2018 Calibre Essay Prize (runner-up): 'Once Again: Outside in the House of Art'

The setting is a gorgeous, somewhat decayed, many-roomed Georgian mansion in upstate New York, near the Hudson, in 2012. Nine screens placed around a darkened gallery space each show a room of the house, most of them occupied by a person and a musical instrument: a willowy woman in a slip on a chaise longue, arms wrapped around a cello; a dark-skinned man seated at an ornate desk leaning intently over a bass guitar. There is a man at a grand piano in a room with densely patterned wallpaper, at a drum kit in a kitchen doorway, on a bed with a guitar next to a naked woman. A naked man in a bathtub holds a guitar, not seeming to mind that it dips into the bubbly water. They all wear headphones, listening attentively, mostly unmindful of the camera. One screen shows the front verandah on which a disparate group of people are gathered, standing, sitting, straddling the balcony rail. One by one the musicians take up their instruments.

For sixty-two unbroken minutes they play, sit, listen, gaze, and sing a spare, mournful lament with the repeated refrain: Once again I fall into my feminine ways. The music swells to a crescendo of sound and feeling, drops away to silence, and begins again.

This is The Visitors, an installation by celebrated Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson. The lyrics are taken from a poem by Kjartansson’s ex-wife, artist Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir; The Visitors was recorded in the wake of their break up. Kjartansson is the guy in the bath. It is hard to tell whether he has any kind of role as conductor or leader; the music progresses in a way that feels organic, almost spontaneous, with that electric sense of shared consciousness between the musicians that happens when a group is in perfect synchrony.

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Published in May 2018, no. 401

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