Ragnar Kjartansson's The Visitors at SFMoMA

By | Monday, January 15, 2024 Leave a Comment

Some weeks ago, I was at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA) with friends. Among other things we stumbled into a video installation by Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson entitled "The Visitors". I was blown away. It is a large space with nine screens, showing views into eight different rooms in a house, plus the front porch. There is a musician in each room. They are playing a song together, but also apart, in their separate rooms. Each display has its own speaker. Walking around the space you hear the music changing as though you were moving through the house. From the center you hear all of the performers in balance.

Viewing it in its entirety is problematic. It is 64 minutes long, so unless you have planned this into your day, it is a challenge. When we first went in, we only caught the last few minutes. Later we came back and saw another portion (the video runs continuously in a loop.) I felt that I had to return another time to see it all the way through.

Last week I got my chance. I was in San Francisco for an appointment, so afterwards I went to SFMoMA. I asked at the ticket counter what the schedule was for The Visitors. It turned out that there was about 45 minutes before the loop was scheduled to restart. I wandered through exhibits until the next start-time, then returned to the installation.

I experienced The Visitors from the beginning, with all the screens blank, through to the end when they each return to darkness. It was spectacular. I am sure it is not for everyone, but for me it was magic. I felt an indescribable sense of peace after I left the room. I was just happy in a remarkably simple, inexplicable, unadorned way. 

The song that they are playing has a short lyric that is repeated in various ways throughout the "performance", mostly repeating the line, "Once again I fall into my feminine ways." Over time, the music is played on different instruments, usually rather softly but sometimes with a loud intensity. The lyrics are somewhat somber, but it isn't saddening - it is mesmerizing and compelling. I would say that none of the musicians are great singers, but their song and music feel heartfelt and genuine, made all the more so by our being invited into a seemingly intimate performance. There are also touching moments when one musician leaves their room, walking to another space to join another performer, expressing a connection physically that hints at the musical interaction, then returns to their own room and their own instruments.
Unfortunately, try as I might, it is one of those things that really can’t be described in words. Even if one were to view it online - there are versions on YouTube - you still wouldn’t be able to really get it. I took a brief video to try to capture at least a vague sense of being in the space: 

It is probably not everyone's cup of tea. But, if you want to see it, it is at SFMoMA through 11/13/24. They start the loop 15 minutes after the museum opens, repeating every 64 minutes throughout the day. The installation can be found on the sixth floor. Paid admission to the museum is required, but there is no additional ticket needed for The Visitors.

It is also possible that you might see it elsewhere; apparently it has been shown in various museums on and off for over a decade. However, I have not been able to find any kind of calendar indicating where the installation might be going in the future.

If you've seen it, or you go to see it, I'd love to hear what you thought.

[FYI, the man playing acoustic guitar in the bathtub is Ragnar Kjartansson.]
[FYI2, caution: the song that is performed can become quite an earworm.]
[FYI3, after The Visitors, I went down to the front lobby of the museum on the first floor, lay in a huge memory-foam bean-bag chair, and watched the giant display showing slowly moving graphics of oceanic things floating around. A lovely re-entry into the world before leaving the building.]
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