The Visitor

The Visitor

Humour and sorrow in the art of Ragnar Kjartansson

A polyphone score performed by minstrels strumming guitars around the gallery for eight hours a day. Surrounded by empty bottles of beer, mattresses, fauteuils, chairs, these men sing parts of a dialogue from Iceland’s first feature film Morðsaga (1977), in which the main characters are played by the parents of Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson (b. 1976). The music takes you away, lapping you around the space in harmonious waves. It is almost hypnotic in its melancholic roundelay. Take me here by the dishwater (2011-2014) is a surreal mixture of a farce created by the absurdity of the film and storyline – shown on the background of the room – and the sorrow and gloominess in the musical performance of the minstrels.

This is the perfect beginning of Kjartansson’s retrospective at the Barbican, London. It contains and represents many aspects of the artist’s work: his use of repetition and duration as a way to alter the meaning of words (think of his mesmerizing crooner performance in God, 2007, or the film with indie band The National singing Sorrow for six hours straight); his lament for lost love; and above all and most importantly, his peculiar fusion of humour and sorrow.

The show is a wonderfully relaxed immersion in Kjartansson’s humorous and whole-hearted way of thinking. His parents and friends reappear, the minstrel’s music revivifies between rooms. Images and sounds fuse in roundelay.

The absolute high point of the show wherein this all comes together is the nine-screen installation called The Visitors (2012). Shot at the magnificently crumbling mansion at Rokeby Farm in upstate New York, this film presents nine lone musicians performing in a separate room: Kjartansson on guitar in a bath, a drummer in the kitchen, a pianist in the salon, a banjo player in the library. Even though none of them can see one another, each contributes to the same beautiful threnody for the artist’s lost marriage.

The film is a feat of timing and it slows down time, the music surging and decreasing from lavishing gospel chorus to brief silence. Magnified, romantic, beautiful to hear and to see, this cinematic and harmonic arrangement eventually becomes a portrait of the performers themselves. The longer you watch, the longer you stay, the deeper the whole enchantment, the deeper the desire to be submerged.

The Visitors is a marvellous creation, rhapsodic, mesmerising and overwhelmingly affecting. Kjartansson achieves to capture you with every work he creates. You are perhaps just a visitor in his captivating world. However, a visitor that wants to stay just a little longer, and longer until you realise that at the end you have some difficulties leaving this overwhelming surrounding.

The retrospective of Ragnar Kjartansson is on view until 4 September at the Barbican in London.