetitive-theme drone vocalise that alternately builds and fades and almost dies, then revives and builds again. Included are sporadic verbal phrases: “Once again I fall into my feminine ways,” and “There are stars exploding around you and there’s nothing you can do.”  (There might be some other verbal content, but it might be in Icelandic.)

The musical performance is led by Kjartansson, apparently, while soaking in a soapy water bathtub and playing an acoustic guitar, which gets somewhat soaked, too (which is not recommended for acoustic guitars, I think, but better an acoustic than an electric guitar in a bathtub).  

Twice the music is emphatically punctuated by cannon fire.  The action sequences.  A little four-foot-long or so model set up on the lawn under the veranda.  Tended by two guys who are probably not part of the Icelanders group, but likely local guys with licenses or whatever it takes to handle explosives.  (An older guy and a younger guy.  The older guy–in a hard hat–seems glumly skeptical of the whole event.  The younger guy seems to be thoroughly enjoying it, and his chance to participate in it.  Even joins in a little with the chorus.)  

At the conclusion of the musical performance, the players one by one leave their play stations and head off to meet in the music room–as he climbs out of the bathtub, Kjartansson wraps himself in a big red towel for champagne and cigars and congratulations all around on a successful performance.  Then exit the mansion and meet on the lawn with the outside performers, and head off in full company and high spirits–including the cannon guys, and a little black dog tagging along–across a green sloping meadow, to almost out of sight.  A kind of Pied Piper of Hamelin ending.  All the kids in the village whisked away.  Spirited away.  

The Ragnar Kjartansson and friends installation continues through May 14.